The Ostrich Syndrome

Although American Jewish leaders are currently mourning the loss of one of their heroes–Rabbi Herb Friedman, who died last week at 89–they tend over time to be in a celebratory mood. The Jewish day school movement has been and continues to be a huge success, contributions to annual campaigns and other Jewish charities are up, and synagogue membership numbers are stable for now. There are worries about Israel as always, but a look back over its remarkable history makes the current situation seem quite good. So the leadership does have a lot to crow about.

Yet the hidden demography of Jewish American life is unsettling. The last official National Jewish Population Survey took place in 2000-2001, and the results were not pretty, especially when seen against the background of the 1990 survey–which in itself produced many warning signals. The trends in both were almost all worrying:

At the turn of the new millennium Jews were 2 percent of the American population, having declined from 5.5 million in 1990 to 5.2 million; this was a 5½ percent drop. They were also older. In 1990, their median age was 37, in 2000, 41. Those eligible for Medicare–over 65- climbed from 15 to 19 percent; under-17s slipped to 19 percent from 21.

One reason populations age is that they have fewer children, and Jewish women are certainly in this category. In 2000, 52 percent had no children by their early thirties, up from 42 in 1990; among Americans in general the figure was 27 percent. By their early 40s, after which very few women become mothers, Jews had an average of 1.8 children; demographers view 2.1 as the level needed to maintain overall numbers.

The Jewish community responded with what can only be called denial. The results were trumpeted on the official web site of the United Jewish Communities with the headline, “U.S. Jewish Population Fairly Stable Over Decade, According to Results of National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.” Worse, the article cited “a U.S. Jewish population of 5.2 million, slightly below the 5.5 million found in 1990.”

Slightly? A five and a half percent decline in the ‘90s, following a similar decline in the ‘80s? If this were happening to contributions, no one would use the word “slightly.” Suppose it continues a few more decades? Do the math. Little wonder that professional demographers see a Jewish American population late in this century of between one and two million.

It is true that these projections, and the 2000 numbers themselves, have been challenged. The New York Times reported the survey in this way: “A Count of U.S. Jews Sees a Dip; Others Demur.” Some of the demurrals came from academics like Leonard Saxe of Brandeis who did unofficial surveys that were a fraction of the size of the NJPS. Counting Jews is admittedly not as easy as it used to be, and if you scrape the barrel a bit you may feel reassured. But in a way this is the problem; Jews are steadily being marginalized or marginalizing themselves; counting questionable cases should not be reassuring.

Even if you don’t like the NJPS methodology, it’s consistent over decades, and consistency is the name of the game in demography. More important, no one disputes the drop in the average number of children per Jewish woman, and that in the long run matters much more than disputes about the total number of Jews. Finally, consider that the net balance of transfer of Jews between the U.S. and Israel is heavily toward the U.S., which has added to the Jewish American population but subtracted from that of Israel; the same has been true of Russian Jewish immigration.

The response from Jewish community leaders: some accepted the better version just because it was better; some explicitly said that even if this is happening, it is better not to publicize it. This reminds me of what my parents and grandparents used to call a shanda far di goyim–an embarrassment in front of the Gentiles, or more exactly, a shame among the nations. But “the shanda-far-di-goyim syndrome” is a bit of a mouthful, so I call it the Ostrich Syndrome; it guarantees that the trends continue.

As of last year, the prestigious Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an arm of the Jewish Agency for Israel, accepted the NJPS results and projected further declines in the American Jewish population. The heart of the community is beating strongly, but it is hemorrhaging at the margins.

Some Jewish leaders acknowledge this but privately say there is nothing to be done; in essence, we would just be throwing good money after irretrievable people. This is a logical stance as long as you accept the consequences: Unless there is a massive increase in birth rate, a revolution in proselytizing, a new trend in the identity of intermarried families, or a mass movement of Jews from somewhere else to here, the American Jewish community late this century will be very Jewish, very rich, and very small.

Jewish leaders can continue to crow about the strength and wealth in the core, but they are also acting like that much larger bird I used to see on the African plains. Future entries in this space will deal with suggestions for stopping or at least slowing the decline. Meanwhile, all who care about the Jewish future should be taking their heads out of the sand.