Besides dress, there are many things that set this small, tight-knit community apart from the surrounding world—their professions, their food, even their language—but perhaps their most distinctive characteristic is their demography. While most Jews in America have few children, the Jews of New Square have many: at least six children per woman, and possibly even more, a rate among the highest on earth.
This is not unique to New Square. It is found wherever there are Haredi Jews, all over the world, and there is evidence to suggest the trend is unprecedented in Jewish history. Until the 1950s, official demographic information about Jewish birthrates was difficult to come by. Yet it appears that in the immediate aftermath of World War II, American Haredim were probably having in the range of two to four children per woman, much like their non-Haredi counterparts. But most demographers believe that in the 1970s the situation began to change dramatically. Since then, the Jewish community has broken into two distinct groups.
On the one hand are groups like the Haredim, whose birth rates have climbed to extremely high rates. At their current pace, the Haredi population could theoretically double or even triple in each generation.
On the other hand are the non-Haredi Jews, where the opposite seems to have occurred. Their fertility has fallen steadily to very low levels, with estimates ranging from 1.4 to 1.9 children per woman. Despite surveys that show their desire to have more children, American Jewish women in their thirties are nearly twice as likely to be childless as their non-Jewish counterparts. This part of the Jewish community is also considerably older than the surrounding population: The average Jewish age is forty-two, compared with just thirty-five for the United States as a whole.
Not a single major Jewish organization is working directly to reverse these trends. Meanwhile, intermarriage—a problem that has received enormous attention over the last few years—is having a substantial impact on the non-Haredi part of the community. Though the rate of increase has slowed somewhat, the intermarriage rate is just above 50 percent, according to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001. That is, one out of every two marrying Jews is marrying a non-Jew. And only one-third of intermarried couples raise their children as Jews. Taken together, these two trends—low fertility and intermarriage—may seriously weaken America's non-Haredi and secular Jewish communities in the not-too-distant future.
Various estimates have placed the Haredi population in America at approximately 250,000, about 5 percent of the total Jewish population. (Statistics about the Haredi population are scarce not only because of logistical difficulties in counting them, but also because of a Haredi taboo on counting people at all.) “A culture of children has developed in Haredi society,” says Samuel Heilman, professor of sociology at Queens College in the City University of New York. “In secular societies, young people aim to get a college degree, go out into the working world, and succeed in their careers. Haredim, on the other hand, have made it their goal to have as many children as possible. That is how they realize success.” Children have become a sort of Haredi “one-upsmanship” that sets their society apart from secular society: The more children a couple has, the more forcefully they feel that they have demonstrated their superiority over the secular world, and that they have followed the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. Added is a post-Holocaust mentality: The Haredim believe they are called to repopulate the Jewish community. (The number of Jews in the world is estimated to be two million less today, at thirteen million, than it was in 1933, fifteen million.)
Despite their high fertility rates, though, no one has a sense of just how many Haredi offspring are staying within their communities. Periodically, stories trickle out about people who grew up Haredi and moved out of the community after learning about the nature of the non-Haredi world. A few films and support groups testify to this trend, but no one really has a clear sense of how many people are involved in this drift. Malkie Schwartz, who heads a support group for former Haredim called “Footsteps,” believes that the trend will only grow. “A lot of these kids have access to the Internet,” she says, “and that makes it easier to leave.” On top of that, she says, the largely Haredi neighborhood of Williamsburg has now become one of the “hip” places for young non-religious (and even anti-religious) artists seeking relatively inexpensive rent near Manhattan. This shift, Schwartz says, might lead more people to leave the Haredi community as they come into greater contact with young, non-Haredi Jews.
But evidence is scarce as to just how many “expatriates” are out there. Indeed, even in those prominent stories of departure from the community, there is strong evidence that the majority stay within. One scholar emphasizes that the numbers going out are tiny, especially compared to the numbers being born. On balance, then, there is enormous growth for the Haredi community as a whole.
What about the non-Haredi world? In order for a population to remain constant over the course of generations, women must bear, on average, 2.1 children. Estimates of American Jewish fertility vary from 1.4 to 1.9 children (this latter number, still low, includes Haredi births.) In fact, signs of non-Haredi depopulation are already beginning to show. The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey showed a total American Jewish population that declined in size since 1990, from 5.5 million in 1990 to 5.2 million in 2000. At the same time the total U.S. population increased over that period by more than 30 million people.
Many demographers have stressed the changed role of women as a general demographic correlative of plunging global fertility. Non-Haredi Jewish women are likely to have found the workplace more stimulating than child-rearing. Non-Haredi Jewish women are also more likely to be highly educated than the total population, choosing not to give up the upscale employment that high education offers. Further, compared to the total population, non-Haredi Jewish women are more likely to use birth control, their age at first marriage is higher, and they are much more likely to support legal abortion (in 1996, for example, 74 percent of Jews supported legalized abortion, as opposed to 48 percent of Protestants and 46 percent of Catholics). Each of these factors correlates statistically with lower fertility.
