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In world of 7 billion, demographers struggle to ascertain the number of Jews

Ava Sarah Keyrallah was born in Paris on Oct. 31, 2011, the day the United Nations celebrated the 7 billionth child being born. (Courtesy Celine Abisror)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Could the 7 billionth person on the planet be Jewish?

According to the United Nations Population Fund, the Earth welcomed its 7 billionth resident on Oct. 31. Statistically, the newborn was most likely a boy in India or China. The symbolic title was given to Danica May Camacho, born two minutes before midnight in Manila in the Philippines.

There is no reason, however, it couldn’t have been Ava Sarah Keyrallah, who was born later that evening in Paris.

“Every single second, four to five new babies are born in the world,” Sergio DellaPergola, a professor of population studies at Hebrew University, told JTA by e-mail. “It is difficult to say exactly which baby was the 7 billionth inhabitant of Earth. But why not dream that it might have been a Jew?”

The daughter of a French Jewish mother and a Lebanese Christian father, the 7-pound Ava Sarah joined a world in which one in 510 people is Jewish, but where the Jewish world as a whole, according to demographers, grows gradually and unevenly.

That Jewish world is one increasingly defined by a small number of population centers, according to a study by DellaPergola titled “World Jewish Population, 2010.” Approximately 80 percent of Jews live in Israel and the United States, and the nine countries with more than 100,000 Jews constitute 91.1 percent of the total worldwide Jewish population.

Further, Jews remain exceptionally urbanized, with half living in just five cities and two-thirds living in 11 cities.

“Jewish population stands at somewhat above 13.5 million and very slowly grows — only thanks to Israel’s component, now approaching 43 percent of the total world Jewry,” DellaPergola said.

Israel, the world’s most fertile developed nation, is the engine of Jewish population growth. Like the rest of the world, Israel saw a massive decline in fertility rates during the 1970s and 1980s due to increases in public health and education for women. Unlike the rest of the world, however, Israel stabilized in the early ’90s and since then has maintained a fertility rate of 2.9 children per woman.

“Israel has an unprecedented birth rate,” said Leonard Saxe, a professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Brandeis University whose current research involves demographic studies of American Jewry. “Women, even highly educated women, have high birth rates.”

By 1995, according to the World Bank, Israeli women for the first time began having more children than the rest of the world. And last year, Israel surpassed Saudi Arabia to become the most fertile developed nation in the world.

At the beginning of 2010, Israel had a Jewish population of 5.7 million.

Counting Jews outside of Israel is no simple task. Where Israel has a government census, Jewish communities in the Diaspora must rely on less rigorous and consistent methods, which leads to disagreements over numbers.

Just two weeks ago, an otherwise productive conference at Brandeis temporarily turned to finger pointing during a debate over the decision of the Jewish Federations of North America not to fund a census of the Jewish community.

In general, demographers agree that the Diaspora population is in decline due to low fertility rates. Other factors changing the Jewish population include migration, “opting out” of Jewish life, intermarriage and choosing not to raise children as Jews.

According to both DellaPergola and demographer Ira Sheskin of the University of Miami, the apparent exception is the United States, where the American Jewish population has been stable.

“In the long term it should be decreasing, yet it’s relatively constant,” Sheskin said, noting fertility rates that are below replacement levels but citing immigration from the former Soviet Union as one possible reason for the population’s stability.

The two disagree, however, on the overall number of American Jews. DellaPergola says it’s 5.2 million, which is the number found in the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey. Sheskin’s study found 6.5 million, but he doubts his own numbers, estimating a total of 6.2 million.

Saxe, on the other hand, has confidence in the 6.5 million figure, which he arrived at in an independent study. But unlike Sheskin, Saxe says the population trend is increasing due to intense outreach and improved Jewish education.

“We believe that what is happening is that families and households that include Jews are more and more making the decision to raise their kids Jewishly and Jews are more likely to acknowledge their Jewish heritage and Jewish identity,” he said.

Even if the population is shrinking, Sheskin says, there is still a bright side for young Ava.

“Jews are a tiny percentage of the world,” he said. “They’re going to continue to decrease — and win Nobel Prizes.”