Quality Counts More than Size

letter-447577_1280

Few ideas exercise such superficial appeal as the belief that the major threat to the Jewish people today is our small and ever declining numbers. And few ideas are ultimately more counterproductive and potentially dangerous.

Michael Freund’s “Size Counts” (April 21) is the latest example of what is by now a familiar genre in these pages. The bulk of the article consists of depressing statistics about the Jewish people’s declining numbers – both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the world’s population. On the eve of World War II, for instance, Jews constituted eight of every thousand people in the world; today the figure is two per every thousand.

In part that decline is a consequence of the Holocaust, without which, Hebrew University demographer Sergio Della Pergola estimates, the number of Jews today would be approximately two-and-a-half times its current number. But only partly. In absolute terms, the Jewish population has continued to decline since the Holocaust.

What Freund fails to do, however, is to explain why numbers per se matter. He asserts that “to live up to our national mission as Jews, we need a much larger and more diverse ‘team’ at our disposal.” Yet he never defines that mission, or explains what he means by a more diverse team, or in what way greater numbers would help us fulfill that mission. At most, he invites us to contemplate the “cultural and spiritual riches” that would have been produced but for the Holocaust. But those cultural and spiritual riches will not be replaced by tracking down every obscure tribe in the world that has an oral tradition that they are one of the Ten Lost Tribes, which is Freund’s own pet hobby-horse; doubling our numbers in that fashion will not double our number of Nobel Prize winners.

The only source for our mission, the Torah, informs us explicitly that our mission has nothing to do with our numbers: “Not because you are more numerous than all the peoples did Hashem desire you and choose you, for you are the least numerous of all the peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7). The promises to the forefathers that their progeny would be numerous are Divine blessings that will follow from our fulfillment of our mission. But it is not our task to bring about those numbers.

Since the mission of the Jewish people is a spiritual one – to bring knowledge of G-d to the world – our criteria for evaluating success or failure are spiritual, not material. In the yeshivos of Europe, they taught that purity, not numbers, is the Jewish standard of measure. From purity numbers can come, but from numbers, quality will never come.

From the time of the mixed multitude that accompanied the Jewish people out of Egypt greater numbers have often been at the expense of our spiritual mission. For that reason, the rabbis of the Talmud forbid conversion altogether in certain periods, and discouraged proselytizing.

THE OBSESSION WITH NUMBERS is based on a confusion between cause and effect. Many of the steps taken as a consequence of that obsession amount to no more than putting ineffectual band-aids on the symptoms, while allowing the disease to rage untreated. Never have American Jews faced fewer obstacles to the practice of their religion or so few threats to life and limb. Yet the number of American Jews has remained unchanged for fifty years, despite the arrival of more than 500,000 Jewish refugees in that period. And of those counted as Jews by the demographers, twenty percent are not halachically Jewish.

Lower rates of marriage and fertility of Jewish women contribute to the demographic stagnation. But by far the biggest contributing factor is intermarriage and drop-outs from the community. Our declining numbers are indeed a source of pain, but the reason is not the numbers themselves but what they tell us: Being Jewish is simply not that important to most Jews today.

The measures taken to address the declining numbers, while ignoring the cause, are, at best, a waste of time and money, and, at worst, only exacerbate the downward spiral. American Jewish Federations are forever announcing new initiatives in Jewish continuity. Such efforts are presumably based on the assumption that it is important that the Jewish people continue to exist.

Yet that is the very question never addressed by any of those continuity efforts: Why is it important that the Jewish people continue to exist? Worse, the nature of those efforts – singles nights, “edgy” magazines aimed at youth who hated Hebrew school – only emphasize the opposite. There is nothing really important about being Jewish. The more desperately we run after young Jews — no matter how far they stray and whom they marry — to assure them that they and their children are still members in good standing of the tribe, the more we convince them how worthless that membership is and how unworthy of any sacrifice on their part.

In the words of Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the most trenchant observer of the American Jewish scene, the one message that we are unwilling to give to our children is the one that might make a difference: “Jews have over the millennia willingly and gratefully set themselves apart” – often at great cost in their blood – for a set of “distinctive commandments, beliefs and values.”

