Under-Breeding Ourselves Out of Existence: A View From London

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by Rabbi Harvey Belovski

Growing up in middle-class not-so-frum Jewish London, I noticed that families with more than three children were very rare. In my childhood I knew only two families with four children – they were treated with awe – and none at all with more. Although this is just my own observation, this situation has changed little among the mainstream of British Jewry: indeed a number of parents of four children have told me their peers regard them as odd.

I was interested in a recent study published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics indicating that Jewish women in Israel give birth, on average, to 2.8 children. This compares favourably with the average of 1.5 children per women in Europe and points to steady Jewish growth into the next generation. But these figures must be heavily skewed by the high birth rate among the burgeoning religious section of the populace, in which families of 10 or more children are common. Studies suggest that the birth rate among the less religious is low: while the overall trend may be upwards, the constituency of the population is gradually becoming more religious.

These statistics brought to mind a discussion I had a year ago with a leader of a non-Orthodox Jewish organisation in the UK. He told me that an expert in population statistics from the USA had visited his synagogue and explained to the congregants the inevitable consequences of low birth rate for their community in: their eventual disappearance. While, apparently, no one could refute his argument, they rejected his suggestion that survival was contingent on having more children!

It is apparent that all sections of the Jewish world from the moderately Orthodox leftwards are in danger of extinction, which is attributable, at least in part, to a low birth rate. Let’s suppose that the average family in those parts of the Jewish world has 1.8 children, slightly above the overall European figure. While this is my own conjecture, it seems reasonable based on studies of similar communities in the USA and the decline in numbers recorded by the research of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. This will lead to a significant reduction in the number of people in just one generation. An average birth rate of two would still lead to a net loss as sadly there will always be those who do not survive or do not reproduce themselves.

When combined with other factors, however, the reality is much grimmer. With intermarriage on the increase to an alarming degree and many not marrying at all, it is clear that those who choose to have fewer than three children are actively contributing to the demise of the Jewish world.

An important point must be interjected: many members of the community would dearly love to play a part in building the Jewish future, but are unable to find a marriage partner or are incapable of having children (or as many children as they would like). They must be treated with great sensitivity; any criticism levelled here is certainly not directed at them.

I have a hunch that even three children per family may be too few to secure a strong Jewish community into the future. Many segments of the community in the UK are under-reproducing themselves out of existence. As I discussed with my non-Orthodox friend, we can forget issues of theology, commitment to Torah values, etc., as indicators of the Jewish future, since all but the Orthodox are going to disappear anyway due to lack of numbers.

This problem besets the middle-ground of the Jewish world, even though in the UK most such people are affiliated with the Orthodox world. ‘Mainstream’ Orthodox organisations like the United Synagogue (for which I work) are struggling to maintain their numbers. The bulk of our members follow the same patterns of reproduction as the rest of the populace, where late marriage, high intermarriage rate and small families are common.

Only the Orthodox part of the UK community is dedicated to building the Jewish future in this way. They alone as a group are committed to reproducing sufficiently to actually increase the numbers of the Jewish people. They recognise that the rewards of raising a large family outweigh the practical difficulties involved and are prepared to dedicate many years to child-raising, ignoring the limitations on personal autonomy in order to play a responsible role in populating the next generation. And while far from zero, the rate of intermarriage in those communities is very low indeed.

Many outside the Orthodox world do not want to hear this message: every Jewish family must attempt to raise at least three children, preferably more. I implore each couple I marry to have one more child than they had originally planned for the sake of the Jewish people. Those who do not take family-building seriously are an endangered species. This is a message that the observant community understands and must somehow sell to the rest of the Jewish people. If we can do this, whether by teaching or by example, we will yet make the greatest possible contribution to Jewish survival.

Rabbi Harvey Belovski, a musmach of Gateshead Yeshiva and graduate of Oxford University, is the rabbi of the Golders Green Synagogue in London, a lecturer, author and counsellor.

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22 Responses

  1. Hillel (Sabba) Markowitz says:

    I don’t recall any mention in the Torah of a value placed on there being lots of Jews. All that was ever asked of us was that we remain loyal to our tradition. There will always be a Jewish people. Why do we care how large or small it will be?

