Should We Give Up On American Jewry?

Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, has written a terrific, must-read article for the latest issue of Commentary. “Jews and the Jewish Birthrate” is chock full of ideas and data that add up to a pessimistic view of the American Jewish prospect. While intermarriage inescapably contributes to this pessimism, Jack’s primary focus is on fertility and related demographic factors. He notes that our median age is “seven years older than other Americans” and that “among Americans of all kinds … Jews have the fewest number of siblings, the smallest household size, and the second lowest number of children under eighteen at home.”

Furthermore, too many of us do not marry. Those who do, as often as not, marry non-Jews. We also marry later and have fewer children than other white Gentiles. In short, as Jews have become more appreciated by their fellow Americans and have made distinctive contributions, we also are moving in the direction of becoming extinct. Since we are certainly among the most avid readers of the New York Times and, I suspect, pay inordinate attention to obituary notices, we should have a good sense of what is happening at that end of the life-cycle. Many more of us are exiting than are entering and with the exception of the Orthodox, the new arrivals are far less likely to be Jewishly connected than those who have departed.

The “cumulative effect” of these developments, Jack writes, “is now being felt and will only become amplified as time goes by. In a community that has long since ceased to replace its natural losses, continued low fertility rates mean that the number of children in the communal pipeline will soon drop sharply, causing a decline over the next decade in enrollments in Jewish schools and other institutions for the young.” He quotes sociologist Bruce Phillips that soon “there will be fewer practitioners of Judaism in the U.S.,” a development that “will at some point become evident in the number and/or size of synagogues and other Jewish institutions.”

The article explores the socio-psychological, behavioral and ideological factors that contribute to the disturbing fertility pattern which is in contrast to the high fertility of the Orthodox. Although separately Reform and Conservative affiliation outnumbers by huge margins the number of Orthodox Jews, “among synagogue-affiliated Jews, the Orthodox sector contains more children than either of the other two.”

Apart from the Orthodox whose ranks will continue to grow, although aliyah and abandonment by some of a religious life will limit the gains, is it time to face reality and say that there is little to be done to avoid the inevitable loss of nearly all non-Orthodox Jews? Is it time to throw in the towel, perhaps by deciding that our resources should be directed toward helping Israel?

This isn’t a new question. It was asked of me about a dozen years ago by Zalman Bernstein, the great philanthropist, after the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey left many of us shaking our heads about the future of American Jewry. Subsequent bad news has resulted in the question being asked again and again. The answer a dozen years ago and now is that while our losses are severe, there are lots of Jews who can be reached and the effort must be made. They number in the high tens of thousands and it is possible to strengthen their Jewish commitment, provided that we make substantial and meaningful investments in Jewish education – something that we have not done sufficiently – and provided that we recognize that continuity is not a term but a way of life that accepts our past, our heritage and our traditions. What American Jewry has called continuity since NJPS 1990 is largely discontinuity.

In any case, organized American Jewry is not prepared to call it quits, no matter what the bad news, nor is the Israeli government. We have contrived a self-deluding and generally delusionary picture purporting to show that while we have changed radically, we are doing rather well. Working with statisticians aka demographers and others who have a stake in putting a stamp of Jewish approval on our losses, we have convinced ourselves that severely watered down Judaism is a legitimate product. Because we have invested so heavily in false versions of Jewish life, we are impelled to keep the shell game going.

We need to continue to promote the notion that the emperor is fully clothed. What would our federation and organization worlds be like if we acknowledged that 80% or more of what we refer to as American Jewry is under water?

The Israeli government and the Jewish Agency know the score. The data they are looking at is based on research by Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University and it is bleaker than what Jack Wertheimer presents. Their strategy is not to indulge in self-delusion but to try to retard the frightening consequences of what we have wrought on these shores. They believe that Israel’s welfare depends to an extent on a strong American Jewish community. They are scared out of their wits by what is transpiring.

Their plan is to build on Birthright Israel through a new program called MASA that will provide extended educational, work and other experiences in Israel for up to a year for Jews of college age. Israel and the Jewish Agency are committing huge sums for this purpose and they are also soliciting outside philanthropic support.

While Birthright has been oversold in some quarters, it has achieved promising results under difficult circumstances. Birthright remains a valuable approach to the predicament of American Jewry. It is a disappointment that the new initiative will be independent of Birthright, the reason perhaps being that we must never forego the opportunity to establish another Jewish organization. However MASA is constructed, we must pray for its success because we desperately need to reach out to Jews who are at the edge of being lost entirely.

