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Jewish Agency Institute Struggles with Bleak Demographic Projection

December 5, 2002
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Confronted with statistics indicating that world Jewry is shrinking, officials here are unsure how to respond.

“We have no blueprint of what to do,” the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Sallai Meridor, said at an emergency session of the Jewish Agency’s Institute for Jewish People Policy Planning. “We need policies that will carry out a strategy.”

According to the institute’s statistics, world Jewry is losing an average of 50,000 Jews per year — or 150 Jews every day.

There are now some 12.9 million Jews in the world, according to the institute’s statistics, down from earlier estimates that put the total at 13.2.

According to the institute, which convened the three-day emergency session this week to address what it called the “demographic crisis” of world Jewry, the number of American Jews dropped by 300,000 in the last decade to 5.2 million, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01. Other major Jewish communities around the world also declined.

Only Israel’s Jewish community is growing, the institute said.

Meridor called the declines “appalling,” saying the figures represented “a point of no return.”

France, for example, has seen its Jewish community decline to 500,000 from 535,000 in 1980.

In the former Soviet Union, the total has plummeted to 437,000 from 1.45 million — though much of that is due to the fact that 1 million Jews left the former Soviet Union for Israel in the past decade.

The figures may not be universally accepted, however. For example, other estimates of the number of Jews in the former Soviet Union run as high as 3 million.

Just the same, Jewish demographer Sergio Della Pergola was troubled by the institute’s figures.

There were 8,000 deaths of elderly Jews in Russia last year and just 600 births, Della Pergola said, reflecting “the end of a long process of assimilation and aging.”

The bleak demographic picture makes it necessary to strategize and plan for the future of the Jewish people, institute officials said.

Serving as the institute’s co-chairman is Dennis Ross, former Clinton administration envoy to the Middle East and now director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Ross has called for “mapping” and identifying different populations to find what creates a sense of Jewish identity.

“How do you make being Jewish attractive?” he asked. “We have to do a survey and see what programs work and which didn’t.”

Jewish day schools, camps and Israel trips create bonds and immerse children in an intense Jewish experience, Ross said. But the cost of day schooling is prohibitive, he noted.

Meridor said that the cost of day school is one of several issues that deter Jews from remaining involved and active in the community: A family with three children in day schools, for example, could pay close to $60,000 each year for tuition.

That can have two effects, Meridor said: Jews who are less affiliated may decide not to pay those kinds of prices, and affiliated Jews who want to send their children to day school may decide to have fewer children.

Yet Ross noted that Jewish day schools in America are experiencing a growth spurt that is “nothing short of phenomenal.”

Still, he added, “it has to be more accessible to more people.”

Jewish education is one way of keeping Judaism secure, agreed deputy prime minister Natan Sharansky. But it is no substitute for immigration to Israel.

“We need to attract people to come here because of the quality of Jewish life here,” Sharansky told the conference. “We are a warm Jewish home.”

Meridor described aliyah as a major Jewish growth tool, calling it a “vital need, like water in the faucet.”

He called for a more lenient attitude toward non-Jewish immigrants, primarily Russians who are eligible for aliyah because of a Jewish parent, grandparent or spouse.

For Meridor, non-Jewish immigrants who are willing to become Jews offer one solution to the disturbing demographic numbers.

By easing the conversion process for them, Israel will enable significant immigration from Jewish families that include non-Jewish members, Meridor said.

Conversion still should be the only “gateway to the Jewish people,” he said, but only as long as religious values do not endanger national needs.

A continuing problem in converting non-Jewish immigrants is the insistence of several parties in the government that only Orthodox conversions can be accepted in Israel. Such conversions often include a promise that the convert will lead a fully Orthodox life, which many non-Jewish immigrants are unwilling to do.

With some 250,000 Russian immigrants considered non-Jews under Jewish law, other groups are looking to ease the immigration and conversion process.

“We need to let people know that it’s not an easy process, but that they need to do it,” said Sharansky. “It’s for the sake of the Jewish people.”

Funded with $1 million annually from the Jewish Agency and Jewish philanthropists, the institute was founded in May to create position papers that identify problems facing world Jewry and make recommendations to solve them.

The institute’s board of directors and its partners — the Jewish Agency and the United Jewish Communities umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations — then will try to put any plans into effect.

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