    It is not so much that we care how large or small we become (we are promised that we will be the “smallest” of nations) but that we cry at the tragedy of the loss of the (potential)members of our people.

    Additionally, we are supposed to make an effort to live according to the natural laws of this world (hishtadlus). We are not guaranteed success, but we must try.

  2. Moshe says:

    “I don’t recall any mention in the Torah of a value placed on there being lots of Jews.”

    That’s odd, I seem to remember a rather dramatic moment when the Lord assured our father Abraham of that.

  3. Mark says:

    Rabbi Belovsky [and anyone else who cares to respond],

    I have a serious question and hope you’ll explain it to me and realize that I am not stating an opinion just asking a question that has long bothered me.

    Why in the world do we care if large segments of the Jewish community cease to exist because they failed to reproduce themselves? So long as there is a strong segment that continues to reproduce, there will always be Jews. Less perhaps, but they’ll be there, no?

    I don’t recall any mention in the Torah of a value placed on there being lots of Jews. All that was ever asked of us was that we remain loyal to our tradition. There will always be a Jewish people. Why do we care how large or small it will be?

    Please explain?

  4. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Dina, as tragic as military deaths are, they are quite rare. More young Israelis die of traffic accidents. That, BTW, could be the critical factor. Charedim are likelier to be too poor to have cars and to rely on public transportation. That makes them less likely to die in a traffic accident AND forces at least some level of physical activity.

  5. Moshe says:

    Dina: I highly doubt that has much of an effect. Israel has a death rate of 6.18 deaths/1,000 population, according to wikipedia. With a population of 7,000,000, that comes out to 42,000 deaths per year.

    Between Sept 2000 (beginning of the 2nd intifada) and Jan 2005, less than 250 Israeli soldiers fell in battle (R”L), in other words, less than 60 per year. This comes out to .0014% of Israeli deaths per year, and thus would not have a noticeable effect on the life expectancy in Chareidi areas versus that elsewhere.

  6. DMZ says:

    “One possible reason why Bnei Brak has a very high life expectency (among males at least) compared to the rest of the country may be because their males do not go to the army, and are not killed in battle; therefore in other Israeli cities they must factor in these terrible deaths which would surely lower the average life expectency.”

    I really doubt that KIA in battle has any serious statistical effect on the numbers here. The last “serious” war fought was the 1982 Lebanon invasion, and total casualties dead was a bit under 700. Ditto for the 2006 Lebanese conflict – less than 200 civilians and soldiers dead. Even in the Yom Kippur War, which was decidedly brutal on the Israelis – total KIA was well under 3000.

    Those are ugly, tragic numbers, but for a state of 7 million people, they’re statistically insignificant – about .07%. I think it’s hard to support lack of military service as a real contributor to the higher life expectancy in haredim.

  7. Reb Yid says:

    The socioeconomic mobility of the Orthodox community (at least the non-Haredi part) is already beginning to show pressures resulting from competing demands.

    On the one hand, the communal pressure to be fruitful and multiply. The communal norm to send said offspring to day school or yeshiva.

    On the other–for the growing proportions of the O community whose socioeconomic standards are high and growing higher:

    –Living in expensive suburban homes
    –Jewish education and secular education of the highest standards, so that said offspring can attend the finest private universities in the country
    –Maintaining an affluent lifestyle with attendant creature comforts

    Given escalating costs of Jewish day school education, more and more families will need to make choices between these competing pressures.

    Some may cut back on “creature comforts” and/or choose to live in less desirable areas. Some may choose to send children or a child to public school. Some may choose to send children to public university instead of a more prestigious private university. Some parents may decide that both spouses need to work full-time more often in order to accommodate some of the above needs (thus at least delaying full family formation and potentially decreasing fertility rates). Some may simply decide to have fewer children. Some who have a lot of kids and are concerned about the cost of Jewish education may make aliya. Some may push for government aid to schools (or increased private or Jewish communal assistance to Jewish day schools), which if accomplished could affect all of the above

    It is unclear how this will all pan out in the coming decades, but there’s a lot to consider here.

