The Jewish community, here and around the world, equates demographics with survival, so it's only natural that we obsess over our numbers. But we may be willfully ignoring a plausible solution to our ever-worrisome dwindling Jewish population.
Consider: Communal officials today are eagerly anticipating the latest findings of the once-a-decade National Jewish Population Survey, due out next week, to see whether there are closer to 5 million or 7 million Jews in this country and, perhaps more important, whether assimilation is up or down from a decade ago. The 1990 study found the intermarriage rate to be 52 percent, setting off a chain of intense reactions, from self-criticism over the loss of a generation, to renewed efforts to bolster identity through social and educational projects, to acknowledging the inevitability of the trend and seeking ways to increase outreach to the intermarried.
Bottom line, the fear is that if the Jewish population is shrinking, so too will our religious, social, educational and political strength.
In Israel, the concern is even more profound. Locked in a struggle with its neighbors for its very right to exist as a Jewish state, Israel is well aware that its Arab population, now about 20 percent, is increasing more rapidly than its Jewish numbers. It's only a matter of time, then, for the Jews to be outnumbered. In a democracy that means in a few decades the Arabs could undo the Jewish state, quietly, through the polls, after failing for so many years on the battlefield.
For more than 50 years now, Israeli leaders have been preaching to us one message we don't want to hear: aliyah. More than our money, they want us living in Israel; the best way to ensure the Jewish state, they say, is to fill it with Jews.
But if we're not willing to emigrate, why do we and the rest of the Jewish world, consumed as we are with bolstering our numbers, turn a deaf ear to the tens of thousands of people - maybe far more - in India, Peru, Africa, Japan, Spain, Burma and other exotic places who claim to be part of our people and long to settle in Israel?
Isn't it time we took them seriously?
The fact is that in recent years their voices, and those of credible advocates, have grown louder. Israel's chief rabbinate, a key factor in legitimizing Ethiopian Jewry more than a decade ago, has recently investigated and ruled favorably on members of the Bnai Menashe of India as well as a small tribe from Peru, and helped them through the formal conversion process. Hundreds of these people are now settled in Israel.
Supporters are urging far greater attention to these and other "lost Jews," insisting they represent a credible resolution of the dilemma over world Jewry's declining demographics.
Moshe Cotel, a local rabbinical student and active member of Kulanu (Hebrew for "all of us"), a group dedicated to finding and assisting lost and dispersed remnants of the Jewish people, says the prevalent Jewish communal response - or non-response - to these pleas is part racial, part economic and part based on a fear of diluting the purity of the Jewish people.
"It's hogwash to lament the demise of the Jewish people when there may be millions of people who want 'in' and we refuse to deal with them," says Cotel, who gave up a successful classical music career in his 50s to study to become a rabbi.
"There is a tidal wave of conversion to Judaism coming in the next decades," he insists, "and we'll either learn to surf or we'll drown in it."
With few exceptions, Cotel says, this issue is not on the radar of Jewish leadership. "I tell them, 'Hey, wake up and get on your surfboard,' but they tell me I'm hopelessly naive."
Cotel was part of a bet din, or religious court, comprised of four Conservative rabbis (three from the United States and one from Israel) who traveled to eastern Uganda last February to conduct some 300 religious conversions for the Abuyadaya, a community of 600 native Ugandans who have been observing Mosaic laws for more than 80 years. (In 1919, a local governor named Semei Kakungulu, after studying the Bible, instructed his followers to adopt the laws of Moses. Though the group has dwindled, it has held to its traditions, in spite of discrimination, most virulently under Idi Amin in the 1970s.)