Commentary Magazine

Jewish Numbers

To the Editor:

In his article “Jews and the Jewish Birthrate” [October 2005], Jack Wert-heimer raises a critical issue regarding the future of the Jewish people residing outside of Israel. Numbers obviously matter in a democracy, and it is not good for a minority group’s internal morale or influence in the wider society when it is in numerical and relative decline. We are less persuaded by Mr. Wertheimer’s proposed solution and mode of persuasion: that the other denominations follow the lead of the Orthodox in issuing “countless sermons and homilies” exhorting Jews to marry only each other and to have lots of children.

Most of the recalcitrant non-marrying, infertile, and intermarrying Jews are unlikely to hear these exhortations. What Mr. Wert-heimer misses is that Orthodox rabbis have succeeded in guiding their flocks not because of their own brilliance or single-mindedness, but because they preach to the choir. Their congregants are predisposed to marrying inside the religion and having children. The movement’s demographic success is due to self-selection into a segregated and geographically concentrated religious subculture. But the Orthodox model is eschewed by 90 percent of American Jewry, and is no more realistically replicable for most Jews than the Amish way of life or Mormon faith is for most Americans. For Mr. Wertheimer to offer an alternative already rejected in the religious marketplace is fruitless.

The 20th-century biomedical revolution made sexual activity independent of procreation and privatized decision-making on family size. Pro-natalist policies in sophisticated modern populations have signally failed, even when initiated by national governments. The best example of this is in France, where the state has offered economic and social incentives for families to have children since the end of World War I. Social engineering has succeeded only when imposed in the opposite direction by totalitarian regimes, as in the one-child policy of the People’s Republic of China. Nowadays, most Western democratic governments that want to increase their populations or compensate for imbalances in their national-age structure rely on immigration—that is, welcoming newcomers.

We believe, despite Mr. Wertheimer’s scoffing, that the solution for Jews concerned about continuity has to be inclusiveness toward the broad community, religious and secular alike. We write not as advocates but as researchers on religious identity. We directed the American Jewish Identification Survey of 2001, which found a rising tide of secularization among American Jews, surpassing the trend among Americans in general. The percentage of Americans professing no religion rose from 8 percent in 1990 to 14 percent in 2001. Among Jews, the numbers rose from 20 to 32 percent.

Although most unaffiliated Jews are indifferent to rabbinic exhortation, our research shows that many are intensely proud of their Jewish heritage and feel a strong connection to fellow Jews. The Jewish community can and must nurture and fortify these attachments through cultural and educational programs. Re-engaging the millions of disaffected Jews who are on the periphery seems—mathematically, at least—to be a more effective strategy for Jewish renewal than King Canute-like calls to resist the tide of lower fertility and individualistic choices.

Ariela Keysar

Barry A. Kosmin

Trinity College

Hartford, Connecticut


To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer posits a dichotomy in modern Jewish institutions between traditionalists, who have successfully packaged their message and unflinchingly tell their children to go out and make more Jews, and liberals, who express an ambiguous, feckless message. He seems to propose that liberal Jewish leaders simplify their message.

Mr. Wertheimer is undoubtedly correct that Orthodoxy is currently in the ascendant, but this trend might not hold in the long term. Ideas of autonomy, inclusion, and science are powerful—at least in the modern West, where most Jews live. The Orthodox children whose abundant numbers Mr. Wertheimer envies may ultimately be no more able to resist Western ideas than were so many of our great-grandparents who left Eastern Europe and the bonds of tradition, engendering the present generation of exogamous American Jews. It was precisely the failure of Orthodoxy to adapt a few generations ago that led to today’s secularism, denominationalism, post-denominationalism, and intermarriage. For Mr. Wertheimer to project from the experience of the present Orthodox generation seems both simplistic and blind to unpredictable historical forces.

Finally, Mr. Wertheimer is wrong to think that the solution to the demographic problem lies solely in what non-Orthodox rabbis preach; it also lies in what they do. Among other things, rabbis can encourage both traditional and non-traditional families to procreate, demand dramatically reduced day-school tuitions for multiple siblings, and open their synagogues—often empty during the week—for reasonably priced day-care centers. Then we might see some increase in the liberal Jewish population.

Arnold & Debra Blank

New York City


To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer’s prescription to the non-Orthodox denominations for reversing their declining birthrates—the clear enunciation of traditional “norms and obligations”—would force them either to renounce their most basic values or to confront their recalcitrant laities in ways that could fracture their movements. His prescription will not be adopted.

The Conservative and Reform movements need leadership, ideas, money, and institutional structures that grow naturally from their core ideologies. Such ideas include enhancing opportunities to meet potential Jewish partners, welcoming back to Judaism those with Jewish ancestors, aiding those who wish to adopt, and embracing sincere converts.