The most commonly offered solution by those who view numbers as the ultimate desideratum is conversion on easy terms. But that effort has been a costly failure, for again, it only further debases the currency of Judaism. The easier the terms of conversion have become the lower the percentage of non-Jewish spouses opting for it. That is hardly surprising. Why should we expect any large number of gentiles to rush to join a religion that plays no significant role in the eyes of the vast majority born into it?

The only result from lowering the bars to conversion is the loss of any power of the name “Jew” to bind us together. Variable standards of entry mean that those calling themselves Jews no longer share either a common commitment or a shared history.

An op-ed in these pages a few years back argued, “Any religion in the modern world that does not make an effort to welcome, or seek out, new converts, is fated to diminish.” That statement is false on its face. Little of the rapid growth of Islam has to do with conversions, though alarming numbers of Europeans are choosing to bet on the “strong horse.” (Whatever else one might say of Islam, it definitely plays a significant role in the lives of many of its adherents.) On a happier note, the decline of American Jewry is projected to reverse itself at mid-century due to the growth of Orthodoxy, little of which has to do with conversion.

A better rule than that enunciated by the above-mentioned op-ed might be: A religion whose foundational texts and basic tenets are unknown to most of its members, whose rites and practices are observed by few, and which is of so little significance in its members’ lives that well over 50% marry members of other faiths is fated to diminish.

Instead of worrying about the numbers, and wasting time and money on far-fetched quick fixes for declining numbers, it is to those deficits that Michael Freund should direct his well-meaning efforts.

Jerusalem Post, May 14 2009

You may also like...

24 Responses

  1. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I feel compelled to mention another vital aspect of the kiruv battles. I recently saw a reference to a young Jewish woman studying at Berkeley who, through her middle eastern and Arabic studies, was pulled into Islam. She found a world of prayer, modesty, friends and community which she had not found before. Her non-frum Jewish family reacted that if she was going to convert to something else, why not something “normal” like Buddhism or Catholicism rather than Islam? A well-known kiruv professional responded to the effect of, hey, we have to get our act together and reach out to people and be nice to them, etc. This is all true, but it is insufficient. There are people searching for spirituality, which they can find among the Jewish kiruv organizations and rabbis and communities (but you have to either look hard or have heavenly aid). But a major component of the march to Islam these days is the march, the submission to the great Islamic uma, a humungous world army. There is only one answer to this problem: Torat Eretz Yisrael. This does not necessarily mean Religious Zionism. But it does mean the whole gamut of sources relating to Eretz Yisrael, the Kuzari, Maharal, GR”A and his talmid the Kol Hator, and yes, Rav Kook and Rav Charlop and many more. The problem is that most of the holy Jews in golus for whom EY is not even a blip on the radar screen are unable to teach it because they don’t know it themselves.

  2. L. Oberstein says:

    This Weel’s NY Jewish Week has an article which shows the weakness of the two non orthodoxdinomnations and the folly of claiming that the Conservatives have halachic standards in reality.

    Welcome To The Re-Conservative Shul

    Double threat: Miami’s Reform Bet Breira to merge with Conservative shul.
    by Stewart Ain
    Staff Writer

    When members of Congregation Bet Breira in Miami attended an evening study session on Shavuot last week, it marked the first time their Reform congregation practiced the custom.
    It was the first of many changes that will occur after members of a neighboring Conservative congregation move in as part of a seemingly unlikely merger that will take effect July 1.

    Rabbi David Schonblum, Or Olom’s spiritual leader, said that “vision” is to “include as many Jewish souls [as possible] and bring them back to their Jewish identity.”

    This merger will make at least the 12th congregation in the United States to have dual Reform and Conservative affiliation. There are also at least four other congregations that have dual Conservative and Reconstructionist affiliations.

    Although dual-affiliated congregations have been around for years, observers believe the economic downturn may prompt more congregations to merge, regardless of affiliation. And given the increasing perception that differences between Conservative and Reform Jewry have narrowed over the years — an increasing use of Hebrew, kipot and tallitot in Reform synagogues and the admission of women and gays in the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school years after their acceptance by the Reform movement — dual affiliation may increase.

