Pittsburgh the cure to Jewish demographic illness
Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward made a shocking admission in her most recent column. She has finally recognized that Jews marrying non-Jews is actually hurting the Jewish community.
“This is what we’ve wanted, isn’t it — to be open-minded and accepted, to be integrated into the American mosaic?” Eisner asks.
“But this acceptance … comes at a price we are not willing to acknowledge, which I believe endangers the future of egalitarian, progressive American Judaism. And we don’t know what to do,” Eisner admits.
What she means is that we have a continuity problem in the non-Orthodox community. That continuity problem is based on some difficult facts.
Overall, the United States is facing a birthrate problem because we aren’t having enough babies. The Jewish community — excluding the Orthodox community, which is doing just fine replacing itself — is suffering from the same challenge, and even more so.
First, there is the problem of non-Orthodox Jews marrying at all. As Eisner laments, population studies show that only half the non-Orthodox Jewish population is married by their early 30s. That means that many will never get married; even among those who do get married there is the reality that choosing to marry in your early to mid-30s means, on average, having smaller families of one or two children, if any at all.
In a remarkable cover story in The New Republic last month, science editor Judith Shulevitz discussed in chilling detail just how common it is to find older parents such as herself and her husband having fewer children, and all the negative effects of the phenomenon.
As Shulevitz explains, it is supposed to be a complete positive that women can spend their best child-bearing years focused on their careers and their own self-actualization because, after all, there’s all this wonderful technology to help those who can’t get pregnant to procreate.
As she found out, however, the “wonders” of fertility treatments include tremendous negative outcomes. Older mothers and (as some research now indicates) older fathers mean lots of these fertility-treatment-derived kids have plenty of developmental problems. The treatments themselves can lead to health risks for the mother, including in too many cases, cancer. Then there is the basic problem of how few children all these middle-aged couples are producing. It is below replacement rate and this means we are facing an economic crisis due to having many more retirees in need of government services and entitlements, than we have workers to pay for them.
Shulevitz also discusses some of the less direct but still negative impacts of this phenomenon. She fears that these children of older parents are cut off from their family’s traditions and ancestry because few of them get to know their grandparents. And meanwhile, the parents of these children get sandwiched between raising small kids at the same time as they have to care for their elderly parents. Not to mention the fact that the children are likely to lose their own parents earlier in life, which Shulevitz worries may stunt their development, or worse.
Shulevitz’s analysis doesn’t directly focus on Jews. It is a study of the phenomenon of “greying parenthood” in general. But given that Shulevitz uses her own life as exhibit A, and she’s part of the cohort of older, non-Orthodox Jews choosing to procreate later and less often, how unfair is it to extrapolate out from her experience to the greater non-Orthodox Jewish community?
The fact is that Shulevitz and Eisner have identified and criticized the same problem: Too many Jews are waiting too long to get married and have children and when they do decide to bear children they aren’t having very many. Worse still, the odds are that Judaism isn’t central to their lives. Although, Eisner’s contention, “we don’t know what to do about it,” is mistaken. We do know; it’s just hard.
Here are two possible solutions to this Jewish demographic crisis: Judgment and geography.
Judgment is the more difficult solution because, as every presidential election proves, most Jews are liberals and as such they value non-judgmentalism. Liberals believe that open-mindedness is a high ideal and that advocating one particular set of values over another set of particular values is old-fashioned, or worse, prejudiced. And yet, if you are Jewish and you want your kids to be Jewish and you want your grandkids to be Jewish, as Eisner does, you obviously value your Judaism over and above other religions/ethnicities/traditions. This is not to say that you harbor any negative feelings toward others, only that you prefer your own people. It may be judgmental to say to a child that Mommy and Daddy prefer that Junior date Jews, marry a Jew and raise Jewish children, that is after they have made clear that they value marriage in the first place. But how is it a greater sign of love toward your offspring to deny that you have a set of preferences? What’s better about refusing to share (some would call it “impose”) those values on your child? So be judgmental, it might just help grow the Jewish people.
The second solution is geography. Fully one quarter of all Jews in the United States live in the greater New York area and New York is just too expensive. Have you heard of the “Pittsburgh Baby”? That’s the child that recent transplants to this great city have when they realize they can afford it. The Pittsburgh baby is the one these couples never considered having while living in New York (or Los Angeles). Living in Pittsburgh, or Cleveland, or Minneapolis or St Louis or any other city that is more affordable means more children. (Indeed the national birthrate broken down by state shows this to be true.) Given that all of these places have thriving Jewish life, it is also likely that these children can be raised Jewish.
So say it loud and say it proud: Staying Jewish is the goal and better to live in Pittsburgh with more kids than New York with fewer.
(Abby W. Schachter is a Pittsburgh-based political columnist. Follow her on Twitter @abbyschachter.)