To Save Themselves, Jewish Institutions Must Embrace the 'Modern Family’

The Jewish family no longer comprises two Jewish parents and 2.5 children. If Jewish shuls, centers and schools acknowledged this, they might earn the same success as the TV show.

Jesse Olitzky
Jesse Olitzky
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Jesse Olitzky
Jesse Olitzky

Last Wednesday evening marked the 100th episode of the popular sitcom Modern Family. This milestone is a sign of success for all television shows, and is certainly a result of a large pool of viewership: the premiere was watched by 12.6 million viewers and already by the second season, the show was ranked as the top scripted show among adults ages 18-49.

The 100th episode premiere also speaks to critical acclaim, as this year Modern Family won again in the Primetime Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series.

Modern Family tells the story of the Pritchett family via three separate households: patriarch Jay Pritchett and the families of his two adult children, Mitchell and Claire.

The beauty of the show is that each of these three households, each “modern family,” is completely different from the other.

The patriarchal Pritchett household is a blended family, which deals with the dilemmas of second marriages and step-parenting and does not hesitate to show off the multi-ethnic aspects of the marriage between Jay and his Colombian second-wife, Gloria.

Mitchell’s household is home to a committed gay relationship between Mitchell and the hilarious Cam Tucker (who, following the Supreme Court of the United States dismissal of Proposition 8, will soon marry on the show). Mitchell and Cam deal with the struggles of LGBT acceptance and the challenges of being adoptive parents. Their adopted Vietnamese daughter Lily adds to the ethnic diversity of the Pritchett family.

Claire’s household consists of her husband, Phil, and their three children. This household, which is all too often and offensively referred to as the “traditional” family of a mother, father and several children, still manages to deal with the challenges of social anxiety, behavioral issues, learning disabilities, and supporting one’s family during a tough economy – all through humor.

Each family unit in this larger family tree is unique and different, yet, what makes this show so groundbreaking and successful (besides how funny it is) is that each family unit is seen as equal. Each family unit is appreciated as a family, filled with, at times normalcy and monotony, but also with craziness and hilarity. Each family is authentic and relatable.

In recognition of the sitcom’s 100th episode, The Daily Beast observed:

Great TV shows reflect our lives back at us, even if it is with the fun-house distortion that sitcoms routinely pull off. We’re intrigued by Modern Family because of those things that make it so-called “modern,” none more so than its insistence on giving equal weight to the relationship of same-sex characters on the show as it does to those of the straight couples. But we like Modern Family because it is actually so very traditional: the relationship of those same-sex characters is portrayed, really, as boring and mundane as those of the straight couples.

As synagogues reflect on how to become more inclusive and welcoming, leadership - both professional staff and laity - must ask the following: Do our institutions give equal weight to all modern families and welcome them alike?

The traditional version of the Jewish family consisted of a Jewish mother and a Jewish father who were married to each other with two and a half children. This family make up is still an important version of the modern Jewish family today, but it is certainly not the only kind of modern Jewish family.

Many synagogues – including the institution in which I serve as rabbi – determine membership based on “families” or “households.” After all, the traditional synagogue revolved around the concerns of the family, including lifecycle events (birth, b’nai mitzvah, wedding and death) and Jewish education (preschool, religious school, Hebrew high school, and youth groups). Yet, in order for the synagogue to survive we need to embrace all modern families, just as this sitcom does, and to recognize each family unit simultaneously as unique and as equal. Each family structure may look different, but each must be welcomed into the synagogue as a Jewish family.

The modern Jewish family includes Jews by birth and Jews by choice, partners of other faiths raising Jewish children, and families of multiple races, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. It includes parents and children who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. It includes single parents who are divorced and single parents who have never been married, blended families, adoptive parents and adopted children, as well as parents and children with disabilities and impairments.

Many have drawn conclusions (mostly negative, but a few positive) from the recent release of the Pew Research Center’s study on American Jews. I believe this study focused more on Jewish involvement and affiliation rather than Jewish identity. The bleak picture suggests that synagogues and Jewish institutions along with Jewish institutional leaders and clergy (myself included!) have thus far failed at welcoming people into our institutions. We need to do a better job of ensuring that these modern Jewish families are welcome and feel welcome. According to the study, 94 percent of U.S. Jews say they are proud to be Jewish. We need to embrace that pride, no matter the composition or make up.

The Pew study concludes that three quarters of American Jews have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” It is the job of the synagogue to give them a place to belong to. While this study addresses a plethora of issues facing the future of the American Jewish community, all of which must be addressed, our first task is to ensure and promote that our institutions are open to the entire Jewish community, so that the vast majority who are proud to be Jewish can find a sense of belonging in our communities.

The success of Modern Family is a result of America’s embracement of the diverse spectrum of the country’s modern families. In order to save our synagogues and Jewish institutions, we must be willing to do the same. Shul-shopping, a once common occurrence among Jewish families upon moving to a new city or town, is now a thing of the past. Most individuals or families don’t walk into each synagogue in town to find the right fit. If anything, people make decisions based on synagogue’s brochures and websites.

Who are the faces and modern families that our institutions feature on our websites and brochures? Do we feature the diverse landscape of Jewish families? Do we feature the Mitchell Pritchetts and Cam Tuckers and the Jay and Gloria Pritchetts of our communities as prominently as we feature the Claire and Phil Dunphys? It is one thing to say we are inclusive. Now we must prove it.

Rabbi Jesse Olitzky serves as part of the clergy team at the Jacksonville Jewish Center in Jacksonville, FL. You can follow more of his thoughts on his personal blog and on Twitter: @JMOlitzky.

This publicity image released by ABC shows Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Mitchell), left, and Sofia Vergara (Gloria) in a scene from 'Modern Family.'Credit: AP
The cast of ABC's series 'Modern Family' poses backstage with their award for Outstanding Comedy Series at the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles September 22, 2013. Credit: Reuters

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