Lawrence J. Epstein

Stony Brook, New York


To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer criticizes a document issued by the Reconstructionist rabbis for “avoid[ing] an endorsement of marriage as a Jewish ideal.” Regrettably, his citations are incomplete, preventing readers from seeing the original statements in context.

The document in question is a 1993 report, “Homosexuality and Judaism: The Reconstructionist Position.” It addressed a population for whom marriage was not then—and is barely today—recognized as a right, and yet Mr. Wert-heimer goes to it looking for an affirmation of marriage as an “ideal.”

Mr. Wertheimer writes that marriage is “disparaged” in the document as a relationship between “two unequal parties.” The full sentence in the report reads: “We recognize that traditional Jewish marriage was a partnership between two unequal parties.” It is hard to see how anyone familiar with Jewish law could object to that statement. In traditional Jewish marriage as defined by Orthodox halakha, the woman is acquired by the man as any other “property” would be acquired. In the case of divorce, the woman is at the mercy of the man, who alone is empowered to act. That sounds like “unequal parties” to me.

The report also contains this statement: “The family is the primary and most appropriate vehicle for the transmission of Jewish identity and values.” Mr. Wert-heimer seems deliberately to avoid the challenge of what Reconstructionists, among others, have affirmed in an authentic Jewish way: that while “family” is a value, there is more than one model of it. As the report notes:

The most constant value of the family is its ability to provide intimacy, emotional and material support, stability, and the transmission of Jewish commitment, values, and practices. Many old and new kinds of families can fulfill these values. We are committed to preserving the traditional primacy of family because we understand the family as the primary, stable unit of intimacy.

Single Jews, gay and lesbian Jews, and intermarried Jews are in many cases also committed to raising Jewish children. At the same time, there are plenty of heterosexual marriages between Jews in which neither parent is transmitting Jewish identity. It is puzzling that Jack Wertheimer would present a distorted view of a report that clearly supports the idea of family. Perhaps he feels that supporting family is not the same as supporting heterosexual endogamous marriage as the norm. But in that case, his article should have been titled “Only Heterosexual Endogamously Married Jews Welcome,” which seems to have been the real agenda.


Rabbi Richard Hirsh

Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association

Wyncote, Pennsylvania


To the Editor:

The biggest flaw in Jack Wertheimer’s article is its failure to take into account the phenomenon of secularism. The 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey found that 49 percent of Jews in the United States identified themselves as secular or partly secular. The decline of religious Judaism is the single most important development in the Jewish world over the past 150 years, yet neither Mr. Wertheimer nor the National Jewish Population Survey refers to it.

I agree that it is crucial to transmit Jewish identity to the next generation. If we are to do so, we must satisfy the demand for different types of Jewish learning. The place to do that is in the schools. The biggest failing of American and world Jewish communities, Israel included, is the lack of facilities for teaching Judaism as culture. With the exception of Mexico and Argentina, there is not a single secular Jewish day school anywhere in the world.

It is for this reason that the Posen Foundation has offered grants to universities and colleges that teach Judaism as culture. We currently have programs at fourteen universities and four colleges in America and Israel, and we intend to double these numbers over the next few years. As we have seen, there is an enormous thirst for Jewish knowledge among culturally impoverished Jewish students (as well as among non-Jewish students), who are unable to find suitable instruction in accordance with their beliefs and upbringing.

Felix Posen

London, England


To the Editor:

As Jack Wertheimer emphasizes, the future size of the American Jewish community will partly depend on its fertility levels. Overall, American Jews have a modestly lower fertility rate than they need for population replacement (though only modestly lower than the overall U.S. rate). But a more interesting question is what current fertility trends mean for the denominational mix, or the religious habits, of the Jewish population.

As Mr. Wertheimer notes, the Orthodox have substantially higher birthrates than the other denominations; they also tend to marry at younger ages, shortening the number of years in each generation. If current patterns continue, Orthodox growth will be compounded by both of these factors.

Today, though, the major transitions in the numbers and the makeup of American Jewry have less to do with fertility than with migration across denominational boundaries and changes in religious affiliation or behavior. Jewish adults who profess a disconnection with Judaism tend to be those who had little or no association with the religion as children. They are also more likely to be among those who intermarry. Thus, the way children are raised is a significant demographic force.

Data from the most recent National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) indicate two relevant patterns for Jewish adults under the age of forty-five, the demographic sector in which most family growth occurs. Among those who reported not having been “raised Jewish,” two-thirds fall into the category of a “person of Jewish background” who does not currently call himself Jewish. Eighteen percent call themselves “just Jewish,” and only the remaining 14 percent claim affiliation with one of the denominations.

