Reassign Blame for Jewish Birth Dearth

Published November 18, 2005, issue of November 18, 2005.
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Opinion writer Shulamit Reinharz levels a critique of gender bias at Jack Wertheimer that we find unfounded (“Blaming Women Begets No Babies,” November 4).

In the Commentary opinion article to which Reinharz was responding, Wertheimer correctly notes that current low levels of fertility and high levels of intermarriage will shrink the American Jewish population dramatically. He praises Orthodox Jewry for its dramatically high effective Jewish birthrates — so high that Orthodox Jewish children now account for the majority of children in families affiliated with synagogues. He then speculates on the causes of late marriage, high intermarriage and low birthrates, and concludes with an admonition for non-Orthodox Jewish leaders to adopt “the pro-natalism of the Orthodox community.”

Whatever one thinks of Wertheimer’s analysis — and we find both strengths and weaknesses of substance and tone — no one can reasonably doubt the challenge that low birthrates pose to America’s Jewish population size.

Insofar as Wertheimer has any blame to be passed around, it is predominantly in the form of blaming non-Orthodox Jews for failing to act and think like their Orthodox counterparts. In only one instance does he “take sides” and blame one gender over the other for contributing to the birth dearth — by pointing an accusatory finger at men. Elsewhere, his language is studiously gender neutral.

In short, it is fair to contend with Wertheimer’s alarm over low Jewish birthrates, his analysis of their causes and his proposed remedies. We do not believe that urging Jews to have more children will have much effect on the size of Jewish families — and we fear that larger families will not alter the current high rates of intermarriage and the overwhelming decisions by intermarried couples not to raise their children as Jews.

But we do believe, as Wertheimer’s opinion article makes clear, that Jewish women and men need not sacrifice education or career in order to raise Jewish children — and might choose to do so in larger numbers if, as Wertheimer urges, the Jewish community supported that decision with assistance in bearing the high cost of child care, day school, camp, synagogue and JCC memberships, and if it provided more young American Jews with compelling reasons to choose Judaism.

Steven M. Cohen

Research Professor, Jewish Social Policy

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

New York, N.Y.

Arnold Eisen

Professor, Religious Studies

Stanford University

Stanford, Calif.

Jack Wertheimer has correctly identified a serious problem that confronts American Jewry: its shrinking and aging population. Although he focuses on the female birth rate because that is standard in demographic measurements of fertility, he calls on both men and women to adopt the traditional values that placed families at the center of Jewish life.

Yet his analysis is a veiled critique of Jewish women “who spend significantly more time than their gentile peers in programs of higher learning… and more childless years… as they work to advance their careers.” And since in the real world, childcare still falls more heavily on mothers than on fathers, the implications of his solution to the demographic problem of American Jews has significant consequences for women who choose careers — a choice of which we can be proud. Men who have careers, of course, need not choose because they are behaving in a normal male fashion.

More disturbing is Wertheimer’s uncritical praise for traditional Jewish family values, currently manifested, in his view, by Orthodox Jews. He views all contemporary changes in our definition of families and in attitudes toward sexuality as pernicious. Yet the vast majority of American Jews who accept the diversity of family life do not lack Jewish values. We simply assert a different definition of those values. We believe, for example, that the acceptance of gay individuals, families and rabbis reflects a humanism that is strongly embedded in our Judaism.

It is important to recognize that the gender egalitarianism that has grown within American Judaism was promoted and disseminated by non-Orthodox Jews. Traditional Jewish attitudes toward family included the ongoing vulnerability of women in divorce proceedings and the exclusion of women from the Jewish learning that the community hailed as its hallmark. The emergence of women as learned Jews and as public Jewish leaders is rooted in non-Orthodox Jewish denominations, which have influenced many among the Orthodox.

Shulamit Reinharz is right to assert that if the Jewish community really seeks to improve its demographic situation, it needs to address what are called “work/life” issues — the structural impediments that men and women face in the real world as they seek to balance their family and work responsibilities. Helping to finance the daunting costs of child care and Jewish education is more likely to lead to more children than even the most well-meaning exhortation.

