Wednesday, October 09, 2002
The NJPS 2000-01 study is out. I'm sure you've all been waiting with bated breath. In any event, some thoughts.
The results are unsurprising. The Jewish population has declined slightly over the past 10 years. It is concentrated in the Northeast. Jews are slightly older and slightly richer than the population at large; these statistics are not uncorrelated. It is also vastly better educated on average (twice the proportion of bachelors degrees and nearly five times the proportion of graduate degrees) and considerably less poor (about 2/3 the low-income percentage of the general population - this, along with age, should explain most if not all of the slight edge in median income).
And, the least surprising result, Jews are significantly intermarried with the general population, and have significantly fewer children than the general population. I suspect that Jewish fertility rates are comparable to that portion of the general population with comparable education rates; most graduate students and young professionals delay childbearing, and delays in childbearing are the primary cause of low fertility. I also can't see intermarriage as much of a surprise; it is untenable to talk about preventing Jews who are uncommitted religiously not to intermarry. (Data on religious affiliation hasn't been released yet, and will be one of the most interesting parts of the data).
The last version of the study highlighted these same two trends, and set off a flurry of activity on the part of Jewish communal organizations to respond. By the end of the decade, a focus of debate was on whether the community should focus on inreach or outreach. In one camp were those who argued for efforts to get those already strongly identified as Jewish to live a more identified Jewish life - which inevitably means a more religious life. In another camp were those who argued for efforts to bring marginal Jews into the mainstream, and particularly to do outreach to already intermarried couples, with a view to keeping them inside the Jewish fold.
I've never understood why in theory this should be a choice. I also am very skeptical of too self-conscious efforts to proselytize. I believe strongly in the Jewish obligation to perform keruv, or "bringing close." And it is not only Jews who must be "brought close" but non-Jews also, with the difference that Jews are to be encouraged to return to their specific obligations as Jews whereas both Jews and non-Jews are to be encouraged to lead a more godly life. This being the case, what possible objection could there be to devoting resources to either inreach or outreach? Indeed, posing the question as one of allocation of "scarce resources" is to undermine the very endeavor. For to do so is to imply that the effort is subordinate to some greater goal, whereas for any legitimate effort of this kind the effort should be a good for its own sake, and should to some extent produce its own resources through the rewards of the activity itself. A sincere effort to bring people closer to G-d will bear fruit. An effort to bring Jews of whatever affiliation or none to closer identification as Jews for the sake of Jewish survival or, even worse, promoting Jewish communal interests will not bear fruit, because the effort itself will telegraph its insincerity and its primary committment to something other than the individuals being ministered to.
I find the kind of data revealed by the report to be fascinating. But in the end, the data are secondary, and the committment is primary.