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Back to Peoplehood

Back to Peoplehood

The recent National Jewish Population Survey reveals a shrinking Jewish people. Is the solution more numbers?


Dueling demographers have drawn their weapons -- conflicting surveys -- in the latest round of an ongoing quarrel over the future of American Jewry.

Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, brandished the first batch of recent data several weeks ago, from which he divined that the country's Jewish population has been underestimated for years, that there are fully 6.7 million Jews among the 288 million residents of the United States. Alluding to the rather broad calipers he used to measure Jewishness -- he included as Jews not only people with a Jewish father but a non-Jewish mother but anyone who said he or she was culturally Jewish and -- Dr. Tobin says that "Jews are not disappearing, they're transforming."

The core population of American Jews is aging and producing fewer children than it needs to replace itself.

Dr. Tobin's study was based on a survey of 250 households. Following close on its heels came the release of preliminary results of the much-awaited and long-delayed National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), based on several thousand. It presents a different picture, of a substantially smaller American Jewish population -- 5.2 million.

Whichever number is closer to the truth, however, the NJPS study revealed something else more important: the core population of American Jews seems to be shrinking -- aging and producing fewer children than it needs to replace itself. The NJPS figures indicate a decline of 300,000 Jews since the last major nationwide study a decade ago, and an average birthrate of 1.8 children per couple; 2.1 is considered the minimum "replacement level" average.

Some, including Dr. Tobin, feel that what the Jewish community needs is to redefine itself, to consider broadening the sociological definition of "Jewish" beyond not only those traditionally considered Jewish (by their birth to a Jewish mother or proper conversion), but beyond even the NJPS's already stretched-thin sociological definition.

Concurring with his advice to widen the Jewish tent is Dr. Egon Meyer, the director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the graduate center of the City University of New York. Dr. Meyer also heads the Jewish Outreach Institute, whose motto is "Welcoming Interfaith Families into the Jewish Community."

The premise of such "inclusivists," though, seems to be that the core Jewish community's ultimate goal, in and of itself, should be to achieve larger Jewish numbers.

However, from a traditional Jewish perspective, that is precisely wrong. What matters is not our numbers at all but rather our peoplehood.

The "more Jews the merrier" approach essentially regards the Jewish people as an interest group. The "we are a people" approach sees us more like a family, basing itself on an essential and strong genetic component, yet allowing selected others -- conditional on their solid and solemn commitment -- to join as well.

Orthodox Jews consider even the most alienated Jew to be their brother or sister, fully worthy of their assistance, love and outreach.

Ironically, the traditional approach concurs in some ways with the methodology of the "inclusivists." Just as they consider a Jew who has strayed entirely from Judaism to remain a Jew, so do Orthodox Jews consider even the most alienated Jew to be their brother or sister, fully worthy of their assistance, love and outreach. On the other hand, though, there are clear boundaries, those of the Jewish religious tradition, that define membership in Klal Yisrael, the communal Jewish family. Being married to a Jew is not sufficient; nor is being born to a Jewish father; nor is undergoing a course or ceremony that does not satisfy the Torah-sourced and time-honored standards for conversion.

The portion of the NJPS that will address the growth and level of Jewish commitment of specific groups within the Jewish people is not scheduled for release until the end of November. But if it reflects reality, it will likely show that the more traditional Jewish community is waning neither in numbers, birth rate nor commitment to Jewish practice. That fact should reiterate to the larger Jewish community concerned about continuity the importance of Jewish education and religious practice.

But it would be healthy, too, were it to bring us all to more seriously consider the wisdom of the traditional approach to understanding Jewish peoplehood: that we are not a interest group but rather a family, that the definition of Klal Yisrael in our past might well be the most meaningful one for gauging our present -- and for planning our future.



October 12, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Miri, November 12, 2013 11:14 PM

Family is right

I agree that Jews are more like a family than an "interest group". Isn't that the point? When a person marries someone, he or she becomes part of their family! We need to open the doors to interfaith couples and new converts. The Christians are more than happy to embrace a Jewish spouse. What do you think happens when that new interfaith couple goes to shul? And after experiencing that snobbishness at shul and welcoming at church, where do you suppose they'll go once they have children? People are no longer so bigoted when it comes to choosing a spouse. That is a good thing! How would you like to hear that your child was not a suitable match for someone because he is Jewish, and therefore, undesirable? The rest of the world despises racism. It is no longer appropriate, if it ever was. Perhaps the Jewish world should take a note of that if they want to keep from dying out.

