American Jewish Demographics and Birthright: A Response to Leonard Saxe

Leonard Saxe, Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, recently published an article at the Times of Israel. He makes a number of claims arguing for the great benefit of Birthright, amid painting a rosy future for American Jewish society. Some of these claims are not substantiated, and some are downright specious.

Since 1992, Saxe tells us, the American Jewish population rose by 25%, from roughly 5.5 million to 7.5 million. While Saxe does not attribute an increase of 2 million American Jews in less than thirty years to Birthright alone, he does give Birthright some of the credit. He bases this on a study he did on Birthright participants in the first decade of the program. Here are the results Saxe marshals as evidence:

  • Half the participants have children.
  • The participants are more likely than non-participants to marry a Jew.
  • Participants are generally more inclined to take part in Jewish calendar and life-cycle events and associate with other Jews.

But these points tell us very little. First off, that only half of the Jews who went on Birthright ten to twenty years ago have children is not really a cause for celebration; in fact it is consistent with the demographics telling us that Jews are not replacing themselves.

Furthermore, we cannot know, certainly based on the information Saxe provide us with in his article, if these birthrighters were always more Jewishly oriented; for all we know all of those in the study were Orthodox. It is impossible to ascertain if joining Birthright was a result of well established prior Jewish commitment or if Birthright actually made a difference. In short, correlation is not causation.

Saxe’s implausible claim that the American Jewish population has increased by 25% in the last generation, despite the fact that most Jews marry exogenously, indicates two things: One: the criteria on which he bases the population statistics have changed, radically. Two: by not informing the reader of this Saxe is misleading the reader about the vigor of American Jewish life.

The only way for American Jewry to correct its downward demographic spiral is to confront the issue. Only with an honest assessment of  what has worked, and what hasn’t, can American Jewry succeed.

About the Author
Long-time Jerusalemite tired of influential foreign voices beating down on Israel. Come on you guys -- you know better!
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