Jewish leaders worry about population decline

Though area apparently bucks trend, outreach activities are planned

October 18, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Rabbi Seymour L. Essrog observes that, in a new demographic study that shows the United States' Jewish population shrinking, his family could be Exhibit A.

Essrog, who leads a Reisterstown synagogue, has a daughter with three children. His other daughter married last year and, at age 35, has told her mother that she has time enough to have children. His son, 38, is single.

The study, published by United Jewish Communities, an umbrella group of Jewish federations, found many families like the Conservative rabbi's. It reports a decline of 5 percent among U.S. Jews over the past decade and says Jews are not reproducing at a rate sufficient to replace their numbers.

"I mirror the changing family structure of the Jewish community," Essrog said. "We're definitely losing people. All of our children are going to college, and they're delaying marriage and delaying children."

Although some question the study's accuracy, national and local programs are afoot to attempt to counter the statistics by binding Jews to their religion. A monthlong "teach-in" is planned for January at Jewish day schools nationwide to discuss the importance of Israel, in the hope that involving young people and parents in that country's struggles will bring them closer to Judaism.

Locally, there are matchmaking services, volunteer groups and classes for those interested in Judaism, and plans for welcoming newcomers and sending outreach workers to Jewish play groups.

Some elements of the study, such as the issue of the age at which women are having children, will be harder to address. Researchers found that more than half of Jewish women in their early 30s are childless, compared with 27 percent of all American women in that age group.

"Even though people hate to talk about it, we're going to have that discussion nationally," said United Jewish Communities President Stephen Hoffman.

The discussion will be complicated. Tanya Antwerpen of Baltimore, who married last month at age 30, says she plans to have children but wanted time to find the right Jewish man and to establish her career as an interior designer. Now she wants a little more time to enjoy her husband, Michael.

"We want to start a family, but we want to enjoy ourselves together, too," said the Fells Point resident.

The national study has not been broken down in detail geographically. Baltimore Jewish leaders say their community is growing, with the largest percentage of Orthodox Jews of any major city. A study published last year by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore found the Jewish population in the city and Baltimore County growing from about 87,000 Jews in 1985 to about 91,400 in 1999.

"What we are excited about is that in Baltimore we seem to be bucking the national trend," said Carole Sibel, board president of The Associated. "We are growing. Our community is young."

Because different studies use different definitions of who is Jewish, disagreement exists over numbers. In contrast to last week's report, which found 5.2 million Jews in the United States, San Francisco researcher Gary Tobin, who has studied the Jewish population for years, released a study last month that put the population at 6.7 million.

Still, mindful of enduring estimates that half of Jews are marrying non-Jews, leaders in Baltimore and elsewhere have been fighting to keep people in the fold, with programs from the seriously spiritual to the somewhat whimsical.

The Associated has sponsored modern matchmaking services to help Jewish singles meet and created volunteer activities geared toward families with young children.

The Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies and the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies teamed last year with an education program to offer courses called "Judaism a la Carte" to attract marginally affiliated Jews to religious study.

Local philanthropist LeRoy E. Hoffberger started the foundation, which provides classes about the Torah, in the hope that students who become immersed in holy texts will become more interested in Judaism.

"It is not as much a religion of faith as it is a religion of knowledge," Hoffberger said. If people don't understand the basic tenets of Judaism and what the Torah and Hebrew Scriptures are saying, they might not remain connected to their religion, he said.

More programs are in the works. The Associated plans to start "Shalom Baltimore," a service to target newcomers with outreach workers to draw them into Jewish life. A walk-in center for teens is scheduled to open in the winter in the Pikesville-Greenspring corridor.

Essrog, who leads Adat Chaim Congregation, thinks the greatest potential for growth might lie in reaching out to "Jews by choice," people who convert because of marriage or for other reasons. "There are a heck of a lot of people out there who are searching," he said. "If not for the increase of people who have embraced Judaism, we would be far worse off in America."

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