In May 1964, Look magazine ran a cover story ominously headlined “The Vanishing American Jew.” Jews in the United States, the article predicted, would disappear by the year 2000. The popular magazine folded seven years later, and despite numerous dire predictions based on assimilation trends and intermarriage surveys, America’s Jews didn’t disappear. In fact, over the last decade, a counter-narrative—backed by numerous studies—has emerged, challenging the idea that the American Jewish population is in danger of extinction, questioning the notion that there is a single accepted definition of Jewishness and disputing that intermarriage is an existential threat to Jewish continuity. The Pew Research Center’s 2013 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” expanded the intensity of the debate over what it means to be Jewish, how to measure the pulse of American Jewry and what the American Jewish future holds.
This issue’s symposium asks: What will the Jewish community look like in 2050, and what trends should demographers be focusing on to find out? Since Jewish trends can’t be separated from larger geopolitical ones, it also explores international dimensions of the Jewish demographic future. We include Israel, where the debate about the future of the Jewish people is at least as vigorous as in the United States. Unlike in the U.S., where sample surveys are conducted by nongovernmental entities, Israel collects official data on the religious groupings, fertility rates, education trends and population movements of Jewish and Arab Israelis, Palestinians and Bedouins—all of which are relevant for determining the character of the Jewish state.
We have assembled some of the most eminent demographers, historians, sociologists, geographers and other prescient observers of Jewish life. Despite the oft-cited Talmudic disclaimer that “since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children,” they agreed to share their insights for this symposium.
Sarah Bunin Benor / David Biale / Steven M. Cohen / Alan Cooperman / Arnold Dashefsky / Anita Diamant / Sylvia Barack Fishman / Samuel Heilman / William Helmreich / Bethamie Horowitz / Ari Y. Kelman / Barry A. Kosmin / Sergio Della Pergola / Leonard Saxe / Ira Sheskin / Arnon Soffer
Arnold Dashefsky & Ira Sheskin
Everybody keeps saying that Jews are assimilating. Yet all three methods that currently are being used to count Jews are finding more Jews than there were 25 years ago. We have three estimates of the number of Jews in the United States using three different methods. The Pew Research Center used random digit dialing nationwide and came up with about 6.7 million. In the American Jewish Year Book, we estimate, based on local Jewish community studies and other methods, 6.8 million. The Cohen Center at Brandeis, which takes a whole bunch of surveys that ask questions about religion, is coming up with 7.1 million. All three of those estimates are within a relatively good range of one another. Although each uses a different operational definition of Jewish identity, they all use the same sociological definition: “One is Jewish who defines oneself as Jewish and is accepted by others as Jewish.”
It isn’t just the number of Jews in various communities that makes us optimistic about the Jewish future; it is the infrastructure of the American Jewish community. There are 145 Jewish Federations, more than 200 Jewish Community Centers, 750 national Jewish organizations and 100 Jewish museums today. Fifty years ago, there were a handful of Jewish museums. There are now 165 Holocaust museums, 155 Jewish overnight camps, 139 national Jewish publications and about 3,500 synagogues. If the number of Jews dropped to half a million, we would have tremendous difficulty running a community, and many Jewish institutions would close. But as long as there are a reasonable number of Jews and a reasonable number of them are dedicated to seeing this Jewish enterprise continue, we can be confident that it will continue.
Over the past 50 years, we’ve seen two important trends: The geographical dispersion of Jews and increased intermarriage. These trends are likely to continue. However, high internet usage links Jews in tiny communities and intermarried couples to an amazing number of websites to access information, interact with various parts of the American Jewish community, find community and keep up with what’s going on in Israel.
In response to those who say that young people are “distancing” themselves from the Jewish community, a better description is “differencing.” We have a lot of people today who are part Jewish. They have more than one identity. We also have people who are simply being Jewish in different ways than they were 50 years ago. The 2014 Miami study sponsored by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation found that 44 percent of adults under the age of 35 are taking classes or learning about Jewish topics informally through the internet, on their own and with friends. Also, there are hundreds of Jewish book fairs, Jewish film festivals and Jewish music festivals. You can run an Israel Independence Day celebration in Broward County and get tens of thousands of people to come. Some of these people are involved in synagogues. Most of them are not. People are being Jewish in different ways. It might not be the absolute core of their identity, but it is at least part of it.
