WASHINGTON, September 26 (RNS)--By the time she turned 29, Silvia Schneider Fox wasfinally ready to have children. Like so many Jewish women, she hadpostponed having children until she had finished her graduate degree andestablished herself in her career.

But then the problems began.

For five years, Fox and her husband struggled with infertility.Their lives were filled with seasons of despair and frustration, withvisits to fertility specialists and a deepening spiritual crisis thatleft Fox asking if she had been abandoned by God.

Fortunately for Fox, she was able to conceive a child at age 34, andthen another child three years later. She is now a clinical psychologistoutside Chicago and the director of support services for RESOLVE ofIllinois, an infertility support group.

Fox knows how hard infertility can be, but she also knows it can beharder if you're Jewish.

"The emphasis on motherhood and parenthood is even stronger than itis in the larger community," Fox said. "To be fruitful and multiply isan expectation, and that puts added pressure on people who cannot beparents."

As Jews gather to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and welcome the Hebrew year 5761, which begins Friday evening in accordance with Jewish tradition, they revel in an unprecedented era of good fortune. Peace may finally beclose at hand in Israel, and a Jew may soon become the next vicepresident of the United States.

But looming in the background are a number of distressing trendsthat cause concern for American Jewry, including infertility. Recordnumbers of Jews continue to marry non-Jews, divorce rates are on therise, and the American Jewish Committee predicts the U.S. Jewishpopulation (currently about 5.8 million) could drop by a third within three generations.

Experts say infertility runs higher among American Jews--there are anestimated 93,720 infertile Jewish women--and with Jews traditionallyhaving smaller families, all these trends point to serious questions forthe future of Jews in the United States.

The 1990 Jewish Population Survey, which contains the most recentstatistics, shows Jewish families have an average of 1.7 children, belowthe national average of about 2.2 children. That's down from 2.8children for Jewish families in the 1950s, which was already below thenational average.

Why the lower numbers?

Sylvia Barak Fishman, as associate professorat Brandeis University, said Jewish women like Fox have traditionallydelayed childrearing for higher education; a half century ago, half ofJewish women had one child by age 22, and three-quarters had a child byage 25.

Now, 38% of Jewish women are still not married by age 30,Fishman said, and when these women try to have children at later ages,the trouble begins.

"I'm uncomfortable with people telling women that they ought to havebabies," Fishman said. "But for women who want to have babies, I don'tthink they are getting enough information about the implications ofwaiting. By deliberately delaying having children, they may be closingoff some of their options."

Smaller families, because of infertility or other reasons, do notbode well for an already-shrinking Jewish population. Susan Katz, thenational director of Stars of David International, Inc., a 16-year-oldJewish adoption agency, said nothing short of the future is at stake.

"There will not be a Jewish people without Jewish children," shesaid.

Infertility, after all, is nothing new to Judaism. Many of thebiblical matriarchs--Sarah, Rachel, Hannah--wrestled with God overbarren wombs. But those women also went on to give birth to the greatpatriarchs Isaac, Joseph, and Samuel.

The stigma associated with infertility is compounded by a faithtradition that stresses family life and motherhood. Often couplesstruggling to have children find themselves isolated and demoralized,and experts say rabbis rarely know what to do.

"There's a sense that every child counts," said Rabbi Michael Gold,a Tamarac, Fla., rabbi and author of "And Hannah Wept: Infertility,Adoption and the Jewish Couple." "If every child counts, then a couplewho can't have children and wants to identify with the Jewish communityraises serious questions."

Jewish leaders and infertility counselors agree that the Holocaustleaves Jews with a heavy burden to replenish the Jewish race. "For thechildren of the Holocaust, there is a sense of pressure, that they arethe bearers of the torch, the ones who are left, and it's up to them tocontinue the genetic link that otherwise would be lost," Fox said.

A broad-based education effort is under way within Judaism to raiseawareness of the consequences of delayed childrearing, both for couplesand for the larger community.

"Forget about fancy research," said Joel Crohn, co-author of"Fighting for Your Jewish Marriage

. "We're just waiting too long to havekids."