Every ten years or so, the American Jewish community sits on pins and needles waiting on the results of the latest demographics survey. The last one was done in 2013 by the Pew Research Center, giving, as always a mixed picture of what our community actually looks like: there were more Jews than expected (some 6.5 million), but the majority of those Jews (almost 80%) were disconnected from Jewish institutions.
This week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, begins a four-chapter-long detailed survey of the Biblical Jewish community that will take us all the way to next week’s Torah portion Naso. Unlike our version, the news for them is resoundingly positive. The Israelites were concerned almost exclusively with military-aged men, as they prepare themselves for the conquest of the land of Canaan. When all is said and done there were over six hundred thousand of them (603,550 to be exact), an almost ten-thousand percent jump from the seventy who came to Egypt during the time of Joseph. While the Torah only gives the raw data, the mood must have been jubilant. This was a force to be reckoned with, a military on-par with that of any assembled at that time period.
We, on the other hand, face an uncertain future. How do we remake our Jewish institutions to meet the needs of an increasingly assimilated population? The modern Jewish family is, outside of the Orthodox world, not exclusively Jewish. What does that mean for our identity?
The picture of Jewish Buffalo is even bleaker. From a high of well over twenty-five thousand forty years ago, our own 2012 census indicates that we are now twelve thousand or less. But, perhaps each of these census’s are missing the larger point. Yes, the exclusive Jewish community has shrunk, but the inclusive one continues to grow.
More and more Americans have Jews somewhere within their family or extended family circle. We sometimes now refer to these individuals as Jew-Adjacent, not bearing a Jewish identity themselves, but intimately connected to those who do. This is why, even as our percentage of the overall American Jewish population has shrunk, our impact on society continues to grow.
While, some in our community may see this as a bad thing, I do not. People from all faith backgrounds are coming to our doors, curious, adventurous, wanting to understand us better. I see this in the number of people who want to convert, and in the number of “non-Jews” (a term I do not particularly like) who come to “Jewish” events and experiences. Our ancient faith continues to matter. We are a people of constant movement, wandering the wilderness, seeking meaning. When the way we have been counting ceases to give a true picture of who we are, we should change the way we count. That is what the ancient Israelites in the Book of Numbers did and that is what we should continue to do today.