Creative Jewish Accounting
by Jonathan Rosenblum
October 25, 2002
The American economy is still reeling from the loss of confidence in the stock market in the wake of the huge Enron and WorldCom bankruptcies. In both cases, creative accounting hid from investors the companies’ dire financial straits, even as their stocks continued to be highly touted. By treating expenses as long-term capital investments, for instance, WorldCom CFO Scott Sullivan created a rosy financial picture of the company as bankruptcy loomed.
Such creative accounting, however, is by no means limited to greedy executives. It has long been a staple of organized American Jewish life, in which failures are treated as successes. The Reform movement’s adoption of patrilineal descent, for instance, was essentially an accounting trick that turned failure (i.e., intermarriage) into success by increasing the number of Reform Jews and allowing the movement to claim that it is the fastest growing denomination.
In the long-run, however, such accounting techniques will prove no more successful than they did in the case of Enron and WorldCom. By welcoming intermarried households, Reform can claim the largest percentage of affiliated households (41%), but the reality behind the numbers can only be swept under the rug for a period of time. Even in those intermarried households that identify themselves as Jewish, 82% incorporate some Christian practices. And 90% of the children of intermarried families will themselves intermarry.
Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, is the latest entry into the creative Jewish accounting sweepstakes. By essentially counting drops of Jewish blood, he recently concluded that the American Jewish population is 6.7 million, with another 6.3 million individuals possessing a "Jewish connection" of some kind. The 6.7 figure was considerably larger than that of 5.2 million arrived at by the recently released 2000-01 National Jewish Population Study.
"I think the potential for a larger and even more vibrant Jewish community is huge," said Tobin in announcing his findings. That optimism only makes sense if once considers the diffusion of "Jewish blood" through intermarriage to be positive. Yet Tobin gives no clue as to how the diversity – religious, racial, behavioral – he envisions will result in greater communal vibrancy, or even in what sense the resulting hodgepodge of people whom even Tobin admits are "probably disconnected from Jewish life" constitutes a community at all.
Unless one assumes that the sole purpose of the American Jewish community is to offer political support to Israel, and that anyone whom any sociologist can find a way to classify as "Jewish" will support Israel, it is not even clear why a larger figure is better. In point of fact, the latter presumption is patently false. Israel rates low on the agenda of most sociological Jews, and, as would be expected, every study shows that with diminished identity concern with Israel declines.
In point of fact, the population estimate of the 2000-1 National Jewish Population Study, which interviewed 4,500 households (as opposed to 250 in Tobin’s study) and which benefited from the input of over 20 leading Jewish demographers, is likely far more accurate than Tobin’s. The 5.2 million estimate shows that the American Jewish population remains essentially unchanged from 1928 when there were 4.8 million American Jews – and that despite the influx of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Israel and hundreds of thousands more from the former Soviet Union. Natural increase alone should have resulted in a Jewish population three times as large today.
And it should be noted that the NJPS itself uses an extremely broad definition of Jewish, including anyone with one Jewish parent or who considers himself Jewish for whatever reason.
The NJPS revealed a 5% decline in the American Jewish population over the last decade alone, and that rate will only accelerate in the coming decades, as the American Jewish population ages and grows ever less fecund. American Jews are already significantly older and less fecund than the population at large, and growing more so. 52% of Jewish women ages 30-34 have not had any children compared to only 27% of all American women. Among married Jewish women, the fertility rate of 1.8 children is below population replacement level. And when one adds that there are 70,000 more children under nine with one Jewish parent than two, and that the former have a 90% chance of intermarrying, the future is bleak.
Far more important, however, even than the number of sociological Jews is the Jewish content of their lives. In this regard the numbers are even more depressing. Egon Mayer concludes that only 51% of those counted as Jews by the sociologists actually identify themselves as such. A higher percentage of Jews say that religion is of no importance than those who say it is important. Only 7% of American Jews say that the study of Jewish texts is relevant to Jewish identity, and a far smaller number actually engage in such study.
Far from failing to welcome intermarried couples, as Tobin charges, the community has long since given up the fight. Allan Smith, director the Reform movement’s Youth Division, frankly admits that it is unrealistic to expect young Jews to reject the values of inclusiveness and tolerance with which they have been raises. Over half of American Jews consider opposition to intermarriage racist, and only 12% would actively oppose their child’s intermarriage.
As individuals and as a community, American Jews have no answer to the question: Why does it make the slightest difference whether the Jewish people continue to exist? "Intermarriage expert" Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, promotes the message, there is "no right or wrong way to be Jewish." But if Jewish can mean anything or nothing at all why be Jewish or care about the existence of the Jewish people.
Appeals to ethnic pride – see how many Nobel Prize winners we have produced -- or celebrations of Judaism for having introduced values now widely shared will not suffice as reasons for our continued existence as a distinct people. There are many smart Jews, but even if the purpose of life were to perpetuate a gene pool of smart people, it would be foolish to exclude the much larger number of bright non-Jews. Many Jews may view Judaism as synonymous with being a liberal Democrat, but if so, they will have no reason to look for a spouse only among liberal Jews.
Several years ago, the loathsome Bernard Wasserstein celebrated intermarriage in these pages ("It’s a mitzva.") Sure Jews are rapidly disappearing in the Diaspora, Wallerstein admitted, but why should we keep whining about it. Other ethnic groups are gradually disappearing all the time, without any commensurate breastbeating. Why not Jews?
Until we can provide our children with an answer to Wasserstein’s challenge, we are doomed to the fate predicted by him.
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity
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