(4) Anonymous, October 16, 2002 12:00 AM

Outside Jew's

I read your article and this is only my opinion. I am not religious and I am not a pracitising Jew, but I feel a strong bond and a connection to Israel and the Jewish people from all over the world. The religious, traditional and practising groups never make my kind of Jew feel welcom or part of the family. This means that we don't bother to look for contact with fellow Jews and tend to drift more and more towards non-Jewish circles. Let's face it, if you treated as a if you have a disease or made to feel that you do not belong ... a person is not going to hang around ... it is better to be accepted then by non-Jews who don't judge you. This has had an inpact on my entire life. I am married, but we have decided not to have children because they will be judged even more than we were. The religious, tradional and all the high and mighty should think about how they are to blame for the sad state of Jewish life in the world.

(3) Jordana Gomes, October 15, 2002 12:00 AM

Can Never Turn My Back On My Faith

Hello There, I was soooo saddened to see that we are shrinking as a people. I think the problem we have is a stigma of our faith of our people and its heritage..which only as I got older did I look at it as a blessing rather then a curse. I love Israel and I love America but I think Jewish Americans well not all but most feel no real bond because like the article states its maily alot of older jews most of european descent that do alot for synagogues & judiasm. As a child I didn't feel this connection with this because I was not of this and not that there is anything wrong with it but! Being of Sephardi ancestory and its cultures also with help from the kaballah(more spiritual then religious to me)I have fallen in love again with my people with its meaning and message.Its more then potato cakes, We are a people spead out all over this Earth and so many of us need to show these traditions to others and open up. And remember that you are from an acient people that changed the world unlike any other for good and nothing else. In my heart I know that I am a jew and I thank Hashem for planting that there, Now my little girl well grow up and hopefully feel the same way. G*d Bless all of us.

(2) Aliza Bulow, October 14, 2002 12:00 AM

my concern is that many Jews don't care

There is a lot of talk about continuity, numbers and surveys. We measure, contemplate and worry. Money is spent redefining, reassesing and reasigning. Lots of effort is put into convincing Jews to marry Jewish, behave Jewish and educate Jewish-so that we will continue to be a people. From what I have seen...many of today's younger(under 40)Jews don't care if there is continuity. "So what?" is the question. "Why bother?" "As long as you're a good long as you marry a good long as you raise your children to be good people."

Before we can get Jews to invest in peoplehood we have to get them to care. It's a scarry place to be in, it's a sad thing to witness.

We need to think seriously about outreach ideas that address a new generation of "sick of the holocaust, tired of responcibility, had enough guilt trips, don't know the first thing about Judaism, don't even care that much about Israel" Jews.

And we need to dovin a lot.

(1) Andrew Brodie, Toronto, Canada, October 13, 2002 12:00 AM

What about the economic aspect?

Over the last 25 years, I have seen this question discussed frequently in terms of Jewish education; religious observance; fecundity; or social structure. However, what about the economic aspect? I don't know the numbers for the USA, but here are the Canadian numbers.

The average Canadian family income, based on two earners, is currently about CDN$45,000. And the group with the highest average incomes, are--you guessed it--Jewish males, making a sum in the low CDN$50's. The median earning point is higher.

How does this influence behaviour and choice of marital partners?

Simply put, for people in their early 20's, at the start of their adult lives and earning curve, probably very little. But picture a 43 year old man and a 38 year old woman. She wants children and is looking for a "good provider." If our hypothetical Jewish male is "only" at the average earnings mark of CDN$50,000. in Jewish economic terms, he's an average schlepper. Is she going to "settle"? Odds say "probably not."

But for the mythical non-Jewish gal, whose economic expectations are much lower, he could look like a pretty good catch. Remmeber, she's thinking in terms of a two income family with an earning level of CDN$45,000. An added bonus is the reputation of Jewish males for sobriety, hard work, intelligence and loyalty to a family.

And for him, the unthinkable is becoming the possible and probable. He is definitely past his "best before" date (even Aish does not include over 40's in many of its "singles" programs); and a non-Jewish woman with lower economic expectations than her Jewish sisters could be quite attractive.

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