How Odd of God

I threw myself on my face and cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Alas, Lord YHWH, you are putting an end to the remnant of Israel!”
—Ezekiel 11:13

In 1990, according to the National Jewish Population Survey, there were 4.2 million Jews in America (fewer than Hitler killed in Europe), and that number is shrinking. Even if one adds the 1.1 million people who have at least one Jewish parent but no longer identify themselves as part of any Jewish community, the number of Americans who are Jews is barely over 2 percent, down from 4 percent in 1937. Things are even worse in Europe, where there are under 2 million Jews (down from 10 million in 1939), and some of those are leaving. Bernard Wasserstein, a Fellow of St. Cross College, Oxford, writes in Vanishing Diaspora:

If emigration from the former Soviet Union continues at anything like its present level, only a tiny Jewish residue will remain anywhere in Eastern Europe by the turn of the century. The number of Jews in Europe by the year 2000 would then be not much more than 1 million—the lowest figure since the late Middle Ages.

What is causing this decline? One answer, especially in America, is: success. Like other affluent people, Jews (with the exception of the ultra-Orthodox) are marrying later and having fewer children—currently 1.6 per couple, which is not even a replacement rate. Besides, many of these marriages are to non-Jews, so that the children born in diminished numbers have diminished ties to their grandparents’ community. “Outmarriage,” which was at the low rate of 9 percent before 1965, is now between 53 and 58 percent, which means that more Jews are marrying non-Jews than fellow Jews.

As Arthur Hertzberg puts it in his new book, Jews: The Essence and Character of a People, the living stream of Jewish tradition once ran within constraining banks formed by enemies, which “compelled Jews to remain within their Jewishness.” Jews, “the chosen people,” could not choose their company. They tended to live together in urban neighborhoods (within walking distance of the synagogue), work together (in traditional businesses), take vacations together, play together in their clubs, learn together in their schools. In Portrait of American Jews, the sociologist Samuel Heilman describes the sudden collapse of that whole sustaining structure. Jewish neighborhoods have yielded to suburbanization. Social and economic mobility has widened the pool of prospective spouses. (Alan Dershowitz, in The Vanishing American Jew, recalls how Jewish camps in the Catskills were called matchmaker camps—both he and his brother found brides there.) Rabbinical training has been replaced with secular higher education. Jews make up 21 percent of the faculty at elite schools, and Dershowitz writes, “Depending on the year, somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of the students at Ivy League schools are Jewish.” This explosion into the upper levels of secular education has siphoned off talent that would once have gone into religious learning …

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