Two final positive measures are how people feel about being Jewish and how non-Jews feel about Jews. The 2013 Pew report asked the question, are you proud of being Jewish? Overall, 94 percent answered “yes.” Even for those who had no religious identification, 86 percent claimed to be proud to be Jewish. A 2014 Pew study asked a representative sample of Americans how warmly they felt about other religious groups. Jews rated the highest. You might even argue that some people intermarry with Jews as a form of upward mobility. These broader transformations provide evidence for some more optimistic conclusions about the future of American Jewish life.
Arnold Dashefsky is an emeritus professor of sociology and director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at the University of Connecticut. He is coeditor of the American Jewish Year Book.
Ira Sheskin is a professor and chair of the Department of Geography at the University of Miami. He is coeditor of the American Jewish Year Book.
Barry A. Kosmin
Counting Jews is like holding jello: It’s hard to get your hands around it. The problem with the Jews is that they’re not just a biological population. It’s not only about births and deaths. For the past few hundred years, Jews have been battered by the locomotive of history. What really makes the difference is political events—wars and revolutions and migrations. Moreover, the majority of Jews alive today live on a different continent and speak a different language from what their great-grandparents spoke. That’s a particularly Jewish phenomenon.
Social boundaries are the key issue. There’s a tremendous debate among demographers over who is a Jew. One person’s Jew is another person’s Gentile. What’s growing, what’s declining, what’s Jewish, what’s not Jewish? There’s a lot of self-certification. People without formal attachment say they’re Jewish. Some people we regard as Jewish say they’re not Jewish. If my child joins the Hare Krishnas, does he still count as Jewish? If he joins the Mormons, probably less so. If he joins Jews for Jesus, what then?
To properly assess trends, you actually need the whole movie, not just a photograph. The Jewish demography debate tends to focus primarily on the composition of the 20 percent on the periphery. It’s also mostly about young people, who matter for the future. If you look at intermarried people today, you only see half the picture, because you don’t meet all the people who were previously Jewish who no longer sign up for being Jewish.
We live in complicated times. In 1990, studying intermarriage was about marriages. Today, large numbers of people are in relationships. Some are having children. Single people are having children. Gay couples are having children. Some of those are Jewish. Is the child adopted? Is it biological? Which partner is the biological Jew? It used to be binary, Jew and Gentile. Now we have an alphabet soup: JBCs (Jews by Choice), JBRs (Jews by Religion) and JNRs (Jews with No Religion). It’s not a demographer’s job to determine who is a Jew, but rather to identify these categories for those who make community policy.
Barry A. Kosmin is a research professor of public policy and law and founding director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
We do not have the kinds of data needed to make a halfway reasonable guess at what the Jewish community will look like in 2050. For example, there have been no studies about the role and impact of people who have converted to Judaism. We have lots of anecdotes, but no research. I fear that much of the data we collect is still colored by a lot of assumptions about what it means to be Jewish. Are we talking about a halachic or legal designation? Looking at congregational membership and other kinds of affiliation as primary indicators of “Jewishness” might not be relevant for a generation that tends not to join organizations—not just Jewish organizations, but any organizations.
Then there is the still-rampant assumption that intermarriage is an existential threat. When I hear Jewish leaders say, “Intermarriage is an opportunity, not a crisis,” it often sounds like they’re trying to talk themselves into believing it. Again, there’s not a lot of data, but in Boston, at least, it appears that a community-wide commitment to embracing families that include a Jewish and a non-Jewish parent has increased the number of those connecting to Judaism in measurable ways.
Predicting the future is a fool’s errand, but I’m pretty confident that the American Jewish community will look quite different in 50 years. Like the rest of the American population, we will be more racially and ethnically diverse, thanks to conversion, interracial marriage and interracial adoption, and the immigration of non-white, non-Western Jews. We have always been a racially and ethnically diverse people; perhaps by 2050, we will finally be able to see the beauty and strength in that reality.
Anita Diamant is the author of five novels, including The Red Tent, and six guides to contemporary Jewish life. Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Families and Friends was recently updated in a new edition by Schocken Books.
I’ve often said—and I’m not the only one—that a little anti-Semitism, or at least anxiety about it, can go a long way in ensuring the Jewish future. In some ways, being loved to death via assimilation, as we have been in America, is more dangerous than being hated. And who can predict what impact the explosion of anti-Semitic and racist expression during and after the recent presidential election will have on the future of Jews and Jewish life in America? Everything that follows could change.
There are certain things, however, I think it is safe to predict. One is that Jewish identity will continue to have meaning for people, but not necessarily the same meaning for all the people who call themselves Jewish. And the idea that there is a single Jewish people, if it ever really existed, is unlikely to persist. I think the idea of Jewish distinctiveness in America is something that will diminish. There will be some Jews who are highly distinctive—mostly haredi Orthodox—and they will continue to claim to speak for all Jews and to define themselves as the most authentic.
