Studies in Renewal (2) – The Crisis of Continuity

1 July 1993
MagenDavid continuity

This is the second of five pamphlets written by Rabbi Sacks in 1993. The series is entitled "Studies in Renewal".

The Third Era in Modern Jewish History

In my first pamphlet I argued that Jewish continuity is now the greatest challenge facing the diaspora. In this paper I examine the dimensions of the problem . What does the latest research show about the state of diaspora Jewry? And how are we to interpret it?

In November 1992 the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations met in New York. Their agenda was dominated by one word: continuity. The Strategic Planning Committee of the UJA­ Federation of New York delivered a report on the prospects for the Jewish community . It summarised its conclusions in the form of a glimpse into the future, a projected article in the New York Times forty years from now. Jt began:

New York, June 2, 2032. lt was a time for memories and tears yesterday as the United Jewish Federation of New York formally ceased operations. The Federation, once known as UJA -Jewish Federation of New York, and its predecessor organisations had once served a community of more than 2 million Jews. Now that the Jewish community numbers fewer than 200,000 persons ...

Prompting this sense of drama was a growing realisation that, against all the statements of the 1980s that American Jewry was surviving, even reviving, the hard demographic facts showed that it was disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Outmarriage was at an all-time high, up 1000%on the figures of thirty years previously. The. American Jewish community now included 2.1 million non-Jewish spouses and children of mixed marriages. Of the 3.2 million Jewish households, only1.8 million-barely more than a half - consisted of Jews living exclusively with Jews.

The November 1992 issue of The Jerusalem Report carried on its front cover the headline 'America's Vanishing Jews: Intermarriage Threatens the World 's Largest Community.' It told the story of the devastating statistics of the recent National Jewish Population Survey and traced some of its consequences. Despite the unique power of American Jewry's fund-raising machine, money raised by the United Jewish Appeal has fallen consistently in real terms since the 1970s. Leading Jewish organisations such as B'nai B'rith and the American Jewish Committee have suffered dramatic falls in membership and income. The conclusion is inescapable. American Jewry is disappearing faster than perhaps any leading community since the Lost Ten Tribes.

The situation in Anglo-Jewry

In one respect, though, American Jewry is in a better condition than Anglo-Jewry. The Hassidic master, Rabbi Henoch of Alexander, said "the greatest exile is not to know that you are in exile." So too the greatest crisis is not to know that you are in crisis. That is the Anglo­ Jewish situation.

About ten years ago the Sunday Times published a front page article about the sharp and dramatic fall in synagogue marriages.  The news was treated as an item of national interest.  By contrast, the Jewish Community ignored it almost completely.  There was no wave of shock, no debate, no discussion, no further research commissioned into the dimension of the problem and its causes.

For the past few years the Board of Deputies Statistical Unit has been sending out yearly information showing that the number of synagogue marriages in Anglo-Jewry has fallen to a mere half of the figure at which it should stand if Jews of marriageable age were marrying other Jews. The implication is simple.  One half of young Jews are not marrying other Jews, or not marrying, or not celebrating their marriages under Jewish auspices.  A mere fragment of this figure – at most a tenth – represents Aliyah, Jews leaving Britain for Israel.  The rest spells disaffiliation and decline.  Again there has been no furore, no debate, no response.  Appeals by the Statistical Unit for additional resources to fund further research to understand what is happening to young Jews have gone unheeded.

The research that has created a storm in America – the Council of Jewish Federation’s National Jewish Population Survey – was conducted by an outstanding demographer, Dr Barry Kosmin.  Dr Kosmin heads the most sophisticated social research department in the diaspora, the North American Jewish Data Bank.  The irony is that until a few years ago Dr Kosmin, himself an Anglo-Jew, worked for the British Jewish community – for the Board of Deputies Statistical Unit.  We had in London a Jewish social scientist of world ranking, whose work until the late 1980s was dedicated to providing Anglo-Jewry with information about itself.  Eventually he was driven to leave by the sheer indifference to his work.  He had produced path-breaking studies such as Jewish Identity in an Anglo-Jewish Community (the ‘Redbridge Report’) and (with Dr Stanley Waterman) British Jewry in the 80s.  They contained several striking and potentially controversial findings that had significant implications for communal planning.  But no one was listening. So he left.

Professor Daniel Elazar of the Jerusalem Institute and Bar Ilan University was driven to this conclusion in a recent handbook of world Jewry; ‘By and large, the powers that be in British Jewry are content with the status quo and do not seek change.  At most they bemoan the decline of British Jewry but, like their British peers, do little to try to alter their state.’  American Jewry knows it faces a crisis of continuity.  We do not, and that is the crisis.

