WASHINGTON, September 26 (RNS)--By the time she turned 29, Silvia Schneider Fox was finally ready to have children. Like so many Jewish women, she had postponed having children until she had finished her graduate degree and established 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, with visits to fertility specialists and a deepening spiritual crisis that left Fox asking if she had been abandoned by God.

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

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

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

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 be close at hand in Israel, and a Jew may soon become the next vice president of the United States.

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

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

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

Why the lower numbers?

Sylvia Barak Fishman, as associate professor at Brandeis University, said Jewish women like Fox have traditionally delayed childrearing for higher education; a half century ago, half of Jewish women had one child by age 22, and three-quarters had a child by age 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 have babies," Fishman said. "But for women who want to have babies, I don't think they are getting enough information about the implications of waiting. By deliberately delaying having children, they may be closing off some of their options."

Smaller families, because of infertility or other reasons, do not bode well for an already-shrinking Jewish population. Susan Katz, the national director of Stars of David International, Inc., a 16-year-old Jewish adoption agency, said nothing short of the future is at stake.

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

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

The stigma associated with infertility is compounded by a faith tradition that stresses family life and motherhood. Often couples struggling 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 couple who can't have children and wants to identify with the Jewish community raises serious questions."

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

A broad-based education effort is under way within Judaism to raise awareness of the consequences of delayed childrearing, both for couples and 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 have kids."

In addition, infertility experts are trying to coach religious leaders in how to handle the physical and spiritual strains that infertility can pose for Jewish couples. It can be especially hard on mothers, who are the traditional conduit of Jewish identity from one generation to the next.

Still, not everyone agrees that rising infertility rates may be the downfall of the Jewish people. Gary Tobin, a leading Jewish demographer and president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, said the problem has more to do with deliberate choice than infertility.

While acknowledging the deeply "personal and painful" aspects of infertility and calling for greater sensitivity to the problem, Tobin said the greater threat is couples who have few children, or no children at all.

"Infertility as a cause of decline in the Jewish community is nowhere near as much the problem--or as significant a problem--as parents who choose to limit the family size and the barriers to adoption," Tobin said.

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