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by Ruth W. Messinger

A Surprising Lesson from Those September 11 Obituaries

The New York Times developed its “Portraits of Grief” section to honor the lives of those who died in the September 11th terrorist attack. For me, as for so many others, spending time reading these individual tributes every morning (they ran for 3 1/2 months) became a religious obligation. It was a way to remind myself of what families, communities and all of us lost in this attack and a way to honor lives cut short. I found it a profoundly moving experience to enter these lives through this small window, to get a sense of who these people were, of how some of the people in our neighborhoods live their lives.

One of the amazing things I observed was the extraordinary number of men who organized their lives in order to spend time with their own children and sometimes with the children in their communities. Many of those who died were either bond traders or firefighters, both professions with some flexibility in hours. Many of these men made personal sacrifices, arranged their work schedules, chose shifts or selected areas of work (like the European bond market) to be able to be home early, to attend school functions, to spell working wives, to coach teams—just generally to hang out with children.

We read about these guys organizing family trips, developing special rituals, just hanging out in the kitchen. Let me give you a few examples from these thumbnail eulogies:

“He would not miss an important event for his children, 5 and 2 1/2. On September 10th, he was at the orientation for his children’s nursery school.”

“Leaving before dawn and traveling by car, train and ferry so he could be home in New Jersey in time to coach his son’s Little League and basketball games.”

“Saturday mornings father and son would pick up cocoa and pastries and then sit and watch the trains pass.”

“There were his sons’ 3 A.M. hockey practices, the football games and the fishing and hunting trips.”

“He was most in his element when he spent time with, or just talked to acquaintances about, his two daughters, 4and 3. ‘He needed nothing’, said his wife, ‘It was all for his girls’.”

I was struck by these descriptions on several counts. There are more of these men out there than I realized. It appears that we really did make some serious revolutions in parenting in the last twenty years, when nobody was paying close attention. But it also struck me that I did not know many families whose fathers are this active with their children. Is deeply involved parenting limited to men who can alter their work schedules? Is it more prevalent in some social classes than others? Is this a challenge that today’s young Jewish families are meeting?

Is it time to rethink what it is we value in the Jewish world? Too many of the young professional Jewish men and women I know are struggling with jobs, children and life pressures, but not making this choice—to have fathers as well as mothers get free to be with their kids—nearly often enough. I know from my own sons who do some of this that neither the society nor our Jewish communities seem to offer much encouragement, support or infrastructure to make these choices easier. How about the obvious? Honoring fathers who attend to their children as much as we honor those who have scaled the professional heights? Creating quality Jewish day care?

The good news from the short, poignant obituaries seems to be that there were newly functional families out there living out new gender roles. Unfortunately, it took a horrendous tragedy for us to learn about them. But also, as an entire culture that professes to care a lot about family and about the development of our children, we in the Jewish community have a long way to go. 

Ruth Messinger is President of American Jewish World Service. She has been Borough President of Manhattan, and a candidate for mayor of New York City.