Against despair

In this paper I want to examine the facts and dimensions of the problem.  Because American Jewry has a wealth of data while we have little, many of the figures will be drawn from the United States. America, it will be said, is different.  But this is only partially true. Where American Jewry is today, Anglo-Jewry is in danger of being tomorrow. Indeed, the trends now emerging from the United States characterise the diaspora as a whole, as a host of demographic studies has shown. The American situation, then, is crucial to an understanding of our own. For the challenge facing Anglo­ Jewry today is the same as that of all diaspora communities: creating Jewish continuity in an age of radical discontinuity.

One preface, though, is necessary. The portrait sketched below is bleak and there is a danger that it may lead to despair. Despair is not a Jewish emotion. Od lo avda tikvateinu: our hope, we say, has never been destroyed. The question is: why?

The answer is that there is a Jewish way of telling the story of our situation. Matchil bignut umesayem beshevach: we begin with the bad news and end with the good. That is how we tell the story of the exodus on Pesach and that is how we have always told the narrative of Jewish history.  We begin with exile and end with redemption.  We start with catastrophe and culminate with hope. The rabbis said: “wherever you find the phrase, 'and it came to pass,’ this is always a sign of suffering. Whenever you find the phrase, 'and it shall come to pass, this is always a sign of joy." The past might be cause for lamentation, but the future holds the promise of celebration. The reason lies deep in Jewish consciousness. As Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes explains, one of our most profound beliefs is that there is meaning in history. Providence is woven into our lives. What happens is not chance but a chapter in the complex script of the covenant which leads, mysteriously but assuredly, to our redemption. Crisis in Jewish history has always led to renewal, not despair. So it must be now. With this preface, we can now tum to the bad news.

The missing children

The most obvious test of a people's numerical strength is its birthrate.  By this measure, diaspora Jewry has been in decline for over a century. With few exceptions in few countries, Jews exhibit the lowest birthrates of any religious or ethnic group.

In the United States, for example, Jews have had a lower rate of fertility than Catholics or Protestants in every decade of the twentieth century. At one time, in the 1970s, this had fallen to an average of 1.2 children per childbearing couple, far below the population replacement figure of 2.1. The rate has since risen. But it still heralds a declining and ageing Jewish population and one that is consistently shrinking in absolute terms and even more so relative to other population groups.

Jews are either marrying late or not marrying or, once marrying, are not having children in the numbers that other groups do. Analysts have been unable to come up with a simple explanation of why this is so, and perhaps there is no single cause. What we can say with some certainty, however, is that it is an effect of emancipation. Demographic studies of Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have shown that wherever and whenever Jews emerged into an open society their birthrates abruptly changed from above to below the national average.


Even had there been no outmarriage, therefore, we would today be concerned about the state of Jewish survival. But the single most dramatic change in recent years has been in outmarriage itself. This has been a problem of Jewish life since the very beginning of the covenant. Abraham was concerned that Isaac should not marry in to the local Canaanite population. Isaac and Rebecca were distressed when their son Esau married two Hittite women. Moses delivered warnings against intermarriage. Ezra and Nehemiah, returning to Israel after the Babylonian exile, instituted drastic measures against those who had been "unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us." The rabbis of Mishnaic times enacted protective decrees against behaviour that might lead to outmarriage. So the problem is not new. But its dimensions are.

In America, for example, intermarriage was estimated in the 1920s at no more than 1 %. A study in 1944 yielded a figure of 2.6%. Until the 1960s the rate remained at or below 6%. The turning point came in the 1960s.  In the first half of that decade the rate of intermarriage jumped to 17.4%, and by 1971 had risen to 31.7%.  Even then however, the nature of what was happening was not fully appreciated, and it took the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey to send shockwaves through American Jewry. What the survey showed was that the rate had risen to 57%. More than one Jew in two was marrying out.

The speed at which this has happened has been over-whelming. From 6% in 1960 to 57% in the late 1980s means that the intermarriage rate has risen almost ten times in less than thirty years. The great chain of Jewish continuity, stretching for some four thousand years, is in danger of breaking in a single generation.