But there will be other Jews, likely the majority, for whom that whole debate is rather meaningless, who will consider their Jewish identity as something largely symbolic—their cultural heritage and their origins, but not necessarily coincident with purely religious or ethnic identity. That will mean that Jewish character and identity will be contested by different parts of the Jewish world. That, alas, means that Israeli and American Jews are likely to move further apart—something we can see already (except among the Orthodox).
Who the leaders of the Jewish community in America are will be much more open and ambiguous than it already is. Spokespersons and leaders for the majority will be hard to find, since being Jewish will not be the essential or core element of who they are. The attachment to their Jewish identity and to Israel, as we already see, is declining precipitously among young people and those who identify themselves as “just Jewish” in recent surveys. That will widen the gap between the growing Orthodox minority and all other Jews. It will be difficult for the Jews to act as a collective community in their relationship to the state and to institutions of the state, because the state won’t know who speaks for the Jews. For the majority, the role of rabbi will be less important. As more people who are not halachically Jewish call themselves Jews, rabbis will increasingly have to figure out what rabbinic leadership means.
To the outside world, it looks like the Orthodox are ascendant in American Jewish life. But this is because, increasingly, the Orthodox are the only Jews who see being Jewish as essential to who they are and are still interested in things manifestly Jewish. Other Jews are more interested in less parochial and more cosmopolitan issues. That leaves the Orthodox and people for whom Jewish identity is central to who they are and how they present themselves as the people who speak for and as Jews. That’s why so many politicians who look to speak with and to the interests of Jews commonly look for photo ops with rabbis with long beards, Jewish organizational leaders or Israeli politicians—even though those people do not really represent the majority of Jews. But that’s not because they’re in the ascendancy in numbers. It’s that they’re the only ones left in the Jewish building.
Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York, is the author of the forthcoming book Who Will Lead Us? The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America.
On a variety of measures, the percentage of Jews outside the Orthodox world who call themselves atheists is very high. This includes members of synagogues and participants in Jewish institutions. This puts the many Jews who have a nonreligious identification outside the American mainstream, which is not particularly secular.
There also is a struggle within Israel between the secular, nationalist Zionist tradition and various types of religious forces, some of which are actually anti-Zionist and some of which are hyper-Zionist, such as the settler movement. That struggle has spilled over into the American Jewish community. It has, in my judgment, poisoned our culture, so that people will no longer talk to each other. It would be interesting to project forward 33 years, because if the territories remain a part of Israel and yet the Palestinian Arabs living there do not have citizenship—my definition of an apartheid situation—it will fracture American Jews. Some will identify with it and say it’s perfectly fine, while others will be very disaffected. And the sort of opposition you get now, which is somewhat marginal in groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace (which is sometimes profoundly anti-Zionist), will become more and more acceptable. Israel has served as a unifying force for earlier generations, but that’s going to be less true. People will have to find other ways to identify or they won’t identify at all.
David Biale, professor of Jewish history at the University of California-Davis, is the author of Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought.
Sylvia Barack Fishman
The vast majority of American Jews today are more comfortable with and proud of their Jewishness than at any other time in the modern era. But if you look closely at the American Jewish community, particularly at younger Jews and specifically non-haredi Orthodox Jewish adults between 25 and 49, as Steve Cohen and I did in analyzing the 2013 Pew report, you see two trends that are going to be more pronounced as the years pass. We see a very substantial minority who are creating Jewish homes and raising Jewish children and feel connected with Israel, even though some of them might feel critical of Israel. And then we see another, larger group that is much more weakly connected to Jews and Jewishness and might not even have strong feelings about Jewishness or Israel. Those in the second group who are not married or are married to people who aren’t Jewish, or do not say that their homes are Jewish, are prominent in the group that is much less likely to have children, and if they do have children, they are much less likely to say they are raising them as Jews. Those who say they are raising their children as Jewish by religion are much more involved with every kind of Jewishness you could measure. People always think about how much parents influence children, but it turns out that having kids in any kind of Jewish school has a profound impact on the parents as well.
