Friday, December 28, 2007

The End of Jewish Demography?

At the doorstep of 2008, it appears that there will not be a 2010 national Jewish population survey in follow-up to the studies conducted in 1990 and 2000 and earlier efforts to determine the number of American Jews, as well as their circumstances, behavior and beliefs. It takes years to prepare for a survey and also much money and both time and funding are in too short supply to undertake a comprehensive project two or three years from now.

Funding is only one reason why NJPS is heading toward the history bin. Another is that United Jewish Communities, the coordinating body for the Federation world and the past NJPS sponsor, is in crippled condition and scarcely able to get its act together. It also doesn’t help that the last NJPS received withering criticism, with both its methodology and key findings coming under fire. No one seems to have the stomach to try again. A final nail in the coffin is that the spreading use of cell phones has made population studies more difficult.

If NJPS is a thing of the past, Jewish demography is very much alive, although not necessarily well. It is like an obsession that we cannot shake off. We will continue to receive a flow of statistical claims regarding this or that aspect of Jewish life, some based on local surveys and others on broader research that purports to capture the full spectrum of our behavior and beliefs.

Because NJPS has come to reflect a narrower view of Jewish identity than is favored by certain demographers who are now in favor and because many in Jewish life have a stake in claiming higher numbers, the apparent decline of NJPS dovetails with the advancement, even domination, of big-tent Judaism, its notion being that we should include as many as we can, irrespective of how negligible their association with Jewish identity may be. I wonder whether NJPS’ fate would be different if it had announced that at the turn of the century there were as many as ten million Americans who may be counted as Jews rather than the five million that was its announced statistic.

It apparently does not matter any longer that many who are identified as Jewish say that they are not Jewish or that they practice another religion or that their children are being raised in no religion or another religion. A Jew is anyone we can claim by birth or marriage or household. The big-tenters are in the driver’s seat.

This is in a way good news for Israel, at least for those Israelis who believe that their country’s security depends on support from Washington and Washington’s support is likely to diminish if the number of American Jews diminishes. I think otherwise. It’s also good news for those who believe that intermarriage, advanced assimilation and even Judaic abandonment are no more than inconvenient circumstances that do not radically affect the statistics of American Jewry. In the new arithmetic espoused by the big-tenters, intermarriage means more and not fewer persons who identify as Jewish.

This attitude is consistent with the American ideal of tolerance and the right of people to choose how they are to be identified. It is reinforced by a huge emotional and financial investment by organized American Jewry which for communal and personal reasons is inclined to buy into an expansive definition of Jewishness. The process is not new. I identified it in the 1980s in a series of articles and have discussed the phenomenon many times since, arguing that while ultimately this house of cards will collapse, it is a condition that will remain critical in American Jewish life for the foreseeable future.

What is perhaps surprising is the creativity and boldness of the advocates of this form of Judaism. They were originally defensive, as if they were saying that though what we represent departs from communal norms, this is the best that we can achieve under current conditions. The contention now is that the departure from norms is itself a legitimate Jewish norm. This process has legs and it will almost certainly be with us at least well into this century.

There is, in short, increasing congruence between our demography and our communal activity, a development that is not seriously challenged by those of a religious orientation who believe that what is being supported in the name of Jewish continuity is bogus. The likely feeling is that they do not have the ability to counteract this process. It is also true that they – including some fervently Orthodox – have a comfort zone with those who are nearly 180 degrees away from them on the religious spectrum. As for Chabad, the fastest spreading American Jewish experience, in many localities it feeds off this phenomenon, something that it is loathe to acknowledge.

Given the huge emotional and financial investment in the notion that labeling something as Jewish is sufficient to make it Jewish, the prospect is for Judaism to be defined further downward.

What is happening is not entirely unique in Jewish history. What makes the contemporary Jewish experience distinctive is the scale, the number of persons who accept the view that the label alone can serve as a surrogate for Jewish substance. Aside from halachic or Jewish legal considerations, this is a fascinating sociological development. It also poses a challenge, intellectual and practical, to those who continue to believe in what Judaism has meant over the centuries.

One day, long after most of us are gone, there will be greater clarity and it will be obvious that much of what was promoted as legitimately Jewish was a mirage, that inflated numbers and activities not moored in our heritage forged perceptions that distorted the reality. For now, we live in the present and act in the present and the present reality is that the mirage is accepted by most American Jews as real.