January 16, 2012

Continuity isn't just kiruv -- it's about Jewish babies

The Jewish community is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to solve a problem, but nearly all the money is directed at only one-half of the problem.

On the basis of successive National Jewish Population Studies, and the plain reality staring most of us in the face, Jewish continuity has re-emerged as a central challenge for the Jewish people, especially in the Diaspora and particularly in the United States. As much as we want to focus on fulfilling our Divinely inspired mission in the world, we need to ensure there's enough of us to go around.

The bulk of demographic and sociological data reflects trends in assimilation, analyzing the trends and attitudes toward assimilation and intermarriage ("out-marriage" vs. "in-marriage"). Largely unmeasured is the significant decline in Jewish population resulting from reduced fertility rates, the drop-off in the number of Jews actually having babies at all. This form of attrition is less obvious, because it's much easier to notice a Jew marrying a Gentile than it is to notice babies who were never born, to parents who never married. These are facts that never existed.


My late grandfather was the second of six children, born mostly during the decade 1900-1910, in Oil City, in rural Pennsylvania. All the children were Jewishly knowledgable, and the family was active in the synagogue for most of a century during which it evolved from European-style Orthodox to small-town Conservative. 

The eldest daughter married a Jew and had three kids, one of whom never married, one of whom married with no kids, and one of whom married and had two kids -- one grandchild died tragically, and the other is married and "childless by choice". My grandfather married and had two daughters, one of whom married without kids and one of whom -- my mother -- married and had two boys. Only I got married, and we now have -- thank God -- two amazing children. Of the remaining children born a century ago, two married with no kids, and two never married. All remained active in their Jewish communities.

So, after four generations, my great-grandparents went from six children to just two great-great-grandchildren. This is hardly an isolated case, and most people should recognize comparable stories from among their own relatives and friends. 


Manhattan's Upper West Side has a concentrated pool of thousands of Jewishly committed singles from their early 20s all the way up to assisted living. It is a story being replicated on a smaller scale, every day, across America. For all the millions spent on "kiruv" (outreach) and Jewish continuity, including "birthright israel", relatively little is spent on getting Jews to marry and/or bear and raise children with other Jews -- or with anyone, for that matter. In reality, many of those who participate in outreach programs are already Jewishly active, and are simply desperate to find a mate.

It ought to be possible to develop a demographic and statistical model that controls for immigration and conversions into Judaism, to demonstrate how many children American Jews should have been having since 1900, and how many of us are here today, for each generational cohort -- senior citizens, middle-aged, young adults, and children. This could prove far more useful than the typical surveys of how many non-Jews in a household identify as Jews.

We need to rebalance our communal priorities, so that young (and youngish) Jews are able to find love, make a commitment, and find a way to afford raising a Jewish family (and yes, that includes day school tuition). Otherwise, we will end up spending most of our "continuity" budget on those least likely to raise a Jewish family, and leaving the most committed among us to leave no one behind.

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