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British Jews Go the Way of American Jews

First, the good news. The most recent census revealed that, for the first time in decades, the decline in Britain’s Jewish population has been arrested. In 2011, 263,346 chose to identify themselves as Jewish by religion in England and Wales, compared to 259,927 in 2001.

Beneath the headline figure, however, all it not as it appears. The Institute for Jewish Policy Research, having recently published the preliminary findings of its substantial and substantive National Jewish Community Survey, demonstrated that British Jewry is undergoing a generational shift in Jewish identity, culture, and affiliation, one that has the potential to transform Jewish life in the United Kingdom – and not necessarily for the better.

As one generation passes and another supersedes it, British Jewry is experiencing a weakening of mainstream Judaism, greater Haredisation at one end of the spectrum of Jewish identity, and a withering away of Jewishness through intermarriage and disaffiliation on the other.

Membership of Orthodox Jewish synagogues has fallen through the floor, having declined by over 30 percent in the past twenty years. In the JPR survey, while those who described themselves as “traditional” represented a quarter of the sample, the number who identified themselves as having had a traditional upbringing totaled 40 percent, with a clear drift in adulthood towards progressive, secular, and cultural forms of Judaism.

Ultra-Orthodox synagogues, meanwhile, have seen their membership double since 1990. Today, 13 percent of British Jews can be considered Haredi. Of those who chose to identify themselves as Haredi in the JPR survey, 63 percent are under 40, compared to 31 percent of traditional Jews and secular or cultural Jews. Previous studies have shown that nearly one third of Jewish children under 5 years of age in Britain is born of Haredi parents.

This demographic boom is responsible for a small generational shift in attitudes towards religiosity. Jews under 40, for example, are inclined to downplay the significance of ethnocentric and ethical aspects of Jewishness — combating anti-Semitism, Holocaust remembrance, support for Israel, donating to charity, support for social justice causes — and instead place emphasis on such things as prayer and belief in God.

Meanwhile, although the rate of intermarriage is leveling off, almost two-thirds of self-identified secular and cultural