Jewish Journal


June 14, 2011

A uniquely Jewish demographic trait


I’d like to begin this Demographic Duo blog in the Jewish tradition of a Torah learning.

We Jews measure a lot, and we also have a uniquely Jewish way of measuring.  We measure time, populations, our space and geography.  After Egypt, God gave us a calendar, then the Torah and then a census was commanded . After enumerating themselves, God instructs the tribes to take up positions around the Tabernacle, the first thing that one saw leaving home and the first thing one looked for on returning home, kind of biblical GPS. So, time and a census preceded the assembly in physical and spiritual space around the Torah.

Historically non-Jewish censuses were commanded by the central authorities who knocked on,  or knocked down the door, counted you, your household, your possessions and then might have taken a goodly share in taxes and left. This was pretty much the orientation since the Domesday book, which is the record of the great survey of much of England completed in 1086 for William the Conqueror, to the completed recent U.S. 2010 decennial census , without the taxation, though lots of redistricting and government funds are allocated on the basis of the US census results.

The Jewish biblical census was a bottom up self-enumeration, much like a group counting off, but rather than a shout out of numbers, it was done in a manner implemented by Moses by collecting a half-shekel from each person and then counting the money (Ex.30:11-12). As the bible relates : “And the silver of those of the community who were recorded came to 100 talents and 1,775 shekels by the sanctuary weight: a half-shekel a head, half a shekel by the sanctuary weight, for each one who was entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, 603,550 men” (Numbers, verses 25-26) 

The biblical obligation was that each male 20 year old participant, both rich and poor, had to pay the same. The rich could not pay for the poor, and each poor head of household had to earn, receive or borrow a half shekel before count could continue.  This put great pressure on the haves to make sure and enable the have-nots to be counted so the census could proceed.  Only after the census was completed were the Israelites be able to gather around the Tabernacle and proceed with the trek through the Sinai desert.  Without the census, the story would have ended there around Mt. Sinai, and so would have Jewish continuity. To this day, hundreds of thousands of Jewish mini self-censuses take place and without a quorum, a minyan, Jewish group prayer doesn’t happen.

Organized American Jewish communities have maintained this self-enumerating tradition in the form of Jewish population studies locally and nationally.  Without a Jewish population study an organized Jewish community just isn’t “organized” and may be flying blind, not knowing who and where the members of its Jewish community and how its resources can be allocated plan-fully and equitably.  A local Jewish population study often the only way Jewish leadership has a sense of whom they are supposed to be serving, leading and representing. 

Unfortunately, many Jewish federations haven’t found the wherewithal and will to undertake a timely Jewish population study.  Much has changed in Los Angeles since the last Jewish population study was fielded in 1997, 14 years ago. The 2000-1 National Jewish Population Survey also isn’t current and contains information that is twelve years old.

For some Jews who might happen to be surveyed, a local Jewish population study is often the first time they personally have any direct contact with any part of the organized Jewish community. As in biblical times, the local Jewish population study is an opportunity to be counted and add to the Jewish communal tapestry that started at Mt. Sinai where on the first Shavuot its said that all Jews, past and present were at Sinai.

Pini Herman serves as President of the Movable Minyan a lay-lead independent congregation in the 3rd Street area.

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