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Jewish World Review Oct. 23, 2002 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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This controversy is more about who we are than how many of us there are | Does anyone really care exactly how many Jews there are in the United States? Judging by some of the initial coverage of the release last week of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, you would think that the dispute over whether there are 5.2 million (down from 5.5 million in 1990) or 6.7 million Jews -- as another survey asserts -- was the crucial point in this story.

Though the headline on the press release from the United Jewish Communities that sponsored the survey claimed the numbers showed a "fairly stable" population, the picture actually painted by the survey was of an aging, shrinking population.

Among those not accepting all of this was demographer Gary Tobin (no relation to this writer), who claims that 1.5 million people who should be counted as Jews were left out of the NJPS numbers. This includes people who currently adhere to other religions; those who don't list their religion as Jewish, but claim to be ethnically or culturally Jewish; and those who had been raised as Jews or had at least one Jewish parent.


But no matter which set of statistics you choose to accept as being closer to the truth, the real questions this long-awaited survey and other studies raise has little to do with just figures. Rather, as the categories counted by Gary Tobin and omitted by the NJPS indicate, it is about how we define ourselves. More to the point, it is also about what kind of a community we want to be in the future, no matter how big or small our numbers.

More than a decade ago, when the predecessor to this study was released in 1990, many Jews were taken aback by the high rate of intermarriage that was reported. Whether the numbers were completely accurate or not (some analyses disputed the famous 52 percent intermarriage rate), the 1990 survey had the effect of concentrating communal minds on the question of rising rates of assimilation and the shrinking Jewish population base.

Though much of the talk centered on Jews marrying non-Jews, that was, of course, not the problem itself. It was merely an indicator of the fact that not only were American Jews accepted in society, but that we were living lives that were little different from that of our neighbors.

Given a Jewish communal ethos focused more on external factors -- resisting anti-Semitism and supporting Israel -- and largely de-emphasizing faith and Judaism as a way of life, it was little wonder that a majority of American Jews recognized no personal imperative to marry within the faith.

Reaction to the 1990 numbers also split the Jewish world on the question of "outreach" versus "inreach" as the best response to this problem. Some of us asserted that reaching out to the intermarried and the growing numbers of American Jews who were unaffiliated was the correct response.

Others claimed with more justice that investing most of our scarce Jewish communal resources on such efforts would prove futile. They insisted that "inreach," or programs devoted to helping reinforce the identity of those already affiliated, was the best chance for strengthening our plight. This fight spilled over into many areas as "inreach" advocates pointed to Jewish day schools as the way to keep our core population stable.

Over the course of the decade, both sides got a little of what they wanted. Day-school enrollment, for example, grew by leaps and bounds, but a lack of communal support, high tuition and a culture that looked askance at parochial education ensured that that these schools would not become the answer for the majority of Jews.

On the other hand, Jewish federations and other organizations poured a great deal of money into outreach events. Predictably, this effort was not enough to satisfy the outreach advocates who felt the marginal success of such programs was the result of insufficient support, not the idea itself.

This once red-hot argument has cooled down in recent years as the Palestinian war on Israel got us thinking less about catch phrases such as "Jewish continuity" and more about supporting the Jewish state.


>While serious thought about the meaning of the numbers might indicate a rekindling of a genuine debate, Jewish leaders would prefer that we avoid this. Both "outreach" and "inreach" are now official policy, but neither gets the support it needs.

Rather than taking a hard look at a future, many of us prefer to take the more optimistic numbers Gary Tobin is selling and wrongly assume that everything is fine.

It is no coincidence that Tobin is also one of the most fervent supporters of outreach strategies. He and others who agree with him paint a picture of a Jewish future that will primarily be defined by pluralism. Normative Jewish life will, they say, cease to be solely defined by the existing structures, but rather, be based on the infinite variety of Jewish choices available. Philanthropies and synagogues will have to follow along with this trend, they tell us, or be left behind.

How can such a population survive?
But others look at the same figures and see impending disaster. Tobin may see the 1.5 million people who live alongside those who identify themselves as Jews in 2.9 million households as Jewish by some amorphous definition. But if a growing percentage of "Jews" are persons who have only the loosest connection to the rest of us, then what sort of a community are we talking about?

How can a Jewish population that is largely self-defining, has no Jewish literacy, is cut off from synagogues and often practicing other religions maintain Jewish institutions or a connection to Israel?

It is true that encouraging conversion and creating more ways for those on the margins to enter into Jewish communal life are important. But a community that only defines itself by its pluralism and lack of identifiable boundaries is one that stands for nothing and is doomed to failure.

The inreach/outreach debate is meaningful because it is based in reality. Though some pretend that Jewish resources are infinite, the truth is, they are not. Given the limited amount of funds available, we cannot possibly do both well. But since our communal structures are set up to avoid making tough decisions, we have left ourselves with the worst of both worlds: a Jewish core population that is underserved and starved of resources, and an unaffiliated group that feels there are not enough doors open for them.

By definition, such a choice means making some people unhappy. But we need to recognize that by not choosing one path or the other, we are making a third even more unfortunate choice that will ensure that future population surveys will bring us even worse news.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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