Sunday, August 22, 2021

The High Birth Rate of Orthodox Jews

Scene in Williamsburg (JTA)
It appears that Orthodox Jews are living up to their billing. The 2020 US census shows that  Williamsburg and Lakewood are the fastest growing segments of New York and New Jersey respectively. 

By now it is rather well known that American Orthodox Jewry is growing while the rest of American Jewry is shrinking. If things keep going in this direction, Orthodox Jews will eventually become the majority of the American Jewish population. This is something the Orthodox Jews can be proud of. But...  not without the heavy cost of losing so many non Orthodox  Jews to assimilation and intermarriage. So while we can be proud of our growth rate there can be no celebration. It may not be our fault, but it very sad that there are so many Jews that are failing to perpetuate their own Judaism into the future.

One of the criticisms I keep hearing about our successful rate of growth is that it is not a growth from without. That it is only a growth from within. Meaning that Orthodoxy does not attract non Jews to convert or even non observant Jews to become observant. It is only growing because of our high birth rate. I think that’s probably an oversimplification - but it is largely true. Orthodox Jews tend to have large families. Especially in the more right wing segments. 9 or 10 (or more) children per family is not that uncommon. Especially in the more Chasidic communities like Williamsburg whose family size is probably even larger on the average than Lakewood families. 

I have little tolerance for such criticism. The implication is that our growth is artificial. Just a function of our high birth rate. That Orthodoxy otherwise has no particular value outside of our own little world. Without that high birth rate  we wouldn’t grow at all. 

I have no way of knowing whether that’s true or not. But even if it is, why is a high birth rate not a legitimate form of growth? I submit that the fact that we have so many children and that they accept the traditions of their forefathers is absolutely a legitimate form of growth! 

On the other hand the children of non Orthodox Jews  rarely accept the traditions of their forefathers. Because in many cases they have no clue about what those traditions are. It does not help them that their birth rate is so low. But even if it would be the same as Orthodox Jews - they would still be shrinking.  If you don’t even know what your heritage is, how could you perpetuate it? Why would you even want to?! I say this with no pleasure or sense of triumphalism. I say it only as a fact based on the well known demographic studies executed by Pew Research. 

There are people (some of whom are Orthodox Jews) that criticize the high birth rate of the Charedi world. I am not one of them.  No one has a right to tell anyone else how many children they should have. 

There are many large long time Orthodox Jewish families here in Chicago. I know quite a few of them. Their children are each ethical productive members of society. They were all raised by loving parents devoted to their health and education – both religious and secular. The values of the Torah were successfully transmitted to them all. Each with their own strengths. And each with their own contributions to society.  Their parents were not wealthy. But those kids were all well fed, well educated, and well adjusted. Many of them have become parents themselves – each with children they are raising the same way. 

Point being that it isn’t how many children you have. It is how you raise them. There are unfortunately some families that have a lot of children but are dysfunctional. This is where the problem lies. But a dysfunctional family of even one child is a tragedy. A tragedy which is of course multiplied by the number of children in such a family.  

Not that I am qualified, but if I were to offer advice to the Poskim of those communities it would be along the lines of the following. If they are aware of a a married couple in a dysfunctional relationship birth control should certainly be advised. Whether dysfunction is a legitimate reason for birth control is beyond my expertise. But logic dictates that it should be.

Some Orthodox Jews believe that birth control is Halachically forbidden. But that is not the case. There are a variety of circumstances where it is permitted. I am not personally qualified to Paskin if and when it should be practiced. But I know that many Poskim are lenient about birth control if a mother after having a certain number of children is not psychologically capable of raising another child. 

It is obviously more complicated than that. There are for example many different ways in which birth control can be practiced. Some methods are more Halachicaly acceptable than others. The bottom line is that a qualified Posek should be consulted. A dysfunctional relationship between a married couple should be one of those instances where birth control should be permitted if not outright encouraged.

My understanding is that in the Chasidic community, there is very little room for birth control of any kind under any conditions – except for life threatening situations. If that is the case, then it would not surprise me if there is a spike in Chasidic children going OTD if they were  raised by dysfunctional parents. This is something can be minimized if not completely avoided by advising such families to practice birth control. If they don’t, the results will not be pretty. 

Just my 2 cents