Jews in danger of becoming “The Amish of the 22nd century”

It is ironic that, amid the diaspora’s population crisis and Israel’s demographic concerns, confusion and malaise have settled over conversion efforts at just the time they might be most successful. Last month, a Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute study reported that the Jewish population was the oldest in the world. This was particularly true in the diaspora. In 2004, 18 percent of diaspora Jews and 11.5 percent of Israeli Jews were over 65. The Jewish average of 16 percent over 65 compares to the overall world population of 7 percent over 65.The primary reasons for this imbalance are clear to anyone who has observed Jewish life over the past 50 years. The diaspora has had a negative population growth. According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001, American Jewish women aged 40-44 – that is, at the end of their childbearing years – have an average of 1.8 children, while 2.1 children constitutes the replacement level. The NJPS concluded that the American Jewish population had declined by 5 percent over the previous decade so that Jews made up only 2 percent of the American population.

Continuing high rates of intermarriage and assimilation greatly exacerbate the problem. According to the NJPS, for example, the intermarriage rate has remained at about 47 percent and two-thirds of the children of such marriages are not raised to be Jewish. There are still large numbers of committed American Jews. The problem is not that American Jewry will disappear but that it will cease to have sufficient political, economic and cultural influence over the wider American community. This would have a disastrous effect on, for example, lobbying efforts on behalf of Israel and other American Jewish concerns and on maintaining large communal institutions and cultural activities. American Jewry is in danger of becoming a small, quaint community admired by the wider population for its unusual customs and its tenacity – the Amish of the 22nd century. The situation in Israel is not as dire. But continuing high non-Jewish birthrates, an unpredictable future for aliyah and the influx of Arabs who have entered and remain in Israel illegally (100,000 over the last 10 years alone) make an increase in the Jewish population vital for Israel’s security, and perhaps its survival.

There is a solution to the Jewish demographic crisis, but it is not among the ones normally cited. Pronatalism (encouraging Jewish births) has never proved successful in any democracy. Day-school education, Jewish camping and preschool Jewish education are wonderful. But they are expensive and do not attract an enormous segment of the Jewish population. Indeed, if we were able to stop all intermarriages tomorrow, the Jewish birthrate and proportion of elderly would mean continuing decreases in the American Jewish population.

The solution that can work is encouraging people to embrace Judaism. There are literally millions of people with Jewish ancestors, people whose ancestors were forced to convert out of Judaism, or who assimilated. Additionally, there are many people who are loosely attached to the Jewish community through a romantic partner, parent or other family member. Some even consider themselves Jewish, though no formal Jewish religious group would accept such a claim. There are also those not currently attached to Jewish life who are on a religious quest and who would be attracted to Judaism’s ethical monotheism. It might surprise some in the Jewish community, but the Jewish emphasis on faith, family and a close community, Judaism’s moral ideals, its unparalleled heritage, and its appealing traditions are attractive to many who were raised without religious traditions.

Judaism is not competing with Christianity or Islam, but with spiritual emptiness. This moment when Jews need to confront demographic problems also turns out to be a time of tremendous receptivity by these potential converts. Many people feel the modern world to be morally chaotic, confusing and overwhelming. It is no surprise that religious revival is taking place all over the world. People once happy with materialist philosophies and ways of life are looking for more. In America, where choice is prized, enormous numbers of people change their religions during their lives. They are actively seeking what Judaism can offer.

But Judaism is not offering itself very well. Potential converts are discouraged by our inability to define common standards for conversion. It is not easy for people considering Judaism to hear they will be accepted by some Jews as authentic, but not by others. Many traditional Jews resent Christian efforts to convert them and so are reluctant to revive what had been a thriving Jewish enterprise at least until the fourth century CE. Underlying all this is that modern Jews have lost their communal mission to be a light unto the nations, offering – but not mandating – Judaism to those who freely wish to join the Jewish people on its historic spiritual journey. All this has resulted in virtually no organized effort or funding to reach out to potential converts. There are some hopeful signs of the recognition of a demographic crisis. Philanthropist Michael Steinhardt has donated $12 million to start the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, due to open at Brandeis University in September. The Jewish Agency’s new Jewish People Policy Planning Institute also analyzes population data and considers its policy implications. As crucial as it is to recognize and better measure the problem, we should not delay when we already have one clear solution to the crisis.

What is needed is a single worldwide organization or department that has the sole mandate of increasing the Jewish population through welcoming converts. This organization would have much work to do. Such an organization might, for example, survey all current conversion programs, test them for effectiveness, define the most effective or develop new ones, and fund efforts to replicate successful programs. It could seek, train and place rabbis whose principal task is to welcome converts. It could work with the appropriate religious authorities to develop joint conversion programs in Israel and the diaspora so that converts are welcome by all. And it could make the incredible Jewish tradition of welcoming converts more widely known among Jews. It could, in short, develop an authentically Jewish response to a significant Jewish crisis.

Lawrence Epstein is author of “Conversion to Judaism: A Guidebook.”

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