  8. Dina says:

    One possible reason why Bnei Brak has a very high life expectency (among males at least) compared to the rest of the country may be because their males do not go to the army, and are not killed in battle; therefore in other Israeli cities they must factor in these terrible deaths which would surely lower the average life expectency.

  9. Yaakov Menken says:

    As in Dovid Rier’s case regarding the lack of correlation between mortality and life expectancy when it comes to the charedi community, I suspect you will find only limited correlation between wealth and fertility.

    My mother is a Professor of Demography (together, we prove that academic excellence isn’t hereditary), and offered two reasons why there is normally an inverse relationship between income and children: a quantity/quality trade-off, and the opportunity cost of women’s time.

    When people have more money, they spend even more per child. They then reduce the number of children in order to afford that spending. [I suspect as well that people have far fewer children once they are able to expect the survival of each child to adulthood.]

    The second, and possibly more complex factor, is the trade-off between women’s earning potential and children. This is used to explain why fertility did not drop in Arab countries as economic status rose — women still couldn’t work, so they had children.

    These factors have limited impact in the Orthodox community, and I suspect they miss the target in Arab countries as well (having large families is encouraged in the Koran). When having a large family is a priority, this outweighs other factors.

    In the charedi population, the wealthy may well have more children — they don’t worry about the money needed to feed and educate them. Even among the non-charedi Orthodox, however, I think there has been a noticeable increase in average family size over the last two generations despite increasing affluence.

  10. Reb Yid says:

    Demography 101 will tell you that as a population climbs the ladder socioeconomically, its fertility rates will drop. This is by and large the case throughout the world.

    The question is therefore not “what can be done for non-Orthodox Jews to marry earlier and have more children”. It is really more about Orthodox Jews, their growing acculturation, and how long the non-Haredi segments can continue to reproduce at well-above replacement level rates.

    The next few decades should be very interesting in this regard.

  11. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Mommy, where in the US did you live? I live in Texas with my four children, and people are generally happy to see them.

    del Alte, Heterodox Jews tend to be members of their societies first, and only then Jews. What would you do in general to get people in the UK, or in London, to have more kids?

  12. der Alte says:

    The critical question is just how do you get non-Orthodox Jews to marry early and have children?

    Suggestions anyone?

  13. Dovid Rier says:

    “as you move further to the right within Orthodoxy, high birth rates rise along with poverty rates. Poverty rates, in turn, are correlated with higher mortality rates and shorter life expectancy.” {rejewvenator}

    Actually, while true in general, this may not necessarily apply to haredim. according to data from an Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics report from 2002 (“Major cities, 2002”) covering 1993-1997, the mostly-haredi city of Bnei Brak, despite being among Israel’s poorest, also had the nation’s highest life-expectancy for women (81.1; Bnei Brak men were tied with men from Petach Tikvah for first place, with 77.4).

  14. Mommy says:

    Enough with the theory guys!!

    What are we doing as a society to encourage bigger families?

    We had our first two children in the US, made aliyah and had our third in Jerusalem. The contrast is amazing – and I found it at every point: hospital nurses, taxi drivers, store clerks. Here in Israel everyone (religious or not) is happy to see another Jewish baby, and they’re more patient with mothers shlepping a bunch of noisy kids. Partly it’s the norm, but more so there’s a different value set.

    In the US, I felt kids were seen as a burden, and unfortunately it’s a secular attitude that invades religious societies. When people evaluate their lifestyles according to public accomplishment, financial comfort, and leisure time – what mother (or father) wants to have six kids or more???

    (Did I just give a good plug for aliya? ;-)

  15. Neil Epstein says:

    “The fallacy is twofold. First it assumes that all current trends will continue…The second error is that birthrates are only one half of the equation. Jewish death rates are the other side, and as you move further to the right within Orthodoxy, high birth rates rise along with poverty rates. Poverty rates, in turn, are correlated with higher mortality rates and shorter life expectancy.”

    The problems with viewing this as common sense are several fold:

    Firstly the level of poverty may not be deminishing the population on ‘the right within Ortodoxy’ more rapidly than the ‘less right’ are able to replace them.

