How many Jews are there in the world today? 15 million? How many Jews were there before World War II? Apparently, the number was around the 17 million mark. In other words, we have still not replaced the numbers of Jews wiped out in the Holocaust. Which begs the colossal question: Where are all the missing Jews? Or, specifically, why in the last 77 years have we still not made up our losses of 6 million of our brethren?
The truth is that we all know the reasons. Success, affluence and lifestyles that encourage sophisticated selfishness—why spend money on kids when we can enjoy it ourselves?—have all encouraged overzealous adherence to Zero Population Growth. In fact, at 1.8 children per Jewish family, we aren’t even replacing ourselves, never mind the Six Million.
Then, of course, there are the ravages of assimilation. If every other young American Jew is marrying out, what chance do we have at increasing our numbers?
Now it is true that traditionally, Jews were never into playing the numbers game. G-d Himself said so in the Bible when he told us, “Not because of your great numbers have I chosen you, because you are the smallest of nations.”
That does not mean, though, that we should be complacent about vanishing Jews. This week, we read at the beginning of the book of Numbers (Bamidbar) that G-d orders the census of our people. And it doesn’t matter what the size of our beard is or what type of yarmulke we wear or don’t wear; at the end of the day, G-d counts what is precious to him. So, if the Almighty values every single Jew, then how can we allow any Jew to write himself off?
Some years ago, when I was hosting South Africa’s only Jewish radio show, “The Jewish Sound,” I interviewed a prominent leader of the World Jewish Congress in the country for a conference. I asked him if he was not perturbed by the dire predictions being made then about the shrinking Jewish population. His answer was that we would probably have a smaller Jewish community, but that it would be a stronger one. Those who resisted assimilation would be proud, committed Jews.
I couldn’t argue the point, but what disturbed me deeply was his seemingly nonchalant attitude and the matter-of-fact tone in his voice. It was almost as if to say, “So what! We will be smaller but stronger.”
So what?! G-d says every Jew is important enough to be counted. Every one of us has a neshama, a soul, which is a veritable part of G-d. We lost 6 million sparks of G-d in the Holocaust and don’t appear to be replacing them, and a Jewish leader says, “So what?!”
A few years back, I was invited to be the guest speaker at a Jewish event in Phoenix, Ariz. After the proceedings, I was chatting to a rabbi from Tucson who came for the occasion. He asked me what the intermarriage rate was in the community of Johannesburg. Now, South Africa is known for its remarkably traditional Jewish community and, at that time, a recent survey had pegged our intermarriage statistics at only 9% (I imagine that it has climbed upwards since then).
His response shocked me. “Same as Tucson,” he said.
“What?” I asked incredulously “Tucson has only 9% assimilation?!”
He gave a bitter laugh and explained. “I meant we have the same numbers as you. Just you are 0.9% and we are 90%.” Bittersweet, indeed.
I am an Orthodox rabbi and am delighted to see the numbers out of the Pew Surveys demonstrating that Orthodoxy in America is growing substantially. But I take no pride in a greater percentage of American Jews identifying as Orthodox. Indeed, I lament the disappearing act of so many of our brothers and sisters, whatever form of Judaism they may or may not practice.
On Sunday and Monday, we will be celebrating the Festival of Shavuot, marking the revelation at Sinai, the Ten Commandments, and the Giving of the Torah 3,334 years ago. In a Torah scroll, every single letter is vitally important. If even one letter is missing or even faded away, the entire Torah scroll is posul, invalid for use in the synagogue service.
The mystics compare every Jew to a letter of the Torah. Like those sacred letters, if even one Jew is missing, we are all diminished and invalidated. We need each other.
Please G-d, we will all fulfill the responsibility and privilege to help rebuild the lost generation and the vanished communities of Eastern Europe. Please G-d, our nation will be strong and will grow in numbers until every lost Jew will find their place, and stand up and be counted among our people.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.