Paula Hyman

Professor, Modern Jewish History

Yale University

New Haven, Conn.

Jack Wertheimer is being castigated for an article that he did not write.

His Commentary opinion article was, without question, a jeremiad on that state of American Jewry. It is a call to Jews in the United States not only to have more children but also to adopt a pro-natalist stance, to claim openly the importance of Jews’ reproducing themselves for the future of the Jewish people.

Both Reinharz’s opinion article and an earlier Forward news article claim that Wertheimer blames women (“‘Values’ of Women To Blame for Low Birthrates, Says Conservative Scholar,” October 7). I certainly do not share his sentiments that Jewish men might want women that are more like their mothers, and hence they select non-Jewish wives. Beyond that sentence, however, I cannot find a single other example of finger pointing in the direction of Jewish women.

What Wertheimer is doing is asking the hardest question of all: Have the attitudes and values that have served the extraordinary social mobility of four generations of Jews also alienated Jewish men and women from one another, and most Jews from caring deeply about the future of the Jewish people?

I urge the Forward to use its pages to have just the conversation that Wertheimer’s article demands, and to ask how to support Jewish men and women in creating Jewish families. As a feminist I would suggest that Jewish women have enough detractors, so let us not create one who is not there. This article was unusual for its gender even-handedness, and its call for a serious re-evaluation of American Jewish culture.

I do not agree entirely with Wertheimer’s analysis of the problem, but I appreciate that he raised it, and I find these accusations wrong and unfair.

Riv-Ellen Prell

Professor of American Studies

University of Minnesota

Minneapolis, Minn.

Alito’s Record Mixed

It is true that I said, as the Forward reports, that Judge Samuel Alito has a solid record in protecting the free exercise of religion (“Supreme Court Pick Presenting Test for Leading GOP Moderate,” November 4). I also said that this was balanced out by some unsettling holdings with regard to state support for religion. There are two religion clauses, and enforcement of both should be of interest to the Jewish community. It is a pity that partisans emphasize one to the exclusion of the other.

Marc Stern

Assistant Executive Director

American Jewish Congress

New York, N.Y.

Church Facing Israel

Opinion writer Michael Kotzin is precise in stating that “the church has yet to fully take into account” the interlocking of peoplehood, faith and Land in Judaism (“Facing the Unresolved Issue in Interfaith Dialogue,” October 28). Still, I believe that Forward readers might profit from a Catholic take on the question.

First, while not fully resolved, the question is actively taken into account. The 1985 Vatican “Notes on the Correct Way To Present Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching and Catechesis,” for example, states that “the history of Israel did not end in 70 A.D. It continued especially in a numerous Diaspora which allowed Israel to carry to the whole world a witness — often heroic — of its fidelity to the one God… while preserving the memory of the land of their forefathers at the heart of their hope (Passover Seder). Christians are invited to understand this religious attachment which finds its roots in a biblical tradition, without however making their own any particular religious interpretation of this relationship.”

The theological hesitancy in the statement, it should be understood, reflects hesitancy not about Jewish attachment as such, but rather about some of the more grandiose theological claims of evangelical Christians, as well as of some Jews, regarding “fulfillment” of biblical prophecies by the modern Jewish state. Indeed, there is a similar hesitancy on the part of many Jews and Israelis about such claims, as well.

Second, it might equally be said that the issue of Catholic attachment to the only land we call holy is not yet fully resolved by Israel either. This can be seen in the fact that the Israeli Knesset has yet to ratify formally the 1993 Fundamental Agreement with the Holy See.

Again, there are reasons for the Israeli hesitancy to recognize fully the legal existence of the Catholic Church within its borders, such as possible precedents with respect to taxation. But surely such practical matters pale before the deeper significance of full recognition on both sides of, as the preamble to the Fundamental Agreement put it, “the unique nature of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people” and the “historic process of reconciliation” between them today.

One must ask from the Catholic side, and with great urgency, “If not now, when?”

Eugene Fisher

Associate Director

Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Washington, D.C.






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