Demographic Study Sparks Debate over Predicting the Future

A recent study that projects the shape of the world Jewish community through 2080 has touched off debate among some demographers who question the value of reaching so far into the future.

“Long-term projections from demographers have the same accuracy as economists today predicting the economy 80 years from now,” said Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research.

Because projections are made on the presumption that present conditions will not change, their conclusions have “no value,” he said.

“We cannot predict significant changes over time,” he added. “Their only value is in examining where we are at in the present.”

The findings of a team of scholars from Hebrew University, published last week by the American Jewish Committee in the American Jewish Year Book 2000, predicted that in the next 80 years, America’s Jewish population would decline by one-third to 3.8 million if current fertility rates and migration patterns continue.

In the same period, according to the study, the number of Jews in Israel will likely double, swelling to 10 million.

The study also anticipated a severe decline in the number of Jews in the former Soviet Union. By 2080, the data suggested, the Jewish community there will be virtually wiped out.

Among the study’s conclusions was that Israel would be home to the world’s largest Jewish community as early as 2020, and the majority of the world’s Jews by 2050.

The article, “Prospecting the Jewish Future: Population Projections, 2000-2080″ offers demographic projections for Jewish communities throughout the world in the years 2020 and 2050, as well as 2080. It also offers adjusted scenarios based on changes in fertility rates.

Sergio DellaPergola, chairman of the Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry of Hebrew University, who headed the study, readily concedes that the science of making projections is imprecise and likely to be affected by unforeseen political and technological changes.

But he defends the usefulness of his research.

“Don’t be swept up by the 2080 numbers,” said DellaPergola, whose research team spent three years sifting through hundreds of population studies from around the world.

“Our main interest is in the short term. I do not believe 2020 will be so different than 2000.”

Population projections have long been an important tool in helping governments, international organizations and even local communities plan for the future.

DellaPergola points out that the United Nations, for example, utilizes projections though 2150 to make decisions on how its resources can be best deployed.

Jewish communities, struggling to stretch limited financial resources, are no different, he said.

The study noted in particular the rapidly aging Diaspora community, saying that by the year 2080, more than 40 percent of Diaspora Jews will be 65 and older.

The study warned that Jewish social services to the elderly could be overwhelmed as a result.

“Especially as we see the erosion of younger groups in the Diaspora, there is going to be a tough confrontation between those who want to see more money spent on youth programs and those who want the money to go to the elderly community,” DellaPergola said.

He also suggested that this trend could intensify the current struggle over dividing resources between American Jewry and Israel.

He said he hopes the study will “ring the bell” for Jewish communities, about issues such as these that are looming on the horizon.

Ira Sheskin of the University of Miami, a principal architect of the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, which is currently under way, called the recent projections “a great starting point for discussion.”

But, he added, “Think if this were the year 1900, what could we have predicted? The Holocaust? The State of Israel? The very concept” of projections “is a difficult one.”

Sheskin, DellaPergola and Tobin all agree that at the very least, the study provides a concise snapshot of the current face of world Jewry.

For DellaPergola, creating solutions to the problems they reveal for the future is the next step.

“There is always a chance that a picture that seems negative can be overturned,” said DellaPergola. “But it takes imagination and courage to change.”

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