So, what experiences made the first group more likely to create Jewish families? We found that being involved with Jewish educational settings as teenagers was key to how Jewishly involved they were in college and as young single adults after college. Jewish educational experiences in college—such as Jewish studies classes, informal educational experiences in Hillel and Birthright Israel—also make a big difference in later attachments. These patterns are likely to become more pronounced in the future. People in conventional Jewish families will have more Jewish children and give them more Jewish education. By 2050, they’ll be grown up, they’ll have families of their own and the pattern will repeat itself. Conversely, the group that doesn’t have those Jewish educational experiences as teenagers will tend to marry late, not marry, marry non-Jews, not have children—or if they do, one child—and will be much less likely themselves to be Jewishly connected and much less likely to produce children who will be strongly connected Jewishly tomorrow.
Sylvia Barack Fishman is the Joseph and Esther Foster Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life at Brandeis University, codirector of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and author of eight books on American Jewish life.
However you play around with the numbers, the outlook—not only for the Jewish community, but for Israel’s survival—doesn’t look good. Those who take comfort in the growth of the Orthodox community should realize that an unknown percentage of them defect. If this were not happening, then, given their high birthrate, they would already have been at least 50 percent of the total Jewish population. Let’s also not forget that nonobservant Jews are assimilating and intermarrying at an alarming rate, thus decreasing their numbers. I do know anecdotally that a certain percentage of Hasidic Jews defect. Also, in the yeshiva community, there are families in which up to half the children are not observant. But the defection rate in the Orthodox community is not easily accessed and hasn’t been studied sufficiently.
In truth, Jews are disappearing as a people. And how strongly do most of them identify? Tikkun olam? Every compassionate, liberal-minded person, regardless of religion, believes in that. There’s nothing uniquely Jewish about it. Nothing is more emblematic of the underlying problem than AIPAC’s spending $30 million to defeat the Iran deal. At the end of the day, eight of the ten Jewish senators voted for the deal. If AIPAC’s strong efforts can’t even get a majority of Jewish senators, that bodes very badly for the future of the American Jewish community. We are counting them as Jews, but we’re not understanding who they are. What constitutes a healthy Jewish identity is changing dramatically. In my view, it’s weakening. Fifteen years ago, nobody would have questioned voting against this deal. Basically, American Jews’ basic identity is liberal. That’s fine, but there’s nothing particularly Jewish about it.
William Helmreich is a professor of sociology at the City College of New York. He is the author of The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry, and The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City.
The study of population trends—though they are important to track—misses out on a more crucial understanding of the state of the Jews in America. We need to expand our studies of the nature of Jewishness and the various ways it is expressed in the American context. The socio-demographic study model of a once-in-ten-years survey doesn’t take enough account of the context in which Jewishness is expressed. For example, the stage of one’s life and the particular moment in history in which one lives make an enormous difference in how an individual relates to his or her Jewishness. The 2016 presidential election is a case in point. Post-election American Jews are more attuned to dangers in the environment. A model that presumes that a person’s “Jewishness” does not change and proceeds to measure how much the person’s Jewishness departs from a preconceived standard of what is a good Jew fails to capture the fact that one’s Jewishness is activated, in positive and negative ways, by the environment and changes over time. We need to be more finely attuned to those nuances as we study Jews in America. By the year 2050, I hope that the models for studying a person’s Jewishness will evolve to incorporate more sophisticated and finely honed approaches.
Today, a lot of the research being done in the Jewish world is programmatically driven (evaluations of philanthropic initiatives, for example) and as a result, we are missing the new developments, particularly new ways of expressing Jewishness, that are happening around us. I believe that going forward, Israel will be less the central focus of American Jewish life. American Jewish culture—Jewish literature, filmmaking, investigation of Jewish history, social justice practices, giving circles, klezmerfests and so on, along with new expressions of Jewish religiosity—will take its place. Some of these developments are likely to be very different from what we can anticipate today. One hopes that by that time, research will be able to reflect the new realities of the American Jewish landscape and have the communal support to do so.
Bethamie Horowitz, a socio-psychologist, is a research assistant professor of Jewish education at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University.
Steven M. Cohen
Straight-line projections are often wrong. But longstanding tendencies often continue. The growth in Orthodoxy (in parallel with the strength of fundamentalist Christian groups in America) seems very likely to continue into the mid-21st century. One strong indicator: Orthodox Jews are just 5 percent of the Jewish baby boomers but are 35 percent of Jewish children under age five. In parallel, owing to massive intermarriage and to widespread acceptance of Jews in the larger society, we’re also seeing an explosive growth of the “marginally connected,” that is, people who recognize that they’re Jewish and have some Jewish ancestry. They feel Jewish and are proud to be Jewish, but don’t have much involvement with Jewish life, don’t have other co-ethnics as their friends and don’t join institutions. In between the Orthodox and the Jews-by-feeling is the Jewish Middle (Jews who participate in Jewish life outside of Orthodoxy). For the most part, they’re engaged Conservative and Reform Jews. Regrettably, in parallel with mainline Protestants and Anglo-Catholics, their numbers have diminished rapidly and will likely continue to do so in the decades to come.