Almost two-thirds of those who were raised “just Jewish” indicate that they are currently “just Jewish.” Fifteen percent say they are not Jewish now, and the remaining approximately 20 percent claim some denominational affiliation.

Thus, one could argue that about 40 percent of the respondents are Jews “at the margins” with limited formal connections to Judaism, even though at some point in their lives they had a Jewish connection that might have offered an opportunity for a significant entrée to Jewish life. The young adults in this substantial segment of the population are perhaps important candidates for outreach activities, regardless of one’s perspectives about what a Jew is or is “meant” to be.

Frank Mott

Ohio State University

Columbus, Ohio


To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer touches on a topic that may be considered the “third rail” of contemporary Judaism. Enjoying unparalleled security and success in the history of the Diaspora, American Jews, fortified to withstand hate, are disappearing before the love of their neighbors.

It seems that in the perceived interest of remaining “relevant,” non-Orthodox rabbis have wandered from fundamental principles about what is important and meaningful in a Jewish life, dropping the precept to be fruitful and multiply in favor of relating to life in contemporary America as their congregants would like it to be. The result is the genuinely existential threat to American Jewry that Mr. Wertheimer describes.

Jewish girls outside the Orthodox movement are taught that the most important thing they can do is read the Torah as their brothers used to be able to do. But if our boys do not want to marry our girls, or participate in ritual and synagogue life, none of that will really matter.

The Orthodox movement has managed to reconcile modernity with adherence to what might be called the Jewish law of survival. (My twenty-something nieces from Boro Park have post-college degrees and children.) In its obeisance to egalitarianism, Conservative Judaism has rejected the idea of teaching young women that their role is to be wives and mothers (even if they become doctors and lawyers, too), and young men to be husbands and fathers.

Perhaps Judaism’s liberal movements need to adopt their own endangered-species act. With a bit of luck, we might prove to be like the snail darter—downlisted in 1984 from endangered to just threatened—and not the dinosaur.

John R. Cohn

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


To the Editor:

One always reads Jack Wertheimer’s articles about the manifold follies and calamities of American Jewry with a mixture of despair over what he reports and intense admiration for his courageous truth-telling. One may also derive some (small) consolation from remembering that American Jews are not alone in parroting the cliché that the highest value to pass on to children is the ability to “think for themselves.” Here is the poet S.T. Coleridge (in 1830) recalling his response to a super-liberal friend on the very same subject:

Thelwall thought it very unfair to influence a child’s mind by inculcating any opinions before it should have come to years of discretion, and be able to choose for itself. I showed him my garden, and told him it was my botanical garden. “How so?” said he, “it is covered with weeds.”—”Oh,” I replied, “that is only because it has not yet come to its age of discretion and choice. The weeds, you see, have taken the liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair in me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries.”

Edward Alexander

Seattle, Washington


Jack Wertheimer writes:

In light of some wildly distorted press accounts of my article, it is a pleasure to read these letters, which, whatever their criticisms, do me the courtesy of reacting to what I actually wrote.

Ariela Keysar and Barry A. Kosmin are doubtful that rabbis can influence attitudes and norms. (Interestingly, they completely ignore my call for secular leaders to speak up, too.) Their skepticism is widely shared, and speaks volumes about the current condition of the American Jewish community. From all corners, one hears laments for the absence of leaders with “vision.” Simultaneously, leaders are expected to follow rather than to lead, and to reflect rather than to challenge consensus views.

Ariela Keysar and Barry A. Kosmin are also impatient with my call for an exploration of Jewish norms. Very well, then, I invite them to consider a straightforward social-scientific question: why is it that the only two Jewish populations reproducing themselves above replacement level are Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora and Israeli Jews in general—the latter including not only the Orthodox but also the self-professed secular? Are these secular Israelis also among the “choir”? And if so, who drafted them, and by what means? Something in the Israeli ethos would appear to have created a pro-natal culture of a kind lacking in most Diaspora communities, and especially in the U.S. What might that be? Rather than dismissing such questions as tantamount to a demand for “social engineering,” we owe it to ourselves to figure out why some Jewish societies successfully reproduce themselves and others do not.

Arnold and Debra Blank likewise chafe at my positive assessment of what Orthodox Jews have achieved. In fact, they blame Orthodoxy itself, and its failure to “adapt,” for all sorts of ills besetting the contemporary Jewish community, including, no less, widespread intermarriage. There is a book to be written about the intolerance of many liberal Jews—I am not putting my correspondents in this group—who eagerly embrace Jews of every stripe except the Orthodox. For my part, I am well aware of failings in the Orthodox world today and in the past; nor am I prepared to predict the movement’s future vitality. But for the present, Orthodox Jews in this country are bearing more children than any other group and are demonstrably better at retaining their allegiance. As the demographer Frank Mott confirms in his letter, this current reality will transform the American Jewish community within one generation.