    To be sure, there are still fundamental differences between the movements — including the definition of who is a Jew — but for some living in one-synagogue towns in Middle America, and even in some big cities like Miami, the distinction is often lost.

    Jonathan Sarna, an expert on American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said

    “Many of them believe the distinctions are artificial,” Sarna pointed out. “This is a healthy reminder that sometimes these kinds of differences are much more important to rabbis than they are to congregants. This is especially true now when the Conservative and Reform movements are giving equal rights to women and the Reform prayer book has more Hebrew in it. It’s much easier to contemplate these types of mergers. And given the tough times, the savings of one rabbi, a building and support staff is enormous.”

    In the Miami merger, Rabbi Schonblum of the Conservative synagogue said the Who is a Jew issue would not be a problem because his congregation has practiced patrilineal descent for five years. “We can’t enforce it … so we let it go,” he said, referring to the Conservative movement’s requirement that children born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother convert to Judaism before their bar or bat mitzvahs.

    Rabbi Schonblum said that once the synagogues merge, “we will speak a little bit more about conversion and bringing them closer [to Judaism]. This follows the whole keruv [outreach] package that was put out by United Synagogue. So after speaking with United Synagogue, they said, ‘Rabbi, just continue with what you are doing.’ I’m bringing in close to 50 or 60 people from my adult Torah study classes who are becoming closer to Judaism and understanding our Jewish traditions. It has been working. … You can’t enforce anything today on anybody.”

    Nevertheless, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards maintains, “Jewishness is defined through lineage or through conversion to Judaism.” It adds that matrilineal descent – a child born to a Jewish mother — “has been the authoritative norm in Judaism for centuries.”

    But Rabbi Schonblum said he believes the “Conservative movement can’t discriminate anymore. We can’t go and say to somebody, ‘You are not accepted because you are not like we are.’ It doesn’t work.”

    He emphasized that he has been permitting the practice of patrilineal descent “under the knowledge” that the child will not be recognized as a Jew “anywhere outside of the Reform movement. If the kid goes to Israel, the kid’s not Jewish. If they want a Conservative conversion, it depends who the rabbi is whether in Israel he would be recognized as Jewish.”

    Rabbi Schonblum said he believes the merger will be a good match because neither congregation was growing, and that operating as a single entity would make them one strong congregation.

    .

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    L Oberstein-Shomrei Emunah is clearly one of the finest shuls in North America. Those who talk about pluralism and inclusiveness should spend at least one Shabbos in Shomrei Emunah and see those two often miscontrued words in action.

  4. L. Oberstein says:

    As R Yonasan Rosenblum, who we recently enjoyed hearing on a Shabbos visit to Passaic( along with RHS, where they davened in the same shul, and received aliyos-a wonderful Achdus moment in its own right deserving of a photograph!),. Am I really out of it? We have scenes like this in Congregation Shmrei Emunah all the time. We have scholars in residence from the entire spectrum of orthodoxy. Why is that so unusual elsewhere?
    Of course, “achdus” is very hard to maintain. The latest glitch is whether our new sanctuary should have “Lavi type seating” or tables and chairs. To some this is a monetary consideration, to others it is an identity issue defining the nature of the shul. Can you imagine “achdus” of many years dividing over seating arrangements?
    I used to think that our battle was over mixed pews or mechitza. This is a time when I miss the lumenaries of the past who could work it out and get others to follow.

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    As R Yonasan Rosenblum, who we recently enjoyed hearing on a Shabbos visit to Passaic( along with RHS, where they davened in the same shul, and received aliyos-a wonderful Achdus moment in its own right deserving of a photograph!), indicated, kiruv is not a one shot injection.It is a mitzvah by mitzvah progression with many ups and downs. OTOH, R Yonasan is right-we have never emphasized quantity and what is hip or cool at the expense of the basic core-Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim in their many hashkafic variations.

