Rabbi Mira Wasserman urges the Jewish community to make parenting a more viable and affordable choice to help address the low birthrate, and Rabbi Eric Yanoff agrees something must be done to prevent us from being the "ever-dying people."
By Rabbi Mira Wasserman
Each Passover, I remember: The work of redemption begins with the women, as midwives and mothers unite to bring forth new worlds of possibility. “The more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied!” (Exodus 1:12) Since the earliest days of our people, we have looked to our numbers to understand our strength. No wonder Jews today are so anxious about the future.
Today, our numbers are shrinking. The 2013 Pew Survey of U.S. Jews suggests that there are two major contributing factors: 1) Low birthrates mean that we are not replacing ourselves. 2) Diminishing rates of affiliation mean that a large portion of the children we do have are not being raised as Jews.
For some reason, most of the energies and resources of the organized Jewish community have focused on factor No. 2 alone.
Scarcely any serious attention has been given to our low birthrates. Sure, plenty of people bemoan the demographic realities, waxing nostalgic for the days before Jewish women pursued advanced degrees, when successful careers did not distract us from the business of baby-making. But beyond such wistful expressions, I’ve heard little thoughtful conversation about policy or programs to address the economic and existential dilemmas that Jewish women face at the beginning of our careers.
If it is a communal priority for non-Orthodox Jews to raise our birthrates, the burden cannot fall on young Jewish women alone. The entire Jewish community can together take action to make parenting a more viable and affordable choice earlier in the lives of young Jews.
Jewish women who have life-saving and world-changing contributions to make should not have to choose between having careers and raising children. Unfortunately, the realities of tight job markets and continuing workplace discrimination mean that many women cannot afford to have children at the beginning of their careers — not if they want to advance in the fields in which they have trained and labored. There are policies and programs that can effectively change this reality, however.
In France and Scandinavia, child subsidies, accessible childcare and extended paid parental leave have created new demographic realities. While birthrates plummet in other parts of Europe, these progressive policies encourage families to grow even as they expand opportunities for women’s advancement.
When paid parental leave is a norm and a right for all Americans, Jewish women will no longer need to choose between having children and having a career. When childcare outside the home is safe, affordable, stimulating and nurturing, Jewish women will not have to choose between taking care of a family and contributing to the wider world.
Not all Jews feel called to parent, but those who do should be offered every encouragement. When we work together to bring pro-parenting policies to the top of our communal agenda, we continue the work of redemption. While multiplying our numbers is by no means an end in itself, it is a helpful, hopeful beginning. Our American Jewish future depends on it.
Are we, as historian Simon Rawidowicz termed us, the “Ever-Dying People?” That is, does each generation of Jews lament the possibility — due to persecution, assimilation, birth rate, dispersion, disease, apathy or annihilation — that they may be the last vibrant generation of Jews? And then, when a next generation thankfully arises — does that generation inherit the same worry?
Clearly, as Rabbi Mira Wasserman laments, the Pew study points to significant challenges that threaten Jewish continuity once again. Some demographers of the Jewish community lump disaffiliation and increasing assimilation with the non-replacement-level birth rate into one statistic: the “effective birthrate” — the number of (self-defining) Jews in the next generation, regardless of whether a decline is due to lack of engagement, or never having been born.
I was moved by Rabbi Wasserman’s charge to increase the effective birthrate by making it more possible to prioritize family without impact on one’s career. As a society, we owe this to women, whose contributions to our greater good were overshadowed or missed for millennia, until recent times. We can only assume that more advances, insights, care and innovation will come if men and women alike can realize their potentials in the workforce, in leadership and in the home.
I also wonder if the very byproducts of success in America are also threatening our continuity as a people — high levels of comfort that can lead to complacency, time strain and work-home imbalance that lead to communal disengagement and apathy (because there is no time to worry about anything else). As Rabbi Wasserman states, women should be able to participate fully and at equal pay levels. Our effective birth rates are declining, and we must rely on and support those who are called to parent to do something about it. Otherwise, we may be the first generation of Jews that does not cry out in fear that we may be the last.
This, sadly, may be the worst imaginable fulfillment of Rawidowicz’s characterization. We must rally to Rabbi Wasserman’s call, along with others who worry about our effective Jewish birthrate. I want that desperation, scrappiness and hunger that come from Rawidowicz’s “ever-dying” description — an almost frantic need to ensure our future, which we can answer with purposeful practices that support the birth and the engaged upbringing of the next generation of Jews.
Rabbi Eric Yanoff is the religious leader at Adath Israel in Merion Station, Pa.