Today’s young adult Jews who are Jewishly connected but not Orthodox foreshadow the coming strength and weakness in Jewish life. By and large, these connected and committed younger Jews are uncomfortable with strong group boundaries that seem to privilege Jews over others. They disdain normative preference for in-marriage, connections with Jewish friends and the Jewish State of Israel (with all its problems of intolerance and the occupation), or anything that seems tribalistic. Future research should examine instruments of Jewish education such as overnight camps, Israel travel, campus rabbis (particularly non-Orthodox, who are now found in small numbers), Jewish preschools, conversion opportunities (be they rabbinic or personal) and innovations for Jewish young adults such as Moishe Houses. An area of current and probably ongoing concern: How do you keep Jews engaged with Israel and at the same time allow politically liberal Jews to sharply criticize anti-democratic, theocratic and ultra-nationalist tendencies in the Israeli polity? Without an inspirational Israel, we lack a major pillar of collective Jewish purpose, passion and commitment.
Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist, is a research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford University.
There is a lot of debate over whether intermarriage is increasing or decreasing the Jewish population. The 2013 Pew study showed that the number of haredi Jews is growing, fueled by high birthrates, while at the other end of the spectrum, the number of “Jews of no religion” is growing because of “switching” and, to some extent, intermarriage. The traditional Jewish middle—the Conservative and Reform movements—is still large but appears to be shrinking, at least in percentage terms. The American Jewish population is stable or growing slowly, but declining as a portion of the overall U.S. population.
Although the rate of intermarriage was steady during the years 2000-2013, at six in ten (58 percent), there is considerable room for the rate of intermarriage to grow. Even though the rate of intermarriage is historically high, one could argue that the rate still is low, considering that Jews are only 2 percent of the U.S. population and the random likelihood of a Jew marrying another Jew would be one in 50. In fact, the rate of in-marriage is a lot higher than that. The rate of intermarriage for non-Orthodox Jews is 72 percent. And for the rapidly growing group of Jews who identify themselves as Jews of no religion, the rate is 79 percent.
In-married Jews are much more likely to raise their children as Jews by religion (96 percent), whereas just 20 percent of intermarried couples said they were raising their children as Jewish by religion, and 37 percent said they were not raising their children as Jewish. On the other hand, more than half (63 percent) of those who intermarried said that they were raising their children Jewish in some way. An increasing proportion of the children of Jewish intermarriages are choosing as young adults to identify as Jewish. So there is some evidence to support both sides of the debate.
Alan Cooperman is the director of religion research at the Pew Research Center and conducted the 2013 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” study.
Demography is not destiny. The size of the future Jewish population is not a fixed outcome of the Jewish birthrate; the character of the population is yet to be shaped, not molded by your family’s denomination. Who, and how many of us, there are is going to depend on how the Jewish community responds to the challenges of 21st-century life.
Consider how much demographic change has occurred in less than a generation. For the post-war Baby Boomer generation, and the Gen Xers who followed them, intermarriage was a genuine threat to Jewish continuity. Only about 30 percent of the children of intermarried parents born between 1945 and 1980 identify as Jews when they become adults. That rate doubled for millennial children of intermarriage. It happened in part because the Reform movement welcomed non-Jewish partners and the children of intermarried parents. And it happened because the Jewish community, in response to the findings of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), invested money and ideas in Jewish education.
The 1990 NJPS estimated that there were approximately 5.5 million Jews in the United States. Using similar criteria to identify who is Jewish, the U.S. Jewish population is now 7.2 million. Until recently, nearly as many Jews were ceasing to identify as Jews as we were gaining by Jewish immigration and the birthrate of some sectors of the population. But a shift is underway and the population is now steadily increasing. Intermarriage, rather than being a source of negative growth, is contributing to an increase in the population.
As Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” But what can be said with some confidence is that the number of Jews is as much a function of the size and intensity of the Jewish education system as any of the current demographic facts. My simple prediction is that if Jewish education continues to be enhanced and transformed, the future is bright. We’ll see many more people who identify as Jews and many more Jews who understand and appreciate the richness of Jewish cultural and religious life. The future is in our hands to shape.
Leonard Saxe is a professor of contemporary Jewish studies and directs the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University.
