Safety in Numbers

The immediate effect of a new, painstaking, multiyear, $6 million population survey of American Jewry has been to convince Jewish professionals that whatever they’ve been doing is the best thing for American Jewry.

The National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001 (NJPS), just released on Tuesday, says there are 5.2 million Jews in America, a 5 percent decline since 1990, when the last survey was done. The latest NJPS may not evoke the calls for alarm of the 1990 study, whose reports of a 55 percent intermarriage rate spurred what Rabbi Irwin Kula calls "the Jewish continuity industry."

John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles noted, "I don’t think anybody involved in Jewish life will be surprised [by the initial figures]."

Those figures (the ones for intermarriage will be released in November) show U.S. Jewry trending downward. The American Jewish population has fallen by just over 5 percent at a time when the general population has increased. Jewish women have an average of 1.8 children, which is below the replacement level of 2.1, and the Jewish population is getting older (thanks for reminding us) with the median age of American Jews going from 37 in 1990 to 41 in 2000.

Reactions to these semi-dire numbers, at least according to press accounts, were predictable. Orthodox rabbis said the figures proved that more money was needed for Jewish education and that Orthodox practice is the best safeguard against assimilation. Those involved in Jewish senior care say the numbers prove that we are overinvesting finite dollars in Jewish continuity and neglecting the needs of our aging population. People who’ve been saying for years that Jewish life is too expensive say the numbers would be better if the cost of Jewish involvement were cheaper. The Jewish continuity experts, their programs by now firmly entrenched, said the declining numbers prove that their programs are needed now more than ever.

The point is, all of us concerned about the health of American Jewry want to believe we’re part of the cure. And we are — all of us have our hands on part of the elephant. "By almost any measure we’re doing better than ever," David Lehrer told me. If you head a Jewish defense or lobbying organization and you believe there is strength in numbers, then the downward trend in population might be worrisome, said Lehrer, former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. But if you look at Jewish political and cultural influence, Jewish wealth and success, the utter fecundity of Jewish expression just in this city alone, you’d have to be a committed pessimist to worry. Lehrer reminded me of Simon Rawidowicz’s description of Jews as "the ever-dying people" and warned that too often we see an existential crisis where there is none.

What there is, is opportunity.

Two weeks before the NJPS was released, Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, released another survey that found an American Jewish population increasing to 6.7 million. The difference in the numbers is, at root, a debate over this opportunity. Tobin’s methodology defined Jewish involvement more broadly and, therefore, came up with more Jews. Demographer Pini Herman derided the Tobin approach as a "marketing ploy" and said he thinks the NJPS numbers are more sound.

That may be. But both surveys have in common a larger and more expansive approach to "Who is a Jew?" than what Jewish law, or even previous surveys, have traditionally advanced. Both surveys counted thousands of people on what could be considered the fringes of organized Jewish life. The Tobin survey extended the criteria even beyond that.

Many people believe that there are even more circles that can be drawn into a meaningful expression of Jewish life, its traditions and its values. Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino told me that we have to do a better job of reaching out to intermarried couples and their families. He and others have long argued that it is time to set aside the taboo against proselytizing and demonstrate to non-Jews what Jewish faith and culture have to offer. There might be something to that. We have been managing our religion like some exclusive country club. We fret that our members are aging or have quit showing up, even as we pride ourselves on the barriers to entry. With the proper outreach, we could have tens of thousands of more Jews by 2010, not thousands less.

None of this is new. In a remarkable book, "The Beginnings of Jewishness" (University of California Press, 2001), Shaye J.D. Cohen documents a period in antiquity (around the beginning of the first millennium) when it wasn’t at all clear who was a Jew and who wasn’t.

"The uncertainty of Jewishness in antiquity curiously prefigures the uncertainty of Jewishness in modern times," Cohen writes. "Then as now, individual Jews are not easily recognizable; they simply are part of the general population."

I called Cohen, a Harvard professor, at his home near Boston to ask him why it is that we Jews are, 2,000 years later, still arguing over our definition.

Assimilation, he said. Jews living in what was then ancient Greece needed a way to mark themselves off from a culture in which they were almost fully immersed.

For us, today, the immersion is even greater. We have more intermarriage and our society is far more open. In such a society, the loss of the sense of "other," of "them," challenges our notion of "we."

"The issue is not intermarriage," he told me, "the issue is theloss of the sense of ‘otherness.’" The difference between the Jews of antiquity and ourselves, Cohen said, is that, "they had a clear sense of what they were about."

The question is, do we?