It’s being called a game changer. Everybody seems to be talking about the recently released Jewish Community Study of New York and its surprising findings regarding New York’s changing Jewish demography.
Surprising to everyone, it seems, except for me. I didn’t need a study to tell me about changes I can see before my eyes, just by opening the window of my Brooklyn apartment.
For the longest time, the stereotypical New York Jew was personified by Jerry Seinfeld’s titular sitcom character, slouching around the Upper West Side. Yet according to the latest study, this popular image is as outdated as dial-up Internet.
The fact is, New York’s Jewish community is becoming increasingly Orthodox. Thirty-two percent of Jewish households in the New York region are now Orthodox. Just three decades ago the figure was a mere 13 percent.
Living in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill — a hipster neighborhood next to Williamsburg – I’ve noticed the increase in chassidic school buses on the road. (They’ve been slowing down my morning commute, while frustrated hipster cyclists try to squeeze past them.)
I don’t mean to pick on hipsters, but in this case, it’s relevant. The problem for hipsters is that they don’t breed; they walk dogs. (Very cute ones, I might add.) As a rabbi at a big city college (Pratt Institute), I often walk around the campus with my brood. Students and faculty alike always run over and start smiling and cooing when they see my children. It’s almost as if these young adults — and (ironically) their teachers — have never seen actual children before. Sadly, some of them probably haven’t, at least not for a while.
The birthrate is dropping throughout the Western world (and slowing in the U.S.) because so many men and women no longer want to reproduce. If an evolutionary biologist observed this kind of behavior in any other species, he (or, more likely, she) would conclude the species was willingly committing suicide.
If that sounds melodramatic, hear me out. Try to imagine the future, say, fifty years from now. The mayor of New York is a chassidic Jew and the president of the United States is a Mormon.
In other words, people of faith are in charge.
In his book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Eric Kaufman states that people of faith are more likely to have children, regardless of income. Kaufman believes this religiously motivated fertility will eventually overturn the secularization process that has been underway in the West since the 1960s.
I’m a religious person (that’s an understatement), but I’m also a campus rabbi who treasures diversity. The world that’s coming isn’t exactly diverse.
Diversity isn’t a spectator sport. If too many people decide to sit out the game, there’s not much of a game left to play. This is the reason I wrote my forthcoming book, The Case for Children: Why Parenthood Makes Your World Better.
I respect the decisions these people make, even if I disagree with them, as long as they are made carefully and compassionately. Yet for all their thoughtfulness, they haven’t quite thought through the implications of their decision. Quite simply, without children there will be no future to care about.
In the Bible, God’s first commandment to humankind is, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the world and conquer it.” Some might ask why God needs to command people to do something that not only guarantees the continued survival of the human race but that comes so naturally, too. However, I sometimes wonder if that long-ago command “to be fruitful and multiply” was actually meant for us modern people, thousands of years in the future – a kind of message in a (baby) bottle that would wash ashore in our postmodern, post-parenting era.
Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is an internationally known best-selling author who recently was voted New York’s Hippest Rabbi by PBS Channel 13. He chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute. His forthcoming book is “The Case for Children: Why Parenthood Makes Your World Better.”