Counting Adam, Noah, Abraham…

The publication of the recent Pew survey has brought us back to the number game: how many are we? How may on us in the U.S.? In CA? How many of us are Israeli? Russian? Under 18? Under 40? Over 40?

Digging into the 214 pages of the survey (and I admit, I didn’t read it all), reveals discrepancies between it and previous studies re Bay Area population: A 2004 demographic study commissioned by the SF based Jewish Community Federation cited about a quarter of a million Jews in the (west) Bay and a similar East bay federation study in 2011 added another 120,000 to a total of 360,000 in the immediate area. Yet, the current study claims the Bay Area to have about 122,336 Jews.

Who’s right? Well, at least some of that depends on who is counting who and how. We can really only count those who “show up” (attend anything Jewish: shul membership, subscription to PJ Library, Jewish newspaper, attendance at film festival, donation to federation), which of course leaves room for error. Some of us might be counted twice (in spite of some efforts, we do not have one central list like a local Jewish Community phone book). In addition, there is also a famous claim that those of us “affiliated” are only 20% of the total Jewish population. Hence, another 80% invisibles are often added to come up with a final “count”. That might be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Counting those who are involved is already difficult enough. But counting those are not? By definition, we don’t know how many people we don’t know about, and the estimates and guesstimates flourish. As we say in Hebrew “kol hamarbe – harei ze meshubach”, loosely translated to “the more- the merrier”.

When the Children of Israel left Egypt, the text says “vechamushim yatz’u”… (Exodus 13:18). Chamushim is usually translated as “armed”, but we have no proof that the this band of slaves had any weapons. Therefore, Rashi and others connect “chamushim” to the Hebrew – chamesh, the number 5, telling us that only a fifth of the People left Egypt. Since this would be too embarrassing, the text hid this piece of information in a hint. And would you know, we’re dealing with the same “hidden” ratio today.

One of those curious numbers is the number of Israelis in the U.S. Pew survey claims to 2% of the Jewish population was born in Israel: 2% of about 6 million is roughly 120,000. This is a far cry from the Israeli consulate and others who claim there are at least half a million (yes, 500,000) and maybe even up to one million Israelis in the U.S (more like 10% and up)! In the Bay Area alone there are supposedly more 40,000 Israelis, mostly in the Silicon Valley, and scattered throughout Nor-Cal. Along with 250,000 in LA and at least that many in greater NYC, not to mention the Boston area universities, Miami region and more.

Again, most of the Israelis are supposedly “unaffiliated”, a myth I once bought into too and now believe in less and less, because davka (especially) Israelis are, in general, a very connected people, hence leaning towards affiliation of some sort, and while they don’t necessarily want to join an organization, especially not a fundraising one, most – and I know I’m generalizing – sooner or later, rarely live without some communal connections. Again, this might not be the conventional Federation list and synagogue memberships but they do show up. On Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, at a Meir Shalev lecture, at a friends’ party when their kid join Gari’n Tzabar (lone soldiers pre-program) and at a dinner a friend helped organize, when they had no idea it was Hadashah’s annual gala.

Looking back again at our history, the children of Israel were counted going to and from Egypt. They were also counted in the desert early in the journey and before entering the land. The system was practical and spiritual: each person was to bring a half shekel coin; half a shekel to symbolize the fact that each individual is incomplete without another, without a community. Only those who were present were counted, because one cannot build a community with those who aren’t around in case one day they show up. Of course, we prepare some extra chulent for friends who might decide to stop by, but usually not to the tune of 80%. This kind of margin is impractical and rarely realistic. We cannot live in suspense that someone might one day show up.

In the opening of Genesis, and throughout the Torah, G-d Himself generally only works with one person at a time: first Adam, then Noah, and this week – Abraham. The Talmud later teaches us that anyone who saves one person saves a whole world. Then, in Genesis 12:5 we’re told about the “nefesh” (souls) that Abraham and Sarah made. The commentators say that “he was converting the men and she – the women”. What happened to all those “nefesh”? We don’t know. Maybe because we are not about the numbers. We are not about building community as an amorphous endeavor with a nebulous crowd. We are about the real person right next to us.

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2 Responses to Counting Adam, Noah, Abraham…

  1. michelle masoner says:

    Thank you Michal. Mosaic Law board is discussing the Pew results tonight. I find your comments extremely helpful, simply elegant, and very clear. It is very easy to lose sight of who we are as a people and community when we let others define us. I believe in our community and trust our community whether or not I know each one by name on this day. I prefer to have a little faith and treasure each blessing the day brings. As always, I appreciate your dvar Torah.

    • Michelle, thank you.
      It’s so temping to drown in the numbers because the task seems monumental. But that is depressing, stealing our attention and going nowhere. We have to realize that even with the best tools, everything that needs to be done, is a one person at a time journey, sort of like crossing a bridge…
      I’m curious how the conversation goes tonight.
      hugs and shabat shalom.

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