  6. L. Oberstein says:

    mACHON is the teacher training program that existed in several yeshivos when I was a student.Some of the lumenaries of Torah Umesorah used to come down and inspire boys to go into chinuch. Today, kiruv is “in”. Kiruv seems to be more eciting and offers the opportuntiy to deal with adults, not mainly children. Of course, chinuch, especially “out of town” is mainly kiruv and the schools do work with the parents also.
    Regarding the comment that “out of town” is a “farm team” for “the city”, that is a fact that can’t be denied. In today’s culture, we all want the best, nobody wants less than “the best”. Some communities have established a “critical mass”, others struggle in vain and send away their children who rarely come back. This is not only true from city to city, it affects neighborhoods also. Everyone wants to live in the “right neighborhood” and this makes the houses cost a lot more when they could live in a nice neighborhood with a decent kehilla a mile down the road for a lot less money. It’s the culture we live in and I have no solution.

  7. Ori says:

    Jonathan Rosenblum: My target was the use of our declining numbers as a justification for quick fixes, which like most quick fixes are, in my judgment, doomed to failure and likely many unhappy, unintended consequences.

    Ori: I stand corrected, sorry. BTW, do you believe the Heterodox movements to be viable in the long run, or do you think of them mostly as grounds for Kiruv efforts?

  8. cvmay says:

    “At this time in history any endorsement of further growth and upgrading of our stake in golus leaves me depressed and disheartened”.

    HOMERUN… How truly refreshing to focus on our future national destiny in Eretz Yisroel. This subject has gathered moss and cobwebs.
    Encouraging Aliyah and Mitzvah Yishuv Haeretz was a popular subject by rabbonim such as; Rabbis Shubert Spero, Sholom Gold, F. Rosner, Zev Leff, Marcus, etc. — who have all settled in our HOLYLAND.

  9. Jewish Observer says:

    “Dr. Joseph Kamenetzky taught us in Machon … ”

    – As a NIRC alumnus I happen to know what ‘Machon’ is. Not sure why an average reader would. Is this a national program?

  10. Miriam says:

    L.Oberstein:A lot of our success and a lot of our lack of success is due to our own joy and warmth in our heritage. This is a critical generation…

    What a serendipitous double-meaning of critical right there…..

  11. ej says:

    ori…It’s a mistake to conduct public policy by projecting forward 100 years into the future. Suppose I said with the charedi birthrate what it is, and their ideology ‘of everyone should learn all the time’ there is no way there will be enough resources in the Jewish world (which supposedly will not have any Jews outside of Orthodoxy)to support a ever growing community of bnei torah. And I conclude it is a waste of money to support the torah world today because it only encourages them in their irrational ways. I am confident Jonathan Rosenblum would be out there talking about bitachon, and how we are to do the right thing and so on.

    One day historians will ask what did American Jewry go down. There are many to blame, first and foremost being those who walked away. In my opinion, included in that list will be those who said it is a waste of resources to spend money and energy strengthening the non-Orthodox Jewish world.

  12. Michael Feldstein says:

    May I suggest three solutions to this problem:
    Kiruv, kiruv and kiruv.
    ———————————

    While the popular notion is that the ba’al teshuva movement is a thriving movement that is bringing an enormous number of people back to Yiddishkeit, the truth is that it’s not even making a small dent in the number of Jews being lost to intermarriage.

    If my memory serves me correctly, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald of the NJOP was quoted a couple of years ago as saying that there probably is no more than 2,500 Jews who become ba’alei teshuva in a year. Compare that to the tens of thousands who we lose to intermarriage.

    We should strive to be mikarev more of our fellow Jews. Unfortunately, kiruv is not the panacea that people think it is–at least right now.

  13. Ori says:

    Leonard Cohen, good point. If you go to Israel to fulfill the Mitzvah, rather than because Mashiach is imminent, that’s different.

  14. Bob Miller says:

    L Oberstein noted above, “The frum world is larger than ever and growing. Our Baltimore schools are bursting at the seams with enrollment.
    However, many of the parents come from those small towns and would not be frum today were it not for Dr.Kamenetzky’s community day schools.”

    Much as they might deny it, the smaller, outlying communities generally function as farm teams for the larger ones. Increasingly, young Jews with an interest in Judaism or Jewish life in general find their way to the larger communities and decide to stay there, putting the viability of many smaller communities at risk.