Other general “liberation” factors have played a role among Jews and non-Jews alike: high levels of both divorce and cohabitation, for instance, which are both correlated with low fertility rates. Moreover, Jews are more likely to reside in urban rather than rural settings—another correlated factor. Whatever the reasons, one fact remains clear: The non-Haredi rates have fallen to low levels—in our estimation, 1.4 children per woman, perhaps even a little lower.
In the late 1990s, Antony Gordon and Richard Horowitz, two private researchers, collaborated on a study that showed the next few generations of Reform Jews dwindling down to a relative handful, while the numbers of Haredim would boom. Yet there is a major caveat, Samuel Heilman notes. “The Haredim have financial problems galore,” he observes. The money is simply not there to finance families of eight, ten, or twelve children. Even some older Haredim, born before the recent demographic boom, are concerned about their grandchildren's financial security. “They are horrified by the number of kids their children are having,” says Hella Winston, who has spent several years at the City University of New York studying dissent within the Haredi community.
Still, Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, the largest organization of Haredi Jews in the United States, sees the future differently: “There will be an economic crunch, and there already are many two-income families in the community, but no Haredi Jew is starving, or having fewer children because of economic restraints. . . . All members of the community tithe their incomes to make sure that others will have the help they need. The Haredi community therefore has an unbelievable array of charitable organizations that ensure the survival of its members.” According to Shafran, the Haredi community will grow stronger, younger, and much larger in the coming years.
Some Jews do not consider birthrate to be a grave problem. It's the quality, not the quantity, that should concern us, some say. In their view, a dedicated minority is far better for the long-term health of the Jewish people than a large group of people who are indifferent to their people's survival. “Less is more,” they say. Unfortunately, though, less is really less. Fewer people means less funding for schools, nursing homes, synagogues, and community centers. Fewer people means fewer educators, organizers, and rabbis. It could also lead to decreased power in Washington and decreased support for Israel.
What then is to be done? Some have suggested subsidies, particularly in the form of lower Jewish day-school tuition. However, many scholars disagree, arguing that tuition breaks and other subsidies would do little to encourage higher birthrates. With an ideology of reproduction, subsidies and tuition breaks would help. But among the vast majority of Jews there is no such ideology.
Indeed, the data from Europe and America about “paying people to have more children” through government subsidies and tax breaks are not encouraging. The Europeans have offered all kinds of tax breaks, child allowances, and government programs aimed at encouraging more children. And yet, despite all this, the average European fertility rate is 1.4, an all-time low, with no sign of reversal. Steven Bayme, the director of the department of “Contemporary Jewish Life” at the American Jewish Committee, reports that in the mid-1980s, a broad coalition of Jewish organizations came together to discuss Jewish birthrates. They all favored higher fertility, but there was a problem: How could it be encouraged? After much debate and discussion, the group decided that the best way to attack the problem was through the pulpit. They recommended that rabbis speak to their congregations about the need for more children, setting a tone among the congregations that would hopefully be just as effective as tuition breaks or day care.
But even that bargain-rate recommendation faced stiff opposition, says Bayme. One group was highly skeptical that rabbis could have any influence on the birthrate. Gerson Cohen, who was then the chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, objected, telling the Wall Street Journal that “babies aren't generated by sermons.” Others argue that focusing on young, career-oriented Jews is like treating the symptoms rather than the cause. Responsibility lies not with the young people but with the parents and community who reared them on values that first stressed occupational achievement, rather than raising a family. “It's a mixed message,” says one twenty-something woman, “when parents begin telling their adult children to have kids when they're just half-way towards achieving the very same educational goals their parents set out for them.” And, she notes, once they've had children, they are constantly pressured to send their children to the most expensive (and therefore best) schools and universities, which typically makes it extremely difficult to raise more than two children.
Blu Greenberg, founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, is the mother of five herself and believes that women will always feel the need to raise children. “Women still want to nurture,” she says, and “there's still a lot more we can be doing to help women raise families” in a way that also allows them to have careers. Businesses and society, she feels, could do more to endorse alternative career tracks among women who choose to have children first and wait on their careers until later. Finally, though, Greenberg agrees that the Haredim are privy to a sacred truth. A traditional family, with traditional Sabbath meals around a table, is the best way to encourage higher birthrates: “traditionalism reinforces family,” she says. “Judaism is a family-oriented religion, where the rituals center on the home.”
Michael Steinhardt, one of Wall Street's great investors and philanthropists, sides with Greenberg. “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 opening twelve model pre-schools in September 2005, with the aim of raising the number of Jewish children who go on to day schools.
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 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.
But despite the gains in education, not a single major Jewish organization focuses directly on the problem of Jewish fertility. And very soon, the Jewish birth dearth will begin to inform the way we think about almost all things Jewish—from politics and education to seniors, synagogues, child care, and employment. If non-Haredi Judaism is going to stop its downward slide, the Jewish community must begin to face this problem, and at least begin to ask the difficult questions. In the words of one Jewish scholar, “just asking the questions could provide some momentum.”
Ben J. Wattenberg has been a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute since 1978. He writes frequently on global fertility. His two most recent books on the subject are The Birth Dearth and Fewer. Jeremy Kadden is an aide to Congressman Jim Kolbe and was assistant to Mr. Wattenberg from 2002-2005. He received a Master's Degree from the University of Cambridge in 2001, studying European history and demographics.