Ardent ecologists conflicted over big families at shul

My wife and I met in Hillel at college and decided when we married to bring our children up in a home where Jewish life is a priority. Though we are not Shomrei Shabbos (completely Sabbath observant), we belong to a Modern Orthodox shul in the Bay Area where we feel quite at home … except for one thing. My wife and I are ardent environmentalists and both of us have made careers in the earth sciences. We have two children and will only have two children because we believe strongly that population control is critical to preserving the environmental health of our planet. This position puts us at odds with many in our shul, some of whom have four, five, six children or more.

We find ourselves feeling conflicted, and even somewhat hostile, when we’re expected to feel joy at the news that a family in our community is expecting a fourth or a seventh child. We take great joy in our children and would love to have a third. But we want our kids, and all kids, to grow up in a world with clean air, clean water, a stable climate, and biodiversity — all of which are threatened by a world with more humans consuming more resources than ever before. How do we reconcile our values with those of the many Jews in our community and around the world who feel called to produce multitudes of children while humanity strains to maintain adequate space and resources? — Mike

Dear Mike: Mensch feels your pain. The world population has more than doubled in the past 50 years. The roads are crowded, housing is scarce and unaffordable for many, clean water is a threatened resource in much of the world, and species across the planet (all God’s creation) are going extinct at a rate hundreds of times greater than before industrialization. Climate change is radically changing the world our children will inherit. The effect of the growth of human population upon our planet and its resources is irrefutable.

There are many around the world who believe zero population growth (ZPG) is a worthwhile goal. However, in order to maintain the overall population, a birth rate of between 2.1 and 3.0 children per couple is required. Thus, if everyone had only two children, the world population would go down (which would bring other challenges). Also, not every new baby has the same impact. There are more than a few two-child families living in the suburbs with 4,000 square feet of house to heat and cool, who use 2,000 gallons of water per day on their lawns and 40 gallons of gas per week in their two cars. There are also five-child families living in three-bedroom apartments in the city who rely on public transportation to get around (and some of whom walk exclusively each Saturday).

There is no denying large families proliferate among Orthodox Jews. As a whole, the Torah takes a favorable view of childbearing. On humankind’s first day in existence, God said, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Also, in the interest of being sensitive to any and all populations that have suffered oppression and hate, we must not discount the effect of the Holocaust on the collective Jewish mindset. Within the lifetimes of many of our parents and grandparents, a third of our population was exterminated. What some may consider overpopulation is seen by others as repopulation. For all the large families in our midst, Jews make up a miniscule proportion (around 0.2 percent) of the world’s population.

That said, it is widely acknowledged that the overall population of Jews in the world is approaching pre-Holocaust levels. Also, it is interesting to note that on the same day God commanded us to multiply, God also gave us dominion over every living thing — plant and animal.

To many, dominion entails responsibility. Would God have us exploit, abuse and destroy vast swaths of God’s creation? Indeed there is much in Jewish law and tradition that advocates for respecting and preserving nature — including kindness to animals, preservation of trees and scaling back on Shabbat.

Mensch commends you for your adherence to these principles in your work and family life and urges you to promote them within your community. You likely will be most effective if you do so with respect and understanding toward others. n

Jonathan Harris
Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. He can be reached at