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The underlying message of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute's "Conference on the Future of the Jewish People" is implied by its title: We had better think about our future. The problem, however, has not been a shortage of thought, but of consensus, a goal, and of action.
The conference that begins today in Jerusalem gathers prominent communal leaders from throughout the Diaspora and Israel. It will hear from Prime Minister Olmert and President-elect Peres. Over three days, the high-level participants will spend many hours in working groups and produce policy recommendations for the Jewish people.
The conferees' first step should be to at least agree that there is a problem.
This is not trivial, given that the usual discussion at such gatherings goes like this: Israelis warn Diaspora leaders about their shrinking numbers; the Diaspora participants point to "relative stability" and signs of Jewish renaissance, while noting that the secular Israeli majority also has Jewish identity problems and that Israel's rejection of Jewish pluralism through its Orthodox establishment is not making matters easier.
Both are right, so around and around it goes.
Let's try to cut through this and agree on some facts. From 1882 to 1939, the world's Jewish population more than doubled, from 7.8 to 16.7 million. In 1945, after the Holocaust, there were 10.6 million Jews.
Today, 62 years later, there are 13 million Jews in the world. This is less than the Jewish population in 1914, and the post-war increase has been at one-third the rate of increase between 1914 and 1939. Finally, according to figures given to the JPPPI conferees, Jewish population is projected to be at best stagnant, increasing by only half a million by 2020, assuming a million increase in Israel and a half million decrease in the Diaspora.
The picture is clear: rapid pre-war growth, then the Holocaust, then slow post-war growth rates decreasing to near-zero today. And these are just the absolute numbers. In relative terms, the trend is even more dramatic; the number of Jews per 1,000 world population has dropped from 7.5 in 1938, to 4.7 in 1945, to 3.5 in 1970, to 2 today.
The issue is not that Jewish numbers are small. That has always been the case, though the historian Salo Baron estimated that Jews once numbered 10 percent of the Roman empire. The issue is that Jewish numbers are small and shrinking - in relative terms, but also in absolute terms if current trends continue. In the Diaspora, these trends are undeniable: high rates of assimilation, below replacement birth rates, and negligible levels of conversion to Judaism. Even "relative stability" is not sustainable with such trends.
The debate over "quality vs. quantity" is a sterile one. It is true that a new "Jewish core" is developing in the Diaspora as a result of an increased focus on Jewish day schools and other forms of Jewish education. But this is no time for self-congratulatory rationalizations that excuse inaction.
The conference will fail if it gets stuck in the same circular discussion that has been going on since the 1970s over whether there is a Jewish demographic problem. Instead, it should unabashedly propose the only antidote to the current predicament: growth.
There are only three possible paths to growth - stemming assimilation, increasing birth rates, and increasing conversion. All three should be pursued, and doing so will require revolutionary adaptions. The challenges of modernity, ironically coming simultaneously from unprecedented levels of acceptance in the West along with growing flames of hatred from the West's jihadist enemies, are no less formidable than the collapse of the Temple-centered Judaism of ancient Israel and the plunge into exile.
Then, Judaism and the Jewish people had to transform or disappear, like most peoples did when their empires fell. The Jewish center shifted from the Temple, sacrifices and pilgrimages, to the law, rabbinic leadership, community, universal education and family.
The Jewish people has yet to transform itself again in a way that effectively competes in a world of religious choice. If we do not, Jews will not stay Jews, and non-Jews will not become Jews. If we do, then not only will more Jews find compelling reasons to raise Jewish families, but a Judaism that returns to its outward-oriented, pro-conversion roots could attract significant numbers of newcomers.
The bottom-line is straightforward. The conference should propose a simple, realistic goal: a sustained 2 percent rate of growth, producing a world Jewish population of roughly 30 million by 2050. Getting there will not be easy, but deciding to try is an essential first step.