Though the latest figures have sent a shock-wave through American Jewry, they merely confirm what demographers have known for some time. Neil Sandberg, for example, had shown some years ago that intermarriage in Los Angeles rose from 11.6% among first generation Americans to 43.5% among the fourth generation. A study of Denver Jewry in the early 1980s showed that the percentage of intermarried households rose from 53% among those aged 30-39 to 72% among those aged 18-29.  In Phoenix the parallel figures were 43% and 72%. Once intermarriage gains a hold in a community, its increase is rapid and seemingly inexorable. For three generations - Jewish immigrants and their children and grandchildren -Jewish identity can be sustained. In the fourth generation, ties of kinship and ethnicity weaken and mixed marriage soars.

No less significantly, the stigma traditionally attaching to outmarriage has almost entirely disappeared. Only one-fifth of young American Jews declared themselves opposed in principle to mixed marriage, and only 6% strongly so. The importance of this statistic is that in the area of group continuity, attitudes are no less significant than behaviour. In a completely open society, where Jewish identity is a matter of voluntary commitment and choice, the fact that only a tiny minority of Jews indicate that they are opposed to an act that will almost certainly mean that their grandchildren will not be Jewish must be a matter for the gravest concern.

When I was last in America, in 1989, my eye was caught by a story on the front page of the New York Times. It was headed 'The Assimilating Bagel', and the tale it told was this. A bagel was once a hard, round roll with a large hole in the centre. It was a Jewish delicacy which you ate with cream cheese or smoked salmon and temporarily forgot the troubles of the world. But according to the New York Times the bagel was subtly changing. Its crust was getting softer. The hole was getting smaller. Little by little, the bagel was assimilating into a bun. For 'bagel' read 'Jewry' and the metaphor is clear. Jewish identity in America is vanishing with frightening, unprecedented speed.


In Britain, we lack this kind of exhaustive, detailed research. Nonetheless, for some years Board of Deputies figures have indicated a disturbing fall in the number of marriages recorded in British synagogues. Prior to the second World War the number of Anglo­Jewish marriages was around three thousand a year. The figure dipped during the war and rose thereafter, but between the mid-1950s and the 1970s it fell precipitously to around fifteen hundred per annum. By the 1980s it had fallen further to some thousand per annum. This represents only one half of Jews of marriageable age, suggesting that a half of young Jews are not marrying, are marrying out, or are leaving the community in some other way.

The situation, though, is worse. An estimated three hundred get [religious divorce] cases are currently dealt with each year by British rabbinic courts. On the basis of this figure, Rabbi Dr. Julian Shindler has calculated that the divorce rate in Anglo-Jewry has risen to approximately three in ten. If we were to add even a small conjectural figure for marriages terminated civilly but not religiously, the true rate may be nearer one in three. So we face the following situation.  Jews are not marrying other Jews and if they do, they are likely to marry late and have few children.  Even then, one in three marriages will collapse.   The Jewish family, for millennia the crucible of continuity, is fissuring and beginning to fail.

These trends, common to both Britain and America, signal a crisis in Jewish continuity. Whether we speak halachically, biologically or culturally, Jewish identity has always been passed on through the family. Only in Israel today can it be transmitted through the public domain of state, society and the surrounding culture. In the diaspora it is either sustained in the framework of marriage, parenthood and a Jewish home or it disintegrates. Every indication suggests that for many, even most, young Jews, it is not being sustained.

An identifiable Jewish community?

One result is an unprecedented confusion of Jewish identity. Even though it ignored the profound differences between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism and their approaches to conversion and Jewish status, the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey was forced to abandon the concept of a single measure of the Jewish population. Its authors found that they could only quantify American Jewry by dividing it into the following categories:

  • Born Jews, Religion Judaism
  • Jews By Choice (converts of all denominations)
  • Jews By Religion (the sum of the previous two categories)
  • Born Jews with no Religion (secular Jews)
  • Born or Raised Jewish, Converted Out
  • Adults of Jewish Parentage With Other Current Religion (usually children of a mixed marriage with one Jewish parent, who have been raised as Christians)
  • Children under 18 Being Raised With Other Current Religion

The survey showed a 'core Jewish population' of 4.2 million.  Around the core was a variety of marginal groups: 1.1 million secular Jews, 185,000 converts, and 1,325,000 Jews who, whether through conversion or upbringing, today identify themselves as Christians. Considered in their own right, these are disturbing figures. Considered in the light of current trends, they are portents of much worse to come.

The end of optimism

In the mid-1980s, as demographers began to sound the alarm, there was determined resistance by a group of American writers who argued that the Jewish community was not disintegrating. It was merely in a state of transformation. Mixed marriage was not a catastrophe. It might even prove to be a blessing in disguise.