    Furthermore, the average diminution in life expectancy is unlikely to deter those on this ‘right’ from having sizeable families. Contribution to the continuity of a blood line only is only possible if one is able to reproduce. Surviving on average 5 years fewer when these years are most likely to be non-reproductive ones is no loss when one has already contributed several progeny.

    Last but not least, cultural factors are significant determinants of whether statistical trends are likely to continue. Unfortunately there are no signs of the cultural norms on either end of the spectrum changing even amongst those who leave the Orthodox fold.

  16. Loberstein says:

    Predicting the future is a very inexact science. Orthodoxy right now is growing very fast but there are problems. I hope that our retention rate stays very high and that the high birthrate continues. If so, who is going to pay the tuition bills? At some point will poverty catch up with us and force a change? There are many modern orthodox kids who stray and a lot more ultra-orthodox than we care to admit. Nothing is certain.

  17. Nachum Lamm says:

    Mark Steyn, who writes a lot on this issue, points out in his book that the only Western countries with a birthrate of higher than 2.1- the replacement level- are Iceland, the US, and Israel.

  18. David says:

    Responding to 14 March comment by rejewvenator:
    Assuming continued birth rates in certain groups is not a fallacy, it’s just a working assumption that can, obviously, change. And for the time being it seems that higher birth rates among Orthodox will even increase for awhile, so that working assumption is safe enough for now.
    Your second point is weaker. Even if poverty increases mortality, most of that mortality shows itself in deaths after child bearing years are complete, so the reduction of population growth due to poverty is minimal; just consider our very distant cousins surrounding us in the Middle East. That Orthodox poverty does not, for now, resemble most third world poverty we need not even discuss for now.

  19. Ori Pomerantz says:

    rejewvenator: The second error is that birthrates are only one half of the equation. Jewish death rates are the other side, and as you move further to the right within Orthodoxy, high birth rates rise along with poverty rates. Poverty rates, in turn, are correlated with higher mortality rates and shorter life expectancy. Though this seems like common sense, I’ve never seen this side of the story spoken about at all.

    Ori: You didn’t see it because it doesn’t have that much effect in western countries. Mortality after you’ve had your children is irrelevant to long term population trends, so only death before the age of 40 or so counts.

    Assume that the average Heterodox family has two children, they won’t intermarry, and they have a 100% chance to live to have children – all assumptions that are false in the direction of more Heterodox Jews. This means that after two generations, you have the same number of Heterodox Jews as the number you started with.

    Now assume that the average Orthodox family has four children, each kid has a 90% chance of staying Orthodox, and an 83% chance of living to adulthood (chas veshalom – the actual figure is a lot higher). These are all assumptions that are false in the direction of less Orthodox Jews. This means that each kid as a 90% * 83% = 75% of growing to be an Orthodox Jew. Two parents have four children, and three of them grow up to be Orthodox Jews. After two generations, you have more than twice as many Orthodox Jews as the number you started with.

    If we Heterodox Jews want our denominations to survive, we need to work at it – not just play the ostrich and pretend the demographics issues do not exist.

  20. joel rich says:

    demographics is destiny but we need to remember as R’ JB Soloveitchik zt”l pointed out that we are a people of a common fate and destiny. Projections of this type at any point in our history would likely indicate that our absolute numbers should be far greater than they are now.
    kt

  21. rejewvenator says:

    [I]t is clear that those who choose to have fewer than three children are actively contributing to the demise of the Jewish world.

    by definition, refusing to act is a passive contribution, not an active one, rhetorical flourishes aside.

    Orthodoxy Jews in general are very excited to talk about the demise of other denominations through failure to reproduce. The fallacy is twofold. First it assumes that all current trends will continue, including the trend to small families in non-frum circles, the trend to large families in frum circles, and the rate of retention of children within the Orthodox denomination.

    The second error is that birthrates are only one half of the equation. Jewish death rates are the other side, and as you move further to the right within Orthodoxy, high birth rates rise along with poverty rates. Poverty rates, in turn, are correlated with higher mortality rates and shorter life expectancy. Though this seems like common sense, I’ve never seen this side of the story spoken about at all.

  22. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Are Europeans in general breeding themselves out of existence? If so, heterodox Jews are unlikely to be different than the general population.