The history of the Jewish people depends on global geopolitics. And this will bring surprises. We all love Venice, Rome and Paris, but Europe will be a different place and the changes will be linked with what will occur in Africa and the Middle East. Africa’s population today is around 1.1 billion and by 2050, there will be more than two and a half billion people there. Global warming will be a catastrophe worldwide, but initially Africa will suffer the most. Another sad story is, of course, the Middle East. I’m smiling because I’m crying. Egypt is going through a terrible catastrophe now with 90 million people, but can you imagine how the country will be able to supply enough food and water in 2050? Europe will turn brown and black, receiving migrants from the east, southeast and south. Jews will not tolerate this and will leave Europe. Around 8.5 percent of Jews today live in Europe. By 2050, it will be no more than 5 percent.
Here is my vision of where the Jewish people will live in 2050: Israel will be the core. In 2010, 42 percent of the global Jewish population was in Israel. In 2050, Israel will be 58 percent of the Jewish population, while Jews in Canada and the United States will account for around 38 percent, or possibly much lower.
Most people don’t realize that Israel is already nearly the most densely populated country in the Western world. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics estimates a population of 16 million by 2059. Today, the Negev desert is 60 percent of Israel’s land, but it will increase to 70 percent because of climate change. Also, and this may be surprising, half of Israel is reserved for military land use. We are reaching the red line in Israel of physical carrying capacity. And another surprise: This year, the numbers of Jews and Palestinians in Greater Palestine are equal. Today there are three million Arabs in the West Bank, two million in Gaza, and 1.5 or 1.7 million in Israel. And the Arabs will soon be the majority. Arab fertility rates are declining in the Middle East at large and in Israel. But the death rate of Arabs is very low because it is such a young population. When you make the calculation, the Jewish people will increase 1.5 percent annually, and the Israeli-Arab population will grow at 2.2 percent. And let us also look at the Bedouin. Soon they will be half a million, or 25 percent of the total Arab population in Israel.
As a secular Jew, my very sad prediction is that we will have a religious state and will annex the Palestinian lands. Israel may not be Jewish as we understand it. There is no real difference in politics between the national religious Jews and the ultra-Orthodox. Both will force the secular to stay in Israel under their rules or to leave. More and more secular Israelis will leave for China, India, Australia and maybe the United States. They will leave and be replaced by religious Jews. Sure, we might still have the secular “state” of Tel Aviv. But we cannot survive if the rest of the country is majority religious Zionist, ultra-Orthodox and Arab.
One more surprise. I can see 200,000 or about 1.2 percent of the total Jewish population living mainly in China in Beijing and Shanghai, and in India, in particular, New Delhi. Africa has no hope and South African Jews will decline radically. And Oceana—Australia and New Zealand—today at 1 percent, could double its Jewish population to as many as 300,000.
Arnon Soffer is a retired professor of geography and environmental sciences in the Department of Geography at the University of Haifa, an institution that he helped found.
Sergio della Pergola
Because of population shifts, Israel will become more influential in the Jewish world. And it isn’t just that there’ll be more haredim. Other parts of Israel will produce other leaders in Jewish thought, ideas and culture. Israel might take up the duty to help some smaller Jewish communities in the U.S., which it has already begun to do. This is a historical shift in the power model.
The biggest demographic equation in Israel is that of Jews and Palestinians, Israel and a Palestinian state, Jews and Arabs, majority and minority. This is the most crucial issue in Israel, which the present government is simply ignoring, and this attitude, in my view, is totally wrong. The meaning of Israel is to be the state of the Jews, and to be the state of the Jews you need a conspicuous Jewish majority. The frontiers of that state must include a population that is overwhelmingly Jewish. Today, the minority is about 20 percent. If you include the West Bank and Gaza, then there is no Jewish majority. A 50/50 society is not a Jewish state. Eighty/twenty, you can say it is Jewish. Sixty/forty, if you don’t incorporate Gaza, is a statistical majority, but not sustainable in terms of the identity of the state. We have examples like this in Cyprus, Kosovo versus Serbia, Lebanon, Guyana, etc. Israeli political consultant Yoram Ettinger, who is not a demographer, says the number of Palestinians is exaggerated, and that there are 1.1 million fewer Palestinians than what is reported. That’s not true. He is saying this for political reasons. In the Knesset, a number of Likud party members rely on him, so they can say, “There is no demographic issue, so we can keep every square centimeter of the West Bank.”
