Parshas Shemos (5770)
This week we begin reading the Book of Shemos, which relates the story of our ancestors when they went down to Egypt. There is an ancient tradition handed down from our Sages that the original exile and subsequent redemption of the Jews in Egypt is a portent of the future exile and ultimate redemption of the Jewish people in the era leading up to the coming of the Messiah. And that whatever happened to our ancestors in Egypt is a sign of what is eventually going to be replayed in our own times as well.
There are amazing parallels between our Jewish ancestors in Egypt over 3400 years ago and the Jewish people today. The Talmud tells us that during the long, bitter 210-year exile in Egypt, a great many Jews "fell away" from the traditions and observances of their forefathers. Living among a foreign nation in a high-pressure work environment made it easy for the Jews of Egypt to assimilate and blend in to the greater Egyptian culture, abandoning much of what their fathers and grandfathers had practiced as Jews. Yet, despite the low level of observance and custom, the Talmud tells us that the Jews never forgot that they were Jews - and remained proud of their heritage.
Well, in our own times, we have witnessed history practically repeating itself. A great majority of the Jewish people has left the practices and observances of its predecessors in Europe and has adopted the lifestyle and culture of the Western world in which we live. Yet, even those who have shed most of the observances of old, remain, by and large, proud of who they are as Jews, standing up for the State of Israel, and giving much charity to Jewish causes.
Yet there is one area in which our ancestors differ greatly from the Jews of today. Whereas the Torah relates (see Exodus 1:7) that the Jewish women in Egypt were exceedingly fruitful – according to one tradition, all the women gave birth to six children in one shot – their modern counterparts have one of the lowest birthrates on the planet. Outside of the Chareidi, or (so-called) “ultra-Orthodox” community, where the birthrates are quite high, the average non-Chareidi fertility rates range from 1.4 to 1.9 children per woman – which is quite below the average of 2.1 children that is needed to keep a population constant over generations.
Do you remember the old joke?.... Statistical studies show that in the religious section of Brooklyn, NY, a woman gives birth every ten seconds … she must be found and stopped!
Well maybe it’s not such a joke after all. With the dangerous combination of incredibly high intermarriage rates and incredibly low birth rates, we are literally disappearing!!! How ironic that what all the anti-Semites throughout history tried to do to us but failed, we are doing to ourselves with great success!! [To see a frightening chart on this: click here]
So what can we do to reverse the trend? How can we get Jews to have more babies? Should we pay them like they do in Europe? That doesn’t seem to work anyway.
In a great article I found online titled Jewish Babies, Ben J. Wattenberg and Jeremy Kadden quote Michael Steinhardt, one of Wall Street's great investors and philanthropists, and a founder of Birthright Israel, who provides an solution to this demographic nightmare: “It doesn't take a profound genius to see that there's a relationship between tradition and childrearing. More traditional Jews have more babies.” He thinks, then, that the focus needs to be on education, starting from a very young age. To that end, his organization is involved in opening twelve model pre-schools, with the aim of raising the number of Jewish children who go on to day schools. (Maybe he should call his new project Birthrate Israel!)
As Wattenberg and Kadden point out, Steinhardt has data on his side. Full-time Jewish education has proven powerful in reducing intermarriage and assimilation rates and in providing students with a deeper sense of Judaism. Perhaps, then, it can also reverse the demographic decline. The numbers also give hope. The 2000-2001 NJPS study estimates that 29 percent of Jewish children are enrolled in full-time Jewish education. This is more than a four-fold increase from two generations ago: Among their grandparents, just 7 percent had a Jewish day school education.
So does this mean that every Jewish woman in North America who is concerned about the disappearance of the Jewish people (as I am sure most are) is going to stop everything she’s doing right now – career, travel, hobbies, etc. – and start pumping out babies? That seems like a long shot to me.
But I do think that with more Jewish education – especially at a young age – taught by teachers and Rabbis who are passionate about Judaism and its amazing values and eternal wisdom for living, more Jews will begin to see the beauty and value of bringing children into the world and in raising a family – maybe even a large family – that will bring true nachas and joy and goodness to their parents, their community and the world around them.