  15. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    I’m a bit surprised to find myself misunderstood by Ori, who in my experience usually “gets” me better than most. I would be the last person in the world to make any predictions about the Jewishness of his children. The highly identified, but not terribly observant home, in which my parents raised my brothers and I has thus far managed to produce close to forty Jewish grandchildren and great-grandchildren, kein yirbu.

    I would be equally dismayed to learn that this piece was read as slighting the importance of kiruv. Not only am I and three of my brothers products of various ba’alei teshuva yeshivos, but several of us have continued an active connection with kiruv after “graduating.” My target was the use of our declining numbers as a justification for quick fixes, which like most quick fixes are, in my judgment, doomed to failure and likely many unhappy, unintended consequences. Advocacy of large scale outreach aimed at conversion is the most frequently discussed of these bizarre suggestions. The search for the ten lost tribes another

  16. Leonard Cohen says:

    Me: It seems to me that the first order of priorty in the Orthodox American Jewish community is to strengthen our emunah that the geula is imminent.

    Ori: And what if G-d decides not to send Mashiach, as He has done for so long? Wouldn’t this shake the belief of a Jewish community that expected the redemption to be eminent?

    Me: Yes. Rising expectations, unfulfilled, can be disastrous to one’s emunah…and this possibility frightens me. But my fears are ameliorated by the fact that the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz remains, regardless of whether Mashiach is here yet, or not. In this regard, I fully subscribe to an explanation on another thread of a position espoused by Menachem Lipkin, as follows:

    “…the odds of being correct by living in Eretz Yisrael now vs. waiting for Mashiach are 2:1. By settling Eretz Yisrael now, one has only an upside (fulfilling the mitzvah, either chiyuvis or kiyumis, of yishuv ha’aretz) and no downside.”

    In other words, there is everything to gain by making mass aliyah now — both for ourselves and for Israel — and nothing to lose.

  17. Ori says:

    ej: What you don’t seem to get is that these Jews have left Orthodoxy and for the most part will not return. You have two choices, try to keep them as liberal Jews or have them intermarry.

    Ori: I think that Jonathan Rosenblum’s point is that since we (I’m Heterodox) will not return to Orthodoxy, he does not see any way for our descendants to remain Jewish.

  18. ej says:

    There isn’t a Hillel rabbi or a Chabad emissary that is not chalishing to teach “foundational texts and basic tenets” with young people. But as they will all tell you, the hard part is to motivate these people to show up at a Hilel or Chabad house.

    You offer no solution. You even say that the marketing efforts, be they the endless Friday night meals that are prepared by wives of shlichim, or the many cultural and fun programs that are used, is a waste of time and money. Nor do you seem particularly worried that millions of American Jews are walking away. Both you and Jack Wertheimer are so busy scoring points against Jews to the left of where you are, the take away is always the same…some variation of “we told you this will happen fifty years ago.” Aah glick.

    What you are saying is not that different from assimilated American Jews during WW2 standing back while European Jewry was destroyed saying “If they had listened to us, if they would’ve come to America when they had a chance, none of this would have happened.” What you call attacking the causes is offering a counterfactual. If they would be yeshivish bnei torah none of this would be necessary. How true. And if my grandmother had wheels she’d be a trolley car. What you don’t seem to get is that these Jews have left Orthodoxy and for the most part will not return. You have two choices, try to keep them as liberal Jews or have them intermarry. Are your pleitzis big enough to say let them walk away into the sunset?

  19. Ori says:

    Leonard Cohen: It seems to me that the first order of priorty in the Orthodox American Jewish community is to strengthen our emunah that the geula is imminent

    Ori: And what if G-d decides not to send Mashiach, as He has done for so long? Wouldn’t this shake the belief of a Jewish community that expected the redemption to be eminent?

  20. Nathan says:

    May I suggest three solutions to this problem:
    Kiruv, kiruv and kiruv.

