Anyone interested in the survival of the Jewish people had better get to know Alison Stein Kellner.
The most striking statistic from the National Jewish Population Survey 2000 released this week is that more than half of 30-34 year-old Jewish women are childless, about double the percentage of American women overall.
It’s a critical figure in light of the fact that the NJPS has found an overall 5 percent drop in the American Jewish population in the last decade, from 5.5 million to 5.2 million.
Stein Kellner, 27, a prolific book author and journalist, is childless, married to a non-Jew and planning to have one, “maybe two” children, she said. She’s not interested in having more because she is committed to her career, and because raising children is so expensive. She and her husband agreed, though, to raise the children they hope to have as Jews.
Stephen Hoffman, chief executive officer of United Jewish Communities, which funded and is analyzing the $6 million NJPS, said that while “there’s no one preferred way to change the trend” toward fewer children, “there needs to be more examination of the high cost of living Jewishly.
“Perhaps we can have some impact on family planning decisions by addressing the economics” behind them, he said at a press conference Tuesday.
According to Stein Kellner, an editor at large at American Demographics magazine who lives in southern New Hampshire, there is nothing the Jewish community could offer her or her peers to change their plans for small families.
“There isn’t a marketing campaign that would get me to have five children,” she said. Financial subsidies for things like Jewish education and synagogue membership wouldn’t be enough to alter her plans, she said. “It’s a decision that relates to so much more than one piece of your identity.”
After all, she said, “the American government offers tax breaks” for each child in a family, and that hasn’t been enough to raise fertility levels overall.
Low fertility levels are just one of the trends first documented in the 1990 NJPS and confirmed by the new findings.
The Jewish community is smaller and older than it was a decade ago, according to the 2000 survey. And it is aging significantly faster than Americans in general.
The new findings were attacked by a leading demographer, Gary Tobin, whose own recent study of the Jewish population, using the same definitions of Jewishness but a different interviewing approach and different statistical sampling and weighting, came up with a figure of 6.7 million.
Others, including several of the NJPS technical advisers, questioned the wisdom of some changes made to the 2000 survey from a decade ago, saying they make it difficult to accurately track trends. (See sidebar.)
Few of what promises to be a trove of findings from the NJPS 2000 were released this week. Officials at a press conference convened by UJC, the umbrella group of Jewish federations, released rudimentary information about the size, geographic distribution, age, fertility and education of the Jewish community.
The much-anticipated intermarriage rate will be released at the UJC convention in late November, said Lorraine Blass, the NJPS project manager at the organization.
But even at that gathering, just 12 to15 pages of information about Jewish behavior — intermarriage, denominational affiliation, ritual observance and more — will be released. The full 100-page report will be unveiled next spring, Blass said.
The released data reveal a graying, slowly shrinking Jewish community: There is a median age of 41 among American Jews, compared with 37 among Jews a decade ago and a current median age of 35 among Americans in general. The percentage of Jews 17 and under fell to 19 percent, from 21 percent. The national average is 26 percent. Seniors 65 and above account for 19 percent of the Jewish population but 12 percent of the U.S. population.
In addition, the fertility rate among Jews is below replacement level, with each woman giving birth to an average of 1.8 children. The replacement level is 2.1 children.
It’s also a community that hasn’t moved much in the last decade, as geographic distribution has remained flat: 43 percent of American Jews now live in the Northeast, compared to 44 percent a decade ago; 22 percent are in the West, down from 23 percent; 22 percent still live in the South; and 13 percent are in the Midwest now, compared to 11 percent.
Jews continue to be more highly educated than most Americans: 24 percent have a graduate degree, compared to 5 percent of Americans overall.
Each of the trends was visible in the 1990 NJPS and confirmed in the new study.
“These data speak of a ‘settling down’ and a ‘settling in’ of the Jewish population,” said Steven Cohen, a Jerusalem-based demographer working as a consultant to UJC.
“The 1960s and ’70s were a period of great social upheaval. The 1990s were characterized by a settling in, a maturation of the baby boom generation. The similarity in regional distribution of Jews in 1990 and 2000 is in many respects a metaphor for this slowing down of Jewish mobility,” he said in an interview.
Cohen, who was a vocal critic of the way the intermarriage rate was calculated in the 1990 study even though he served on its technical advisory committee, was not invited to be on the advisory committee this time, but he was hired in August by UJC as a consultant. This week he declined to address questions about the accuracy of the new findings.
But Tobin had no such qualms. “Given the political climate, how destructive is it to put out there that Jews are a declining population when exactly the opposite is true?” he asked.
“It sends a terrible psychological message to the Jewish community, and also to anyone who might be considering joining the community,” said Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Community & Jewish Research, which has conducted local Jewish population studies for Jewish federations around the country.
Interpreting the few released figures is difficult in the absence of substantive information about the behavior and identification of various segments of the American Jewish community, some said.
“We seem to be an aging community, but there are counter-elements,” said Arthur Hertzberg, visiting professor of the humanities at New York University and author of a new memoir, “A Jew in America” (Harper).
Because so little information has been released by UJC executives, “we don’t really know what the sub-trends are, which in many senses are a more important story,” he said.
“The great question is what we will do with our old age and what we will do with our Jewish institutions as our numbers ultimately decline,” Hertzberg said. “The most worrisome element is how much of their own Jewishness are these aging Jews passing on to their grandchildren? I am afraid not much.”
Low fertility rates among Jewish American women are nothing new — they have been lower than those of other American women since the 1920s, said Alice Goldstein, a member of the NJPS technical advisory committee who retired as a population studies researcher at Brown University.
But another scholar warned that the broad disparity between Jewish and general American fertility at age 34 should serve as a wake-up call to the Jewish community.
“The American Jewish community should really pay serious attention to this,” said Sylvia Barack Fishman, associate professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University, who has studied the relationship between feminism, education and fertility among Jewish women.
“There has not been coherent attention paid to this before,” she said, “because it’s very hard to deal with this issue without sounding like your goal is to get Jewish women back in the kitchen.”