Their argument was this.  There had been times in the past - particularly in the pre-Christian era when Judaism had been an actively missionary faith. It had sought converts. It could do so again. After all, Judaism was an attractive option in a pluralistic society. Jewishness was no longer what Heinrich Heine had once called it: 'not a religion but a misfortune.' To the contrary, Jews were now the most educated and affluent group in America. In addition, American Reform Judaism had begun a campaign to ease the path of entry into Jewish identity. It had eased the standards for conversion and had even declared that it would consider Jewish without the need for conversion, the child of a non-Jewish mother and a Jewish father. Charles Silberman set out the equation in his much-discussed book, A Certain People: "If half the children of intermarriages are raised as Jews, there will be no net reduction in the number of Jews, no matter how high the intermarriage rate is."

Rarely has an illusion been more quickly dispelled. We now know that this optimism was massively misplaced. The latest figures show that among the 57% of Jews who marry out, in only 5% of cases does the non-Jewish partner convert to Judaism. In the remaining 52% of cases the partner retains his or her original religion. Within these mixed marriages, only 28% of children are raised as Jews. 41% are raised as Christians. 31% are raised without religion.

There is, in short, no solace in these figures. Jews in America are failing to survive as a distinctive group. They have too few children. More than half of them marry out. Even when they marry other Jews, the partnership is increasingly likely to end in divorce, and second marriages are even more likely to be outmarriages. The prospect that mixed marriage might result in a net gain for the Jewish community has disappeared. Non-Jewish partners are disinclined to convert, and in three quarters of mixed marriages the children are not brought up as Jews.

In an age of shifting religious affiliations, Judaism has been the loser. The outflow of Jews to other religions has been vastly greater than the inflow through conversion, despite the efforts of liberal denominations to engage in active proselytisation and open the gates of admission more widely than Jews have ever done before. The sobering fact is that for every non-Jew who has become a Jew even by the most lenient standards, there are between seven and eight Jews who have become Christians and six who profess to no faith at all.

Nor is our own community safe from such a fate. British Jewry, estimated at 450,000 in the 1950s, is today reckoned to number no more than 300,000. Even ignoring the natural population increase that should have occurred, this represents the loss of more than ten Jews a day, every day, for forty years. Of these, at most a fifth have left for Israel. The rest have disaffiliated and disappeared from the Jewish map.

An unfolding tragedy

These are the facts, and they are very bad news. In Britain, America, and throughout most of the diaspora, one young Jew in two is deciding not to marry another Jew and have Jewish children. In any age this would be a tragedy. There were times - fifteenth century Spain was one -when under terror and the threat of death Jews converted to Christianity. There were other times - eighteenth century Germany and nineteenth century Russia - when anti-Jewish prejudice was such that Jews chose assimilation as, in Henrich Heine's famous phrase, their entrance ticket to European culture.' But today in countries where intermarriage is at its highest, there is no terror or threat. No avenues are closed. To the contrary, Jews in Britain and America are the best educated, most successful and most upwardly mobile of any religious or ethnic group. And yet Jews are choosing not to hand on their inheritance to their children.

In any age this would be a tragedy. In ours it is worse. For we have lived through the century in which, between 1941 and 1945, one third of the Jewish people died. Eighty per cent of European Jewry was murdered. More than one million Jewish children were shot, gassed or buried alive. The Holocaust remains a mystery. But there is one thing which every Jew understood, best put in the phrase of Emil Fackenheim, that we may not hand Hitler a posthumous victory. What greater posthumous victory can we give the enemies of Jewry than, in the space of a generation, to cease to be Jews?

That is a question from the heart of darkness. But in the opposite direction there is a question from the core of light. For nearly two thousand years our ancestors prayed for the freedom to live as Jews without persecution. Since the collapse of the Bar Kochba rebellion and the start of a seemingly endless exile, they prayed that one day they would be ingathered to their land. At the two climaxes of the Jewish year, the Pesach seder and the end of Yom Kippur, they yearned for 'next year in Jerusalem.' In our time every one of those prayers has been answered. In Britain and America, Jews are free to live as Jews and are respected when they do. In Israel, the ancient prophecies have come true. After nineteen hundred years of wandering, the Jewish people has a home and a sovereign state. Jerusalem has been reunited and rebuilt. Hebrew, the ancient language of the Bible, has become again the living language of Jewish speech. There is no precedent in all of human history for this renaissance and return. Can it be that, at the very time that the hopes which drove us for centuries have become realities, Jews are turning their back on hope and reality alike and ceasing to be Jews?

