December 9, 1999
The Jewish Future
I have seen the Jewish future and, to my surprise, it still belongs to the Baby Boomers. By now I'd guess that Boomers would happily cede attention and civic responsibility to Gen Xers and Gen J but nothing doing. One in three Jews today are between ages 35-53, and the needs and demands of this group will dominate Jewish life well into the coming decades.
In fact, Pini Herman, research coordinator of the Planning and Allocations department at the Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, tells me that the Boomer demographic is so strong that we can expect Boomers, their children and grandchildren to dominate Jewish life for most of the next century, perhaps as long as 60 years.
"There will be a population decline, eventually," he told me. "But you won't see it."
What we will see, instead, is a Jewish population that actually continues to grow, despite on-going predictions of its demise. An American Jewish population of now 5 million will grow to 5.5 million through the first and second decades until, sometime after 2020 it begins, slowly to ebb.
In the meantime, get ready for more of the well-intentioned experimentation and improvised earnestness that Boomers are known for.
By now it's an old story. After three decades of social upheaval, starting with the civil rights, Vietnam and women's movement, American Judaism is by now almost unrecognizable both in form and feel from the religion which our grandparents brought over from Europe.
"Most Boomers have no ties to the old country," Pini Herman says. Without direct experience of the shtetl and the limitations which have guided Jewish life for most of its history, the Boomers had no compunction in applying contemporary American standards to Jewish life. They take for granted that whatever they need, whether child care, or assistance with fertility, or support for their aging parents, the Jewish community will be there for them. And if they can't find it in their local synagogue, then there's one down the block.
From my standpoint, the Boomer creative approach to Judaism, however trivial or idiosyncratic it may at times appear, have been largely for the good. Judaism has been opened up, and as a result, the old angers at exclusion by now dissipated. The adult bat mitzvah, chief among rituals, has brought healing across the generations. Jews-by-choice, gays, women among the outsiders now brought in have each added flavor and power to Jewish life. We are a fuller richer people for their energies.
Democracy and voluntary participation are not Jewish values, but by now that point is moot. The American Jewish community "voted" for inclusion at the time when its members were fleeing.
Much as the Baby Boomers have changed Judaism, Judaism and all its options has changed the Boomers, too. They are almost unrecognizable from their former selves, softened, like a weathered rock, over time. The generation that notoriously postponed responsibility is today sandwiched between their children and their parents, creating supportive communities to help them get by.
That's why it's unfair to think of them any longer as the "Me Generation." Today, Boomers think of "Us." If it is true that the nuclear family is not what it once was, at least the generation gap has healed. The first generation to pay for children's private education from kindergarten through college are in debt to their parents, who are glad to help out. Today, the fastest growing group is 85+, and the Boomers know that this is their obligation; unlike their narcissistic reputation, they don't flee.
And where does all this leave Jewish leadership? Jewish community and its resources are in flux while trying to meet Boomer needs. All the infrastructure needs, for new pre-schools, day schools, basketball courts and social halls for b'nai mitzvah and weddings, will continue at least for decades hence. Jews in the coming years will continue their push from the central city and the suburbs for the new exurbs, the growth areas like Calabasas, California, where three new synagogues are under construction. Look about you: American Jewish life is undergoing a building spurt unlike anything since the post-war swing to the suburbs.
Is it good news when Jewish men outnumber women? You be the judge. My conversation with research analyst Herman suggests that the "gender mismatch" which have plagued women over 40 for many years may be ending. Analyzing the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey, Herman found the following:
Among those 50-64, 56 percent are women, 44 percent men.
For those 40-49, 53 percent are women, 47 percent men.
But among those age 30-39, and the men, miraculously, return: 38 percent are women, 62 percent men.
The shortage of men over 40, and the overabundance under 40 is going to make Jewish heads spin. What will it mean when men outnumber women 2:1? Is there a precedence for it in contemporary Jewish life?
I'm eager for the future.
Join Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of the Jewish Journal, for a conversation with actor Edward James Olmos on "Minorities in the Media: Where are they?" at the Skirball Cultural Center this Sunday at 11 a.m.
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.
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