Fundamentally Freund: Perverted priorities and demographics

Instead of chasing the phantoms of anti-Semitism, the American Jewish leadership would do well to focus on intermarriage and assimilation.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Well, the numbers are in, and the news is not looking all that good. In a new report, considered one of the most wide-ranging of its kind, the respected Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life interviewed 35,000 Americans from all walks of life, and the results provide an important glimpse into the future of US Jewry. On the one hand, according to the study, American Jews are generally wealthier and better educated than members of most other faiths. Close to half of our brethren across the ocean in the Goldene Medina are said to earn upwards of $100,000 per year, and more than one-third have a post-graduate degree of one sort or another. Mom would surely be proud. But while their dinner parties might be more lavish, and the conversation more cerebral, American Jews are also becoming an increasingly older, and lonelier, bunch. The Pew survey found that a whopping 51% of American Jews are over the age of 50, tying them with members of the mainline Protestant churches for the highest such percentage. And at 72%, Jews also share the lead when it comes to not having any children at home. While that last statistic might be considered good news for those who enjoy some peace and quiet, it is categorically bad tidings for what it says about the Jewish future. In effect, American Jews may be living better, but they are reproducing less. They are forging a better present, while ignoring what is yet to come. Of course, none of this is really new. We have known for a while that American Jewry is in demographic decline, as various studies over the past two decades have made clear. The alarm bells first sounded after the publication of the 1990-91 National Jewish Population Survey, which caused a stir when it said the intermarriage rate among US Jews was 52 percent. That figure was later disputed, but it nonetheless set off a panic in the Jewish organizational world, which suddenly realized that its set of priorities was badly skewed. Further concern arose when the results from the 2000-1 NJPS came in. It showed that the number of Jews in America actually shrank by 5.45%, from 5.5 million in the 1990 survey, to just 5.2 million. That means that on average, American Jewry lost about 100 Jews per day, every day, over the intervening 10 years. This, when the overall US population grew by more than 13% during the same period. NONETHELESS, the current Pew study is interesting and worthy of note, particularly because of its context. Since the US Census Bureau does not tally religious data, the new findings underline the extent to which American Jewry's decline is not only absolute, but relative too. And that is why it is essential that it serve as a wake-up call, for it underlines once again just how shaky the Jewish demographic future in America is. Sure, it is easy to dismiss the results with a wave of the hand. After all, demography is not always the most reliable of sciences, given that it attempts to project the future based on many unforeseeable events. And what's more, the number of Jews surveyed by Pew, and upon which its findings are based, was just 676, which seems like a regrettably small sample. Nonetheless, it would be foolhardy to ignore the reality that is staring us all in the face: enormous demographic shifts are taking place, and American Jewry is gradually slipping away. While great strides have been made in recent years in stemming the tide, this has largely been despite the Jewish establishment, rather than because of it. Programs such as Taglit/Birthright, which are having a transformative effect, are the result of the private initiative and vision of philanthropists such as Michael Steinhardt and others, and not the well-paid professionals who dot the Jewish organizational landscape. The crisis of Jewish continuity in America, home to the largest Diaspora community in the world, remains real, and the clock is ticking. A serious overhaul of priorities will be necessary to ensure the Jewish future in the United States, ranging from greater Jewish education to more outreach to the unaffiliated to strengthening the connection with Israel. None of this is rocket science, and a great deal has already been written in this regard. But what is most important now is to seize upon the Pew findings in order to press the leadership of American Jewry for greater change in the allocation of Jewish resources. Take, for example, the battle against anti-Semitism. There are at least three major Jewish organizations dedicated to combating extremism and bigotry. These include the Anti-Defamation League, whose 2006 budget was over $76 million, the American Jewish Committee, with annual outlays over $40 million, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which consumes some $27 million a year. That is over $140 million annually in Jewish money being spent by three groups operating with the same aim. Each one has senior staff to pay, office space to rent, marketing and advertising to do, and dinners and cocktail parties to organize. Talk about a wasteful redundancy of effort and funds. Just imagine if more of that money went into building Jewish day schools, improving teachers' salaries and benefits, and raising the level of Jewish education. Indeed, instead of chasing the phantoms of anti-Semitism with such vigor, the American Jewish leadership would do well instead to focus more on the two-headed monster of intermarriage and assimilation. For until American Jewry declares a communal state of emergency, and puts Jewish education at the top of its agenda - both rhetorically and financially - the crisis highlighted by the Pew study is only likely to worsen. Surveys and statistics are important - but behind those faceless numbers stand tens of thousands of Jewish boys and girls, many of whom are leaving the fold. It is time to make them a priority, before none are left to be counted.