American Jews are facing a demographic crisis. An aging population, low fertility rate, and high rate of intermarriage combine to reveal an exceptionally weak desire to raise up a new generation of Jewish Americans. In this 2005 Commentary article, sociologist Jack Wertheimer explores and explains this phenomenon and asks whether there is anything that can be done about it.
The selfish individualism of modernity—an oft-cited explanation for the low fertility observed around the world today—does not fully account for what the American Jewish community is experiencing, Wertheimer argues. Rather, delayed marriage and low fertility are the bi-products of Jewish children living out their parents’ values of high educational achievement and independent thinking. Beliefs and cultural norms matter when it comes to shaping behavior, and it should come as no surprise that children come to honor the overwhelming priorities of secular success that guided their parents’ lives. “Young people well understand their parents’ priorities—and live them out.”
Beliefs, communal norms, and expectations do in fact play a powerful role in shaping behavior—not overnight, but over time. The pro-natalism of the Orthodox community was a policy deliberately nurtured over the decades through an educational system, through countless sermons and homilies by Orthodox rabbis, and through inculcating in generations of young Jews the positive value of standing apart from those “contemporary secular norms” to which the authors of the “Statement on Human Sexuality” appeal for validation.
In the face of today’s secular norms, the Orthodox call on an additional source of strength: the power of Jewish norms and obligations. Until other sectors of the community are prepared to speak boldly and forthrightly about Judaism’s truly countercultural ideas, they will continue to lose larger and larger numbers of the next generation, and to face a smaller and smaller future.
More about: • Jewish Education • The American Jewish Experience • The Jewish Family
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