Also, the old Ashkenazim-versus-Sephardim dichotomy is over. The socioeconomic gaps between these groups exist but are declining. Most of the poor Ashkenazim are recent immigrants from the Soviet Union. But some political parties try to keep the separation and avoid integration. There is a lot of intermarriage between the two groups. Of my four children, three are married, one to a Sephardi, one to an Ashkenazi and the third to a mixture of Ashkenazi and Sephardi. When I ask my grandchildren what my wife and I are, they say we are Jews of Italian origin. When I ask them, “What are you?” They say, “I’m a Jew. I’m an Israeli.”
If one million American Jews make aliyah—you laugh and I laugh—they could have 25 members of Knesset and could pass laws with the help of many Israelis who share their values. In that sense, whatever we expect to happen in the political arena reflects the demographic composition and the will of the people.
Sergio della Pergola is a professor emeritus of Israel-Diaspora Relationsat the Hebrew University’s Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry. He is a specialist in the demography of world Jewry.
Sarah Bunin Benor
People talk about demographic trends generally from one of two approaches—survivalist/traditionalist or transformationalist. Survivalists are concerned about the survival of the people and see any change as a potential negative. Transformationalists see change as just what happens—either neutral or positive. In approaching demographic trends, I am a transformationalist.
The trend that gets discussed the most is intermarriage. This is where I differ from many of my colleagues. I actually think intermarriage is a good thing. I think it brings Jews and non-Jews together in a positive way. It is a sign that Jews are more accepted in American society than they used to be. Also, intermarriage is unavoidable. And talking about it as a disease, something that needs to be fixed, is offensive to the people who choose to marry someone they love. One of my concerns about our demographic studies is that the public reactions to them focus too much on that particular issue, and the way that people talk about intermarried couples is unhelpful and unhealthy.
By 2050, because of intermarriage, a larger percentage of our community will have one parent who wasn’t born Jewish—some converted, some not. With that, we’ll have a lot more racial diversity. We already see that there are more Jews who are black, Latino or Asian, but the sampling of our demographic studies doesn’t include enough of them. To better understand their Jewishness, and that of Jews in general, we need more qualitative research, using interviews and observation.
Sarah Bunin Benor is an associate professor of contemporary Jewish studies at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion.
Ari Y. Kelman
We may have been asking the wrong questions for the last 20 years. We have been asking about identity and affiliation, membership and “engagement,” but we don’t really know about how strongly or weakly people feel that they belong to something called the American Jewish Community. What would happen if you surveyed people, even members of synagogues, about belonging and found that there are very low levels of belonging to something called the American Jewish Community, but at the same time that there were very high levels of belonging to something else? If people feel low levels of belonging to something larger than one’s family or one’s synagogue, then we might not have an American Jewish Community, even though we might have lots and lots of very self-satisfied American Jews.
If we are interested in understanding the strength or health of the American Jewish Community, we should construct scales for measuring belonging and ask these questions. Questions such as “Do you light Shabbat candles?” won’t tell you whether a person feels like a member of a Jewish community. Even if people could explain why they don’t feel like they belong to a Jewish community, that would go a long way toward providing insights for institutions and organizations interested in helping strengthen either the lives of individual Jews or the overall well-being of what we refer to as a “community.”
Ari Y. Kelman is the Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.
Boy, I want to tell you, I have been asking that question to lots and lots of people. Nobody has answered that question. Nobody! It’s unbelievable. Nobody’s even made a stab at it. Today we have half as many Jews going to Temple than were going to Temple a generation ago. We also have about half as many Jews involved with Jewish organizations that we had a generation ago. And then we have less than half supportive of Israel than a generation ago. So it doesn’t take a genius to put all that together as to what the Jewish world is going to look like. we also add to that mix the fact that, outside of the Orthodox faith, 72% of us are intermarrying, and that’s not going to go away. If I can use an expression, the ocean seems rough right now. The tides are going to go up.
But it’s clear there’s an interest in things Jewish. Even if you look at PJ library’s popularity—in North America, we’re sending out approximately 170,000 books every single month and we’re now in 13 countries. PJ Library is an entry point for families, and that connects them to summer camp and that connects them with other Jewish community experiences, and whatever it is, whether it’s a trip to Israel or whatever the community has to offer, we have a robust ecosystem. I believe we will also have a robust community in 30 years. Perhaps it will look different, but still with a strong connection to its values and what it does to then fit your life. Because another thing that we’ve discovered is that people want to get together with one another. They want to meet other Jewish families. They want to form Jewish community in their living rooms, around dinner tables. I use the word “chavurah” in the future of the Jewish world. I think having conversations with people, friends with people, discussion with people, and sharing thoughts with them on very interesting challenge. My fear would be that people take for granted who they are as Jews and don’t pay enough attention to it or understand it or take it for granted. It is something they shouldn’t take for granted. I hope the young families will value that and hold Judaism close to their breasts. I’m very proud to be Jewish, and I want to make sure that opportunity to feel pride happens to all the intermarried families. I want to make sure they all appreciate what Judaism is.