Where I agree with the Blanks is in their call for less exhortation and more action. Jewish leaders of all kinds could do much more to create an environment hospitable to raising Jewish children. Unfortunately, though, little or no effort is made, for example, to translate the commonly expressed wish for “reduced day-school tuition” into an actual decision by a local federation or a family foundation to allocate the necessary funds. This failure reflects an obliviousness to long-term needs—among which none is more important than nurturing a successor generation—on the part of many in positions of leadership.

In his concluding words, Lawrence J. Epstein also expresses a wish: namely, that sincere converts be embraced. In this area, too, there is much pious talk. Every few years, some rabbi makes a splash by calling for a missionary campaign to convert “un-churched” Americans. And yet the number of conversions to Judaism is in fact way down. Could it be that people are looking in the wrong place? The likeliest candidates for conversion are Gentiles already married to Jews and children born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. As survey data demonstrate, moreover, conversionary families behave far more like in-married Jewish families and far less like interfaith families. I therefore subscribe to Mr. Epstein’s call for actively and openly working toward the conversion of non-Jews married to Jews.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh takes strong exception to my claim that Reconstructionist Judaism denigrates marriage—and then promptly demonstrates that I have read his movement correctly. Refusing to name marriage as the Jewish ideal, he insists instead on the equal status of all kinds of family relationships within and outside the bonds of matrimony. He also goes out of his way to note the historically unequal status of men and women in Jewish marriages—as if this were somehow an oddity and not the norm in virtually every pre-modern society. The insistence that traditional Judaism is peculiarly wanting because our ancestors did not anticipate our superior modern outlook both demeans the tradition and undercuts the values that one supposedly means to uphold.

In his parting shot, Rabbi Hirsch suggests that there is only one way to include intermarried Jews and gay and lesbian Jews in the Jewish community: by welcoming them without condition. I disagree. In the long run, Jewish life will be far stronger if it adheres to standards. To put this in terms of policy, one can welcome intermarried families without pretending that they are no different from in-married Jewish families, and one can welcome homosexual men and women without re-inventing Judaism as a religion that regards heterosexuality and homosexuality (and bisexuality) as equally valid options.

Felix Posen faults me (as do Ariela Keysar and Barry A. Kosmin) for “failing to take into account the phenomenon of secularism”—as if secularization were a new development rather than an aspect of modernity that has influenced Jewish life for over 200 years. In Mr. Posen’s estimate, 49 percent of Jews consider themselves “secular or partly secular.” I would put the figure at over 90 percent—for which modern Jews are not partly secular?

But then who knows what these slippery categories mean? I suspect that most survey respondents do not. Mr. Posen might be shocked to discover how many self-proclaimed “partly secular” Jews attend synagogue, engage in ritual practices, and consider such activities central to their Jewish lives.

Is it possible to transmit a strong Jewish identity to the next generation based on a secular understanding of “Judaism as culture”? Certainly, between the late-19th century and the middle of the 20th, vibrant secular movements flourished in Jewish neighborhoods from Birobidzan to Buenos Aires, from kibbutzim in Israel to enclaves in Brooklyn and the Bronx. In our own time, however, it is far from clear that, outside of tightly knit communities, secular Jewish identity has any staying power.

To test this proposition, all Mr. Posen need do is to look at Israeli public schools, which are essentially “secular Jewish day schools” and which regularly fail to produce literate Jews. Before he invests even more of his money, he might also sponsor research into how many of today’s secular Jews do succeed in transmitting their identity to the next generation. To judge from Frank Mott’s observations about patterns among the “just Jewish,” there are grounds for deep skepticism on this score.

I would place an even greater stress than does John R. Cohn upon teaching both young women and men to take responsibility for marrying and raising children. Foundations and others interested in the welfare of the Jewish community ought to examine why Jewish men consistently outpace women in marrying non-Jews—and ought openly to discuss the harmful consequences of this pattern on the marital options of Jewish women. They might also explore why young Jews of both sexes are having so much trouble meeting and forming lifelong bonds, and why in the aggregate they are bearing children below replacement level. As I suggested in my article, our dismal ignorance about these matters and our unwillingness to speak about them in public has done great harm to young Jewish men and women.

Finally, I am grateful to Edward Alexander, whose own forthright writings I have long admired, for his words of support. His apt quotation of Coleridge reinforces my belief that the time has come for American Jews to engage in a serious conversation about their values—values that may, at best, advance Jews as individuals while arguably undermining the interests of the group.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.