When I went to public school in Manhattan as a child, we all thought we knew what a family and a typical household looked like — something akin to "Fun With Dick and Jane." Yet even in the 1950s, lots of households didn't look like the two-parent-couple-of-kids-dog-and-cat family in that reader. And they certainly don't resemble households in the new Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia-sponsored Jewish population survey of 2009.
The new study found that there are about 116,700 Jewish households in the area (with a household defined as having at least one Jewish adult), with about 251,400 persons living in them. Of those quarter-million, nearly 215,000 are Jewish, including about 178,000 adults — an increase of 18 percent over the number of Jewish adults found in the last study conducted in 1996/97.
Though the Jewish population has grown over the past 13 years, the number of Jewish children under 18 has diminished by 16 percent, to an estimated 36,900.
It stands to reason that if there are fewer children and more households, most Jewish households are small, and made up of one or two adults. In fact, in the five-county area, just 22 percent of Jewish households include one or more children under the age of 18. Over a third are made up of one adult living alone and, with the exception of a few single-parent households, the rest are composed of two adults who are married or partnered.
What to make of all of this? Similar findings from the first National Jewish Population Survey in 1972 led to raucous pro-fertility rhetoric and some anti-feminist backlash. We know from studies of countries over time that it's almost impossible to effect policies that influence the birthrate.
So if the number of children is unlikely to change, we have to find a way to engage, educate, excite and embrace the adults. Unless Jewish adults decide that Judaism — and their heritage and civilization — play an important role in their lives, there will not continue to be a vibrant Jewish community in Philadelphia.
Too often during the last quarter century, the focus of Jewish communal planning has been on parents of young children (the parents themselves have gotten progressively older). The emphasis on early-childhood education, day school, summer camp, improved supplementary schools, youth activities and parallel classes for parents of children in religious school were and are important.
However, such a focus excludes 75 percent to 80 percent of Jewish households. In many synagogues, if you don't have a child to bring along, you don't feel comfortable at Simchat Torah or Purim time. At larger community events, participation in Israel parades or fairs is largely delegated to the school-aged population and their parents. Singles are often forgotten at life-cycle rituals and don't feel like real members in congregational life.
There were some exceptions — the Melton and Me'ah adult-learning programs, along with burgeoning Jewish studies on many college campuses, did reach out to adults across the board. Adult Bat Mitzvah classes were launched. And in the Orthodox community, serious text study for women and men increased.
Still, a shul with a religious school decreasing in size was considered a failed enterprise; young adults found little to engage them after college; and the drop-out rate of empty-nesters and seniors from synagogue life was precipitous.
The good news is that there are entrepreneurial efforts initiated by Gen-Xers (born between 1961 and 1981) and millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) — as well as empty-nesters and seniors — that aim to energize Jewish adults.
Whether it is Hazon, an environmental start-up, or the cultural Tablet online magazine and Nextbook Press, revitalization of the American Jewish World Service and the Jewish Book Council, or the creation of new minyanim like Minyan Tikvah, Mekor HaBracha and Minyan Merkaz in Philadelphia, there are pockets of success that bear watching.
Reorienting our thinking may be tough, but it deserves a wholehearted try. Otherwise, we will forego the considerable experience, talents and volunteer time of large segments of the adult Jewish population. They, in turn, will miss out on the immeasurable social, emotional, spiritual and intellectual riches that would add meaning to their lives.