Demographic time-bomb could decimate Jewish life as we know it

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Bulletin Correspondent

Monday nights for five years, Jewish identity issues were dramatically and amusingly played out on "Northern Exposure," the CBS television series about a New York Jewish doctor living in small-town Alaska.

Was Dr. Joel Fleischman going to live with Maggie O'Connell? If so, would their home be a Jewish one? How do you define who's part of your community, and who can say Kaddish for the dead? And can importing bagels from New York maintain one's Judaism far from the centers of Jewish life?

Fleischman wrestled with those issues, escaped from them, and ultimately returned to New York. "Mazel tov," says Maggie as Joel re-enters the land of his ancestral past, leaving her behind.

The tension between the Jewish doctor and his non-Jewish love interest, and their struggle to accommodate his troubled yet unyielding Jewish identity, may hold a clue to what Jewish life might look like in 50 years here in the "lower 48."

"The decisions we make today, where to allocate money and to what projects, will affect the American Jewish community for generations to come," says Professor Robert Chazan, chair of the department of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University and chair of the Wexner Graduate Fellowships Committee, which funds training for future Jewish leaders.

"To have the greatest impact, however, we must think not five or 10 years down the line, but 25 or 50," he says.

A peek at the future, during this holiday period of reflection, is important as the Jewish community today takes stock of 5755 and assesses its priorities. And despite the fact that the once top-rated "Northern Exposure" was canceled last season, the prognosis about the Jewish future may not be all bad. It just depends upon who you ask.

"When the United States celebrates its Tricentennial in 2076, the American Jewish community is likely to number no more than 944,000 persons, and, conceivably as few as 10,420," Elihu Bergman, the assistant director of the Harvard Center for Population Studies, wrote in Midstream in 1977. At the time, he unleashed a storm of debate and widespread rebuke.

While Jewish sociologists and demographers are split between optimists and pessimists, none of today's pessimists comes close to sounding a Bergman-like death-knoll. But even optimists such as Steven Cohen, a professor at the Melton Center at Hebrew University, predict that in 50 years the 5.8 million strong American Jewish community of 1995 "will be smaller than it is today."

Here are the grim vital statistics:

Half all weddings involving a Jew are to a non-Jew, and that number exceeds two out of three in many "new-frontier communities" such as Los Angeles and Colorado as well as in smaller Jewish communities such as Alaska, where there are 3,000 Jews.

The Jewish population is increasingly moving out of high-density Jewish cities to places where there are fewer Jews, so the interfaith marriage rate is likely to rise even higher. In those interfaith marriages, more than two-thirds of the children are being raised with another religion or no religion.

"Almost all — over nine in 10 by my calculations — of the grandchildren of today's mixed marriages will not identify as Jews," says Cohen.

Intensifying that Jewish demographic time bomb is the lowest fertility rate in the country of any religious group. If there was no interfaith marriage, the community would still be shrinking.

Professor Vivian Klaff of the University of Delaware, a moderate in the demographic debate, projects a Jewish population that will shrink about 15 percent to slightly more than 4 million people in 50 years.

"Lowered fertility combined with an aging population and an increasing level of assimilation is likely to lead to a decline in the population," the professor writes in a forthcoming study of the Jewish family.

And in their new book on Jewish life, "Jews and the New American Scene," Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab predict that "the cohesive body of Jews will not only be a smaller portion of the American population by the middle of the next century, it will be smaller in absolute numbers."

Despite the strong negative trends in Jewish life, however, there are optimistic and youthful voices who contradict the conventional wisdom.

"There will be 7-to-8 million Jews in 50 years," says Abby Holland, 18, the immediate past president of the Reform Movement's National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY).

Her optimism is echoed in different degrees by Andrew Ashkenazi, 17, head of the Hadassah-sponsored Young Judaea youth movement; Eitan Gutin, 18, head of the United Synagogue Youth (USY) of the Conservative movement; and Jeffrey Greenberg, 18, head of the National Council for Synagogue Youth (NCSY), affiliated with the Orthodox Union.

The worst-case scenario, articulated by Greenberg, is that the community will stay about its current size.

"Maybe the academics and the experts are tired, old, cynical, and maybe they have given up on Jewish life, but maybe the 16-, 18- or 22-year-olds haven't," says Gary Tobin, director of the S.F.-based Cohen Center of Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. "I would expect that what you hear from the 16-to-18-year-olds is radically different than what you hear from the 50- and 70-year-olds."

Tobin believes the young Jews are optimistic "because they are the next generation of Jews who aren't going to die. These teens are a cadre of leaders, and their idealism and energy will help mold the Jewish community of the future."

Not everyone is sanguine, however. Peter Geffen, the 1963 USY president and current director of the Israel experience program of the CRB Foundation, says Jews "are sitting on the potential of an enormous demographic crisis that could eat up vast numbers of our people within the next 10 to 15 years."

But, Geffen adds, "the flip side is that I believe as a matter of faith that our tradition has transcendent and practical value. Given exposure, it will speak to the hearts and minds of presently disconnected Jews as long as we spend the next decade focusing our resources."

However, "by the year 2010, if we have not marshaled the human and financial resources to put forward our best face and the highest quality of what we can discern and distill from our tradition that speaks to people's real-life needs, then we would have failed."

Behind some negative trends in Jewish life lies opportunity, says Egon Mayer, the director of the Center for Jewish Studies of the City University of New York and of the Jewish Outreach Institute.

"Effective Jewish outreach can swell the ranks of the Jewish community in a very short space of time by providing networks of inclusion for the 2 million non-Jewish spouses and children of the intermarried that will exist at the beginning of the 21st century," he says.

"By enabling non-Jewish family members to participate and join in Jewish communal activities, they will ultimately come to identify with the life and culture of the Jewish people, resulting in Jewish inclusion and growth."

Applying Mayer's reasoning to Joel Fleischman and Maggie O'Connell of "Northern Exposure," had they married and produced children, they would represent a net gain to the Jewish people — if they raised a Jewish family. Mayor's idea, not accepted as realistic by most experts, may not be far off the mark.

In a forthcoming study of real Alaskan Jews, Bernard Reisman and Joel Reisman of the Cohen Center find that despite low levels of Jewish organizational affiliation and high levels of interfaith marriage in the far north, "younger Jews observe Jewish customs and attach more importance to being Jewish than do older Jews…This finding is especially noteworthy since the rates of intermarriage are also statistically associated but in the opposite direction."

In other words, even though intermarriage is high, it is positively correlated with Jewish pride and observance. Another surprising finding of the study is that among Alaskan Jews, there is a high frequency "with which the non-Jewish spouse acquiesces to the household being considered as Jewish and that children will be reared as Jews."

If we make these patterns the norm in the United States within the next 50 years, then we will defy the prophecies of the demographers and affirm the visions of the youth. But it's a long shot.