  21. L. Oberstein says:

    I had this discussion many years ago. Dr. Joseph Kamenetzky taught us in Machon that it was vital to start Day Schools in every town with enough Jews. Rabbi Moshe Sherer, my other mentor at the time, disagreed and told me that it was more important to strengthen those schools and communities that had a viable, observant population,that we were disappating our efforts by opening community schools in towns with hardly any observant Jews.Quantity vs. quality.
    It is now 40 years later, so who was right? Both, in my opinion. The frum world is larger than ever and growing. Our Baltimore schools are bursting at the seams with enrollment.
    However, many of the parents come from those small towns and would not be frum today were it not for Dr.Kamenetzky’s community day schools.
    I am woried about inter-marriage and do not comfort myself that we will make up the loss by having more children. Those other Jews also are Jews and we can’t just write them off. In fact, I am told it is harder in some ways to make Baalei teshuva because basic observance and sensitivity is so low, but numbers do count, the main number is “one”. Every one is important. I don’t know how many we can bring back but I can say that some of those returnees come from far away spiritually .A lot of our success and a lot of our lack of success is due to our own joy and warmth in our heritage. This is a critical generation, now is not the time to circle the wagons.

  22. David Farkas says:

    I agree with Jonathan Rosenblum, and I think his point is borne out biblically.

    In Deuteronomy 1:10- ; וְהִנְּכֶם הַיּוֹם, כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם לָרֹב we find the Israelites, as they were then, ALREADY described as being as numerous as “the stars in the sky”. [Likewise, we find a multitide being described as numerous as the sand in Joshua 11:4- וַיֵּצְאוּ הֵם, וְכָל-מַחֲנֵיהֶם עִמָּם–עַם-רָב, כַּחוֹל אֲשֶׁר עַל-שְׂפַת-הַיָּם לָרֹב; וְסוּס וָרֶכֶב, רַב-מְאֹד
    where the number at that time could not possibly have been all that enormous.]

    Thus, the promise that Israel’s descendants would be as numerous as the sands or the stars, does not, in it of itself, mean the billions contained within Islam or Christianity. This is part of the blessing, I think, because familial sensitivities decrease with growth. Were we to have the billions other religions have, I dont think an American Jew visting Holland (etc.) would feel the same immediate sense of brotherhood he does today. Expansion is good, but not too much expansion.

  23. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    The corollary of the intermarriage statistics, besides the obvious fact that there are plenty of descendents of Jews who are not halachically Jewish, is that there are plenty of halachically Jewish people who practice other religions or none at all. They don’t even know that they are Jewish in many cases. Some of them are our worst enemies. If we explain what we are and why we are, we will get back all sorts of people we didn’t know we’d lost because we didn’t even know we had them. But as R. Yonasan points out, we have to talk quality and purpose rather than quantity and banality. But we should be broadcasting it on a very broad band. If people get the message and want to convert, that’s also okay because we will still be discriminating. But there are all those people out there who belong to us and we have given up on them by assuming they are strangers.

  24. Leonard Cohen says:

    “On a happier note, the decline of American Jewry is projected to reverse itself at mid-century due to the growth of Orthodoxy…”

    Oy vey! This is a happier note? I pray that R. Rosenblum does not mean to imply a belief that we will still be here, in our American golus, 40 years from now (rachmana litzlan). In this regard one may note that the OU has been advertising its upcoming Emerging Communities Fair 2009 which will “showcase twenty-three growing Jewish communities from around the country.” As well, I am in Lakewood regularly and am mortified by the burgeoning of new home construction for the growing frum community. Is this a sign of our progress towards the “happier note” that R. Rosenblum refers to? On the contrary. At this time in history any endorsement of further growth and upgrading of our stake in golus leaves me depressed and disheartened.

    Is our message to the Ribbono Shel Olam that we have so little faith in the imminence of the geula that we are preparing our lives in America for the long haul? Why should we be happy about the prediction of a resurgence of Orthodox Jews in mid-century America? It seems to me that the first order of priorty in the Orthodox American Jewish community is to strengthen our emunah that the geula is imminent, and that we will be wishing a fond farewell (with appropriate thanks and gratitude) to America very soon.

    The only population numbers that we should be impacting positively upon are the ones in Eretz Yisrael. It is there that we should be committing our resources to causing “emerging” and “growing” communities to sprout. In furtherance of the geula it is time to take both our quantity and quality out of golus and back home to Eretz Yisrael where it now belongs.