Counting Jews

The test of a people's spirit lies in how it responds to bad news. If we are to respond Jewishly, we must rule out ab initio two reactions: denial and despair. Denial argues that there is nothing to worry about. Despair says that there is nothing we can do.

Denial is ruled out because, as the Sages said, 'God's signature is truth.' Despair is ruled out because, as Jews, we have faced more crises than any other people and yet, after nearly four thousand years, am Yisrael chai, the people Israel still lives. Faith is, among other things, the courage to face facts, however painful, without losing hope. The facts are painful. Our children are choosing, in unprecedented numbers, not to have Jewish children. How then shall we respond?

The Torah contains a remarkable perspective on demography. In the book of Exodus, God tells Moses: "When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them."

In other words, it is hazardous to count Jews. Elsewhere, in the second book of Samuel and the first book of Chronicles, we read of how King David ignored the advice of his Chief of Staff Yoav, and took a census of Israel with disastrous consequences.

Why is it hazardous to count Jews? Our tradition records many explanations. But Jewish history suggests a simple answer. At most times in our history we have been a tiny people.  Despite the promises which we believe will one day be fulfilled – that the descendants of Abraham and Sarah would be as many as the stars of the sky, the dust of the earth and the sand of sea shore - thus far we have been one of the world's smallest nations.

By the end of the book of Genesis the people of Israel numbered no more than seventy individuals. At the end of his life, Moses declared to the now much more numerous nation in the wilderness: "The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you are the fewest of all peoples." From then on, Israel remained a small country ranged against great empires: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. At almost no time has the people Israel been a numerically significant population. This was true even when it was a sovereign power in its own land. Still more was it true when it was a scattered and exiled diaspora.

Historians have estimated that between the fall of the second Temple in 70CE and the seventeenth century the Jewish population never rose above 1.5 million. At times, as in the wake of the Spanish expulsion, it fell to below a million. Jewry increased significantly only between 1800 and 1939, when it grew from 2 to 16.6 million. At no time in the last nineteen hundred years have Jews constituted even one per cent of the population of the world.

Despite this, Jews did more than survive. In one age after another we were at the epicentre of world history. At times of tolerance, Jews rose with astonishing speed to the forefront of human achievement, as philosophers, scientists, poets, statesmen, financiers and industrialists. The Judaic heritage shaped and continues to shape Western civilisation. Freewill, individual and collective responsibility, practical compassion, the love of peace and freedom, the sanctity of life, the irreducible worth of the individual, justice as the test of a society - these are values we owe to the Bible and without them the world would have been a different place.

As a result, Jews could rarely be ignored. From earliest times to the present day, both our friends and our enemies have attributed to Jews an influence far beyond our numbers. Demographically, we have been grasshoppers. In impact and influence we have been giants. Milton Himmelfarb put it graphically:

"The number of Jews in the world is smaller than a small statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet we remain bigger than our numbers. Big things seems to happen around us and to us."

This has given rise to a most curious phenomenon. Recently a research exercise was conducted in the United States in which people at random were asked to estimate the percentage of the American population that was Jewish. The average of the answers given was about 20 per cent. The true figure is 2 per cent. The experiment can be repeated with similar results almost anywhere that Jews live. We always seem to be many times more numerous than we actually are.

Why then is it hazardous to count Jews? Because when we take a census we are basing our strength on numbers. Jewish strength has never lain in numbers. When we count Jews there is a serious danger that we will become demoralised, realising that we are so few. When a people depends - as the Jewish people depends - on its spirit and sense of pride, demoralisation can be nothing short of catastrophic. It can lead to despair, and from despair to defeat.

King David was as wrong to believe that his military strength depended on the size of his population, just as the State of Israel would be wrong to think likewise today. And if military strength does not depend on numbers, still less does ethical or intellectual or religious strength. The inscription beneath the portrait of Jewish history reads: "Not by might nor by power, but by My spirit."

What is troubling about present demographic trends in the diaspora is not that there are fewer Jews and hence less Jewish influence and power. In the diaspora we have never depended on power, nor has our influence anything to do with numbers. What is troubling is what the trends tell us about the state of the Jewish spirit. Never before have Jews felt so indifferent to their heritage that they were unconcerned to pass it on to their children. Once we state the problem in these terms we are already half-way to a solution. For what is born in the spirit can be cured in the spirit. And no people has had greater experience in sustaining the human spirit than the heirs of those who stood at Sinai.

The question therefore is this: how can we construct a community in which Jews so value their Jewishness that they wish to see it continued in their children? To this, I turn in the next pamphlet.