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6 Responses

  1. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    I’m not sure I share the sense of dread at the prospect of the withering away of the American Jewish population. I understand that we have a responsibility to save our co-religionists from drifting away. But the low birthrate issue and other elements of the quoted article seems more concerned with maintaining ourselves as a going concern. Why? Is this some sort of instinctive drive to ensure ethnic continuity?

  2. Netanel Livni says:

    What is the purpose of maintaining a community in exile? Why not focus on Aliya and building communities in Israel? It is not surprising that the community in exile is dying. After all, our Sages tell us in Ketuvot 110 that anyone who dwells outside of the land of Israel is as one who has no G-d. And how can a community survive without G-d? Rav Zvi Hirsh Kalisher Zt”l interpreted this saying as follows: If someone desires and actively works towards reestablishing his personal and communal life in the Land then he has a G-d. However, if someone’s heart does not long to live in the land, and that someone does not take the opportunities G-d gave him to return to the land, then he is truly as one without G-d. In the end, any attempts to establish strong communities in the exile will be doomed to failure. It is simply not a natural state of affairs for a Jew to live outside of the Land.

  3. mirty says:

    When G-d told Abraham that his children would be like the stars in the sky and the grains of sand in the dessert, Abraham had only one son. And his son had only two sons; only one of whom followed the path of his father.

    You could see Jewish survival as a numbers game, if you so choose, but that shows a lack of faith and a profound misunderstanding of what Judaism really means. We are not a racial group that is striving, through sheer numbers, to overpower other groups. We are a people bringing to the world a set of beliefs and a moral code. That is not accomplished through sheer fecundity.

    Nor is it reasonable to dismiss out-of-hand the impact of non-Orthodox Judaism and Jews. I live in a place where the Jewish community is thriving, our children strongly committed to a Jewish future, yet only a handful of Jews here are Orthodox. We are Reform, Reconstructionist, Liberal and Conservative. Contrary to a popular misconception, we are not “one-day-a-year” Jews. We are Jews every day. Our children learn Judaism at home and at school and at shul. That is true for my Reform Jewish household as it is for Orthodox households. My daughter went to Israel with NFTY last summer, along with 500 other Reform Jewish kids. It’s not so very different from the trip I took with NCSY thirty years ago.

    You may find the real future of Orthodoxy in people like my parents, who set aside their own prejudices to welcome their grandchildren. Be not so quick to dismiss us non-frum Jews. We are alive and well.

  4. Toby Katz says:

    Netanel — the situation in Israel is little better than that in the US. The average secular Israeli is unsure of why or whether Jews have any right to Israel. He thinks the Arab claim to the land is stronger than the Jewish claim. He suspects his country is illegitimate. His ideal of a beautiful woman is a “Shvedya” — a Swedish blonde. He spends his waking hours scheming to get a green card and dreaming about the money he will make if he ever gets to New York, Miami, or LA. His birth rate is only slightly higher than that of his American co-religionists — i.e., very low. WAY lower than the Arab birthrate. Among Israeli men living here in Miami where I live, South American wives are as common — maybe more common — than Jewish wives. (That’s because there aren’t so many Swedes here, I guess.)

    Mirty — you are very much the exception among Reform Jews and I don’t know why you bother to hang on so hard to your Reform identity. Personally I think you are hanging out with the wrong friends. I realize that there is a core of dedicated, idealistic laymen in the Reform movement — the type of person you exemplify — but in the long run there are too few of you to maintain a viable movement, especially when endogamy is becoming increasingly rare in the Reform and Conservative movements. Second generation, third generation intermarriages. Be realistic: after how many generations of intermarried parents is it still reasonable to consider the kids “Jews”?

  5. Netanel Livni says:


    I don’t understand your point. Why is the fact that the average secular Israeli has not real sense of his identity mean that we should invest in build communities in exile? We have limited resources and while kiruv is important, all other efforts should be channeled towards moving as many Jews to our homeland as we can. While the community in Israel has many many problems of its own, it is still the only place where an individual has the potential to lead a full Torah life and therefore we must focus our efforts on building our community in the only Land that G-d gave us.

  6. Yehudit says:

    I don’t know, I attend several different shuls and independent minyans and I see young Jewish couples with babies all over the place. Some middle-aged ones too.

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