Harold Grinspoon is a philanthropist and the founder of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation as well as its flagship programs PJ Library, JCamp180, and LIFE & LEGACY
Steven A. Rakitt
What will the Jewish world look like in thirty-three years? Let’s go back in time to better understand how different the future will look.
Thirty-three years ago, in 1984, aliyah was front and center in the Jewish world. The struggle for Soviet Jewry was in full swing with rallies, lobbying and bracelets with refusniks’ names worn by thousands, culminating three years later with an enormous March on Washington and extraordinary Soviet Jewish aliyah to Israel. Operation Moses, a secret operation to airlift 8,000 Ethiopian Jews, was launched in November, 1984. These seminal events coalesced Jews in America and around the world with a sense of pride, purpose and passion – directed toward Israel. National and worldwide macro communities were rallying points for identity. In community we sought answers, activism and accomplishment.
By 2050, the Jewish world will continue current trends toward micro – rather than macro – communities. Study after study shows that while American Jews are proud of their identity and their heritage, we are seeking – or not seeking – community in very different ways. Social media links us virtually and globally while our traditional gathering institutions are shrinking. We will continue to congregate, but in smaller spaces around more distinct common interests. Membership – the basis for so much of our definition of community for the past 70 years – will give way to a la carte Judaism. Israel, the miraculous accomplishment of the 20th century, will continue to be a safe haven and the homeland for Jews. Once the undisputed unifier of Jewish life, however, she will be less able to galvanize the interests and passions of generations born five or more decades after her rebirth as a nation state.
The Jewish world in 2050 will continue to thrive, albeit differently. Less able to attract large groups around common agendas, we will (hopefully) be able to engage even greater numbers of Jews by being more accessible and welcoming through relevant programming and institutions.
Steven A. Rakitt is president of the Genesis Prize Foundation.
I can only tell you what I wish for in 2050. That I wish for the Jewish world to look like—most importantly for it to feel like—it actually is one people. The trend today is to regard the Jewish people as so atomized, so Balkanized , so fragmented, that there is such focus on what makes us different from each other, whether it’s ethnic, geographic, religious, political, age-wise, marriage-wise, sexual orientation, you name it. And we’re not such a numerous people to worry about what makes us different from each other. The fact that we are always in argument with each other is part of our defining characteristic. A page of Talmud is sort of the symbol in many ways of the Jewish people. But the point about the page of Talmud is that there is something that we all agreed upon once upon a time which is the Mishnah, which was not supposed to be written down in the first place, so it was a forbidden something that we all agreed about! But even when we argue about it we argue on the same page. Nowadays, we’ve leapt off the pages, and we rip the pages, and we burn the pages, and the focus on what actually makes the page or holds us together has disappeared, or is in danger of disappearing. My wish is for the Jewish people to get back on the same page and to hold their argument on that page. Some people have delusions today that there is no such thing as boundaries and that the notion of universalism is absolute. But in reality, the boundaries should be permeable enough for growth and for inclusion and for possibilities, but they’re still boundaries. Cells have boundaries to protect themselves, but they allow in and out the ingredients that allow them to grow and defend themselves at the same time. I’m not worried that the Jewish people will disappear. I’m just concerned that they’ll be more in a way of lost tribes. We are shrinking, whether or not we’re growing in absolute numbers or not, there’s no argument that we are a shrinking percentage of the world’s population. So we can ill afford to continue to be leaping ourselves sort of off the page, so to speak. The Jewish people are an extended family with a mission. And I think that mission has not been fulfilled and it needs to continue to be pursued and fulfilled. And I think that for that family to continue to exist and to expand and to have these defined but permeable boundaries which can include new members, but that mission to carry the messages that are embedded in our civilization, in our culture, to the rest of the world, and to carry them forward, you know, the messages to the missions that need to continue. And I think that if we are weakened by not having a people that carries that message, it can’t simply be carried by books. It can’t simply be carried by documents. It has to be a living breathing civilization in the desert.
Misha Galperin is the president of ZANDAFI Philanthropy Advisors and the former CEO and president of Jewish Agency International Development.