Jewish Communal Leaders, Demographic Experts Express Concern over Steady Shrinkage of U.S. Jewish Po
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Jewish Communal Leaders, Demographic Experts Express Concern over Steady Shrinkage of U.S. Jewish Po

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A total of 121 Jewish communal leaders and demographic experts, concerned over the steady shrinkage of the American Jewish population, met at two conferences here from which emerged differences of opinion on the steepness and rapidity of the decline and a variety of proposals for dealing with it, some of which were reported to be in the planning stages or in effect currently.

One of the gatherings, a two-day National Conference on Jewish Population Growth, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, recommended a list of actions which the participants agreed should be undertaken “to remove the roadblocks” to larger Jewish families.

That conference drew 85 representatives of more than 30 national Jewish organizations who agreed that among the forces which threaten Jewish survival — including anti-Semitism, assimilation and mixed marriage — “The low fertility rate of Jewish families, which is lower than that of American families as a whole, is most fundamental.”

On the day after that conference, 36 members of the Jewish Population Think Tank, sponsored by the Commission on Synagogue Relations of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, met at the Federation to examine the same problem.


After the two-day conference, seven proposals were listed by Yehuda Rosenman, director of the AJCommittee’s communal affairs department, and Dr. Steven Bayme, department assistant director, who coordinated the conference, as among the most significant to emerge from the two-day meeting.

They were: Jewish family life education for singles and young married couples; Jewish-sponsored day care centers; opportunity for part-time jobs for both spouses; placing greater value on women’s work as housewives and mothers; mortgage assistance for young couples; discouragement of “living together” by Jewish couples before marriage; and recognition by prospective parents and the Jewish community that childlessness, like the Holocaust, dooms humanity as well as the Jewish community.

Rosenman said the time had come “to underscore the basic truth that increasing the average number of children in Jewish families to three or four” is “an imperative for Jewish survival.”


Dr, Robert Gordis, a leading Conservative rabbi who was chairman of the conference, said he felt that “the synagogue should take the lead in honoring Jewish families by some form of public recognition” and that rabbis generally should promote the goal of three children as the basic minimum for every normal Jewish family.

The best available estimate for the current American Jewish family is 1.6 children per couple, compared with the overall American population of 2.2 children.

Bayme said there will be follow-up efforts, under AJCommittee auspices, “to remove the road-blocks which now make the birth and rearing of children exceedingly difficult in economic and sociological terms. The conference called on all segments of American Jewry, he said, “to undertake the implementation of programs designed to achieve the goal of increased Jewish family growth which will enhance the quality of our lives as human beings, Jews and Americans.”

Judith Zimmerman, an author and lecturer, was chairperson for the conference of the Federation Think Tank on Population, which was attended by 36 leaders to analyze the implications of a population study presented to them by sociologist Fred Massarik of the University of California at Los Angeles, who directed the first National Jewish Population Study in 1970-71 under auspices of the Council of Jewish Federations.

The new Massarik study, “Assessing Jewish Survival: Considering the Evidence, 1971-1981,” synthesized Jewish population data for the decade and made some projections for the future, as well as recommendations, Ms. Zimmerman said.


One of Massarik’s basic conclusions, from his evaluation of many studies, including the National Jewish Population Study, was more moderate than views expressed by others on the subject forecasting a rapid decline in the size of the Jewish population to a very small number.

Massarik concluded that “while there may be occasional small incremental rises in the birthrate in the United States Jewish population, these will be building on a gradual consistent forward slope in total Jewish population size. ” He reported that the existing evidence “suggests a continuing moderate Jewish population loss” in this country.

Demographer Paul Ritterand of New York urged the importance of establishing a “normative climate” for acceptance of larger Jewish families. William Kahn, Federation executive vice president, said he was “optimistic that we, the Jewish organizational leadership, can implement policies — such as paternity leaves — which will foster this climate and make an impact on people’s decisions to have an enjoyable family life.”

Responding to information that the Jewish population has slipped in one decade from three percent of the world’s population to 2.6 percent, Dr. Jacob Ukeles, the Federation’s community services executive director, told the conference that “it is imperative that we do all that we can to stop” the decline or to keep the Jewish population level “constant.”


Ms, Zimmerman declared that the organized Jewish community, “rather than countering the general trend toward two children and Zero Population Growth” among American Jews, “has instead added considerably to the problem.”

She commented that books and audio-visual materials used in Jewish schools of all forms carry “the same illustrative message: a third child is almost never present. Rather there are two children, sometimes one and sometimes none.”

She stressed that the task force was acting to organize proposals to increase the Jewish birthrate for submission, approval and funding by the Federation.

Ms. Zimmerman reported that the Federation initially provided $100,000 in 1982 to get a city-wide Jewish day care program started. She told the conference that “we are refining our priorities into recommendations in presenting them to the Communal Planning Committee” which she described as the Federation unit which puts such recommendations “into more definitive form for approval by the Federation Board of Trustees. “She stressed that the Task Force was engaged in efforts to have its recommendations implemented rather than simply recommended.

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