Thursday, May 23, 2013

Where We Live

from the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

From the desk of …                    
 Rabbi Barry Schwartz



As a small but dispersed people, it has always been fascinating to observe where Jews live.

When many of us travel we seek out the Jewish communities in the places we find ourselves. I am no exception and I have been privileged to journey to some far flung locales around the world. I have visited the northernmost synagogue in the world (Trondheim, Norway) and the southernmost (Dunedin, New Zealand). I have seen the site of the oldest known Jewish community of the diaspora (Elephantine Island, Egypt) and one of the earliest diaspora synagogues (Sardis, Turkey). I have admired the stunning edifice in Toledo, Spain that was first a great synagogue, then a mosque, then a church. On the island of St. Thomas I visited one of three Caribbean synagogues with sand covered floors.

But truth be told, the once far reaching Jewish dispersion is dramatically shrinking. Today over 12 of the 14 million Jews in the world live in just two countries, Israel and America. More than half the world’s Jewish population live in only six metropolitan areas: Tel Aviv (3.2 million), New York (2.0 million), Haifa (708,000), Jerusalem (687,000), Los Angeles (662,000) and Miami (535,000).

Remarkably only one other city in the world outside of Israel and America still has a Jewish population over a quarter million (Paris). Former contenders, such as London, Moscow, Buenos Aires, and Toronto no longer meet this threshold. By contrast, in addition to NY, LA and Miami, Philadelphia, Baltimore/DC, Chicago, Boston and Atlanta exceed that mark. And besides the big two, no other country’s total Jewish population even exceeds half a million, as witnessed by the next on the list: France (483,500), Canada (375,000), United Kingdom (292,000), Russia (205,000) and Argentina (182,300).

Before the Holocaust, Poland alone had 3 million Jews. The Former Soviet Union exceeded 2 million. Romania, Germany and Hungary contained more than a half a million each. In fact, Europe numbered more than 9.5 million Jews. Today all of Europe has barely over a million. It is sobering to remember that the world Jewish population in 1933 was 15.3 million. Eighty years later we have still not replaced our pre-Holocaust numbers.

It is also humbling to note that in the world’s two most populous nations, China (1.3 billion) and India (1.2 billion) Jews are not even a dot on the map. There are a miniscule 1500 and 5000 Jews in those countries respectfully. The great Sephardic Diaspora is no more, and Jews are almost completely absent from the Muslim world. While token communities exist throughout the globe, only a dozen countries in the world have a Jewish community of more than 75,000.

These precipitously declining numbers raise real questions about the sustainability of the Jewish diaspora as we know it in the coming decades. I am sure that Jews from Paris, London, Cape Town and Toronto will object, perhaps joined by Buenos Aires and Sydney. True, Jewish life has never been about numbers alone. A select few other countries will continue to house vibrant Jewish communities. But the future increasingly looks like a two horse race, with Israel now in the lead, America trailing close behind (but losing ground), and the rest of the field dropping out.

Not everyone will lament the disappearance of the historic Jewish diaspora. After all, for Zionists the emergence of the Jewish State as the largest Jewish community is a triumph. For others, as a land of unprecedented freedom and opportunity, it is altogether fitting that the United States remains the only other Jewish community of consequence besides Israel. Even before the two unparalleled occurrences of the 20th century, the Holocaust and the creation of modern Israel, Jews were migrating by the droves to our shores, two million alone between 1880 and the start of the First World War.

This trio of tumultuous events- emigration, annihilation, and restoration has profoundly reshaped the Jewish world. Demographically one can argue that we are witnessing the greatest change since the destruction of the Second Temple and ancient Israel two thousand years ago. Our situation is unique in that we now behold a bi-polar Jewish world (no psychological commentary intended) that revolves around a double axis- a Jewish homeland and a second “promised land”. Like it or not we are reaching the end of the Jewish Diaspora as we know it. Will the new configuration endure? Will it be a grand third stage of Jewish history, or will high assimilation and low birth rate doom the American Jewish community to a rapid demise, leaving Israel once again the home to the vast majority of the world’s Jews? Of course, only time will tell, but the debate about what should happen is only getting started.

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