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Letter to the Editor: It’s a demographic cliff; not a fiscal cliff

December 3, 2012 | 4:34 pm

Last week, (16-22 Kislev) Mark Pearlman wrote an erudite proposal for minding the Jewish communal coffers.  He asks how we can adequately fund an engaging and vibrant Jewish community.  Eight causes are given for the fiscal deterioration of the community.  Unfortunately he missed entirely the main and intractable cause: not enough Jewish children.

To illustrate this case, please look at the weekly obituary pages of the Jewish Journal   It’s actually very much the same story each week; one that’s almost unnoticed, while it screams about our Jewish demographic crisis.

The Nov. 23rd issue, for example, reported thirty Jewish deceased over the age of 70.with a total of 99 reported grandchildren. That’s 3.03 grandchildren per person.  Remember though, that the numbers surely include some Orthodox families, bringing up the grandchild total significantly. Now those 99 not only represent one decedent’s grandchildren; but two grandparents.  So the news is this: Jewish L.A. now seems to average about 3 grandchildren per Jewish couple.

But wait. There’s an extra. Don’t forget to look at the names listed. There are some decidedly non-Jewish sounding names of spouses and grandchildren.  This is not a subtle reminder that not all those 99 grandchildren may actually be Jews.

The implications should be self-evident, but for those who don’t get it, I’ll be explicit: Those in generation now passing have been the prime financial stalwarts of our community.  As they depart, they leave behind few Jewishly committed children and grandchildren.

In desperation, some temples are making a survival effort by sort of rearranging the chairs in their gradually emptying Sunday schools. (L.A. Hebrew High went from 500 to 200 students in the last decade.)  Today, the JFC is attempting some heroic initiative to make up for generations of massive non-affiliation by creating shallow ‘on-ramps’ for Next-Gens to enter the Jewish community. They’ve created a proliferation of programs serving the needs of non-Jews in Los Angeles.. What’s the ‘Jewish’ link?  Of course, it’s ‘Tikkun Olam’., as if the United Way isn’t already in that business.  Our few and Jewishly illiterate youth are saving seven billion people on earth, while they disappear as Jews.

“Not to worry” once declared a Jewish Journal demographer as he suggested that a great many of the Orthodox will become Reform and Conservative just as happened with immigrants 70 years in the past. They, according to the theory, will replenish the lost numbers of secular Jews. Anyone who’s ever seen the inside of an Orthodox day-school today has to laugh at such a farcical hope. It’s not going to happen.

No discussion of solutions to the ‘Jewish fiscal cliff’ should ignore the issue of the Jewish fertility crisis. No matter how much you slice and dice budgets, there will soon be too few liberal/secular Jews to support the temples, Federations and all the other secular Jewish organizations. Who’s going to pay staff and support their pension plans? Oh, yeah, I forgot, the Koreans:

Now, we must give credit for creative efforts: One mega-temple is investing over $100 million to rebuild their neglected edifice and establish a free medical / dental clinic for local Koreans. Perhaps their plan is that in 30- 40 years the Koreans will help support the Temple?

Ask any president of a smaller Reform or Conservative Temple.  If they are growing, it’s because they have attracted Jews from other temples. But for many, current discussions about potential mergers are critical for survival.  Welcome to the beginning of a steep slope.

Some have said: “Well that fertility rate just reflects what’s going on in all of American society today.”  True. It’s one of the ‘benefits’ of assimilation.  But “Non-Jewish” is not a People; Jews are.  It’s a demographic fact that any People wishing long-term survival culturally and fiscally, must rear enough progeny to repopulate and carry on their culture. It now appears that the Boomer generation mostly opted to be Americans first and Jews, well maybe 25th.?

Now I fervently wish someone had a happy solution for this predicament. The solutions offered by Mr. Pearlman last week are a possible a band aid. But of the many liberal rabbis I’ve consulted in this matter, not one had any realistic solutions to offer about the demographic cliff. 

One main reason is that rearing children as ‘Jewish’ may require painful life-style changes, leaving some assimilated non-Jewish baggage behind: like the joys of bacon and eggs in the morning, a Christmas tree in the living room or golf and mall hopping on Saturdays.  A Chanukah-bush, just doesn’t cut it.

This is the price of a ticket to secure the American Jewish future. Another expensive Federation program or more gold-leaf on a painting doesn’t come close. The real cause of the Jewish fiscal crisis is the fact that today’s American Jews of parenting age have not produced enough Jewishly educated children for a future ‘vibrant’ secular/liberal Jewish community.

Unless more secular/liberal Jewish parents are willing to pay the price of having more children indelibly indoctrinated into Jewish culture, the liberal Jewish enterprise of the past 200 years will indeed roll off a cliff. 

What is the solution?  The fact that this might sound crazy to most, further reveals the problem, but there is like 3,400 years of experience with this:  Let every Jew turn Saturdays into Shabbat. Then, as surely as Spring follows the Winter, more babies and funding will follow, naturally.   Simple.  Right?

Gary Dalin

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