How many Jews are there in the world? 13 million? Perhaps 14 million, if you’re generous. How many Jews were there before World War II? Apparently the number was around the 19 million mark. So if we deduct the six million wiped out in the Holocaust, we are down to 13 million—which is exactly where we are today. So the colossal question is this: Where are all the missing Jews? Or, specifically, why in the last 60 years have we not made up our losses?
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.
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, for you are the smallest of the nations.” That does not mean, though, that we should be complacent about disappearing Jews. We read in the Book of Numbers how 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, how can we allow that Jew to write himself out?
Some years ago, when I was hosting South Africa’s only Jewish radio show, I interviewed a prominent leader of the World Jewish Congress. We got to talking on this subject. 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 a seemingly nonchalant attitude and an almost matter-of-fact tone in his voice. It was almost as if to say, “So what? We will be smaller but stronger.”
“So what”?! The Torah says every Jew is important enough to be counted. The mystics teach that every one of us has a soul which is a veritable part of G‑d. We lost six million in the Holocaust, and a Jewish leader says, in effect, “so what?”
Only now are people beginning to realize what a visionary the Rebbe was. Back in the 1950s, at the start of his leadership, he initiated the concept of Jewish outreach. He sent young rabbis and rebbetzins to places that were far away, geographically and spiritually. Even in the ’60s and ’70s, other Jewish movements laughed and scoffed at the idea. They ridiculed the notion of sending young religious couples to somewhere like UCLA in California. “They’ll eat them for breakfast.” “He has no chance of changing anything.” “They won’t even be able to remain religious themselves.”
Today, thank G‑d, there are over 100 Chabad centers in the state of California alone. And today, thank G‑d, those same movements who initially thought the Rebbe’s ideas ludicrous are themselves in the business of Jewish outreach. Indeed, it is gratifying to see his trailblazing efforts being followed by so many, including those who were very cynical in the early days.
Just over a year ago, my daughter and son-in-law established the first Jewish center in Table View, Cape Town. It is an area which has attracted many young Jewish families, but there was absolutely no Jewish infrastructure or communal presence in the area. Assimilation was a serious reality. In her first visit to the local public school, she was able to meet with the Jewish children. When she asked a boy of twelve about plans for his bar mitzvah, she was told, “My parents said I don’t need to have one.”
Needless to say, his was the first bar mitzvah celebrated at the synagogue of Table View.
But you don’t have to be a professional at outreach to bring a fellow Jew closer. Bring a friend to synagogue. Just get him or her there, and let the rabbis know, so they can welcome them and make them feel comfortable. You don’t have to be a rebbetzin, the rabbi’s wife, to invite an uninvolved Jewish family to your Friday night Shabbat table. If you know the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, alef, teach the letter alef to someone who doesn’t. If you know bet, it’s guaranteed there is someone out there who does not. You can be a teacher and an inspiration even if you are not a rabbi. In fact, many uninitiated Jews are intimidated by rabbis, and need a friend for moral support and a smooth entrée to Jewish life.
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.