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10 Cheshvan 5763 - October 16, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly
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Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
The Demography and the Reality of the Jewish People

The first findings were released last week from the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) 2000-2001. Based on the latest techniques, generously funded and richly detailed, it is without a doubt the best picture available of American Jewry as a whole. Unfortunately, because of the perspective of those who are behind it, the community that it depicts is not the Am Hashem, the people of which it is said that they are one with Hashem and the Torah.

The Jewish population that it studied is an aging, shrinking population. The median age (the midpoint in the age distribution) rose from 37 in 1990 to 41 in 2000, meaning that it increased four years over the past ten. This is the converse of the fact that there are very few children: children make up only 19 percent of the population. In the overall US population, 26 percent are children, and this is itself a low proportion. Women in the survey who are in their early 40s have had average of only 1.8 children, which is significantly below the replacement level of 2.1. The figures get worse as one considers younger ages. Most of the surveyed women in their early 30s (52 percent!) had no children, while in comparison only about a quarter of all American women (27 percent) had no children by that age.

The definition of the Jewish community used in the survey casts a very wide net. In addition to those who consider themselves Jewish, it also includes everyone who was born Jewish and does not consider him or herself to belong to another religion. This broad definition masks important internal shifts. Though the overall group declined by only about three percent, those who continue to identify themselves as Jewish declined very sharply. (Here we use figures from the American Jewish Identity Survey (AJIS) released eight months ago and conducted by some of the same researchers.) In 1990 about 80 percent said they were Jewish but only ten years later this figure had fallen to 68 percent!

This does not refer to learning Torah or lighting Shabbos candles, but the most basic identification as being part of the Jewish people. A person who is not willing, even for a harmless, anonymous survey, to fully identify as a Jew, is certainly someone who is "separate from Adas Yisroel, does not do mitzvos with them and does not identify with their troubles and does not fast on their fast days, but rather goes about his business like one of the nations of the world as if he is not of them [the Jewish people]." This description is from the Rambam, Hilchos Teshuvoh, 3:11, and it is one of the categories that is not among the "Yisroel" of whom have a share in Olom Habo.

The sad truth is that more than a quarter of the Jewish population surveyed by NJPS 2000 does not even claim to have a Jewish mother. Hundreds of thousands of those who are married, have a non-Jewish spouse. If we correct for all those who by word or deed have indicated that they are not part of the Am Hashem, we are left with less than 2.5 million in the Jewish community of America.

The true identity of the Jewish people is a mamleches kohanim vegoy kodosh -- we are the representatives of Hashem in the world who show the world that there is a Creator and He has given us the Torah. It is to the hard core who are fully committed to Torah and mitzvos that the rest can be added on. This hard core, we well know, is young, dynamic and growing rapidly. Just how big that hard core is, we may know better when the full data of NJPS is released in November. But we should not let all these big numbers obscure the fact that it is keeping Torah and mitzvos that is the definition, purpose and focus of the Jewish people.


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