When Philadelphia-based Rabbi Julie Greenberg began building a family in her mid-20s, her vision never included a mom, a dad and a house in suburbia with 2.5 kids playing in the yard.
Instead, she went on to craft her own style of family.
She started as a single mother using a donor father, and now, 28 years later, she has five children — three from a couple of donor fathers and two who were adopted as infants. They range in age from 14 to 27.
“Having kids as a single mom wasn’t my Plan B like some people had thought,” the 57-year-old said by phone. “It seemed like a very viable path for me since I was raised by a wonderful single mother and always knew I wanted to be a mom.”
Greenberg is the author of “Just Parenting: Building the World One Family at a Time,” which came out in February. She will speak about her life, read an excerpt from her book and hold a Q&A session at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay in Berkeley on Wednesday, July 30.
“I grew up during the civil rights movement and that was our religion,” said Greenberg, who was raised in a secular Jewish household in Washington D.C. “But at least I never had to recover from patriarchal Hebrew school.”
Greenberg said she never liked the “linear family model.” Instead, she wanted her various relationships with adults and her kids to be an interwoven tapestry.
“I pictured my kids being raised within that web of connection,” she said.
Greenberg said she carefully selected the men she wanted to father her children. She was clear that she would be the primary parent and would assume full financial responsibility, but welcomed the fathers to have a relationship with the children, should they want it.
“I was choosing known donors because kids like to know where they came from,” she said. “There’s a certain profile of a donor who made sense [to me]. I would be the parent and they would offer the genetic contribution.”
Having an alternative family model hasn’t always been easy, Greenberg admitted. Even though attitudes have shifted in the last three decades, she said there have been hurdles along the way, especially within the Jewish community, like when her daughter was making a family tree in a Conservative religious school class.
Greenberg also ran into issues when she was becoming a rabbi. “Early on, when I was a new mom, there was a wall of prejudice and it was impossible to find a job,” she said.
In fact, when Greenberg became pregnant at 27 halfway through her time at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside Philadelphia, the administration considered her “an unwed, illegitimate mother.”
“Back then, the suburban Jewish community didn’t have a lot of context of alternative family building,” she said. “But these days, we do.”
With only two kids left at home, Greenberg lives in Mt. Airy, a progressive neighborhood in Philadelphia. She splits her time between her Reconstructionist congregation, Leyv Ha-Ir and a private practice as a marriage and family therapist.
Greenberg believes the definition of family has changed drastically since the ’80s and suggests that people build families in a way that works for them.
“Overall, it worked out wonderfully well,” she said. “Even though there have been times of stress, I chose a path that worked for me and [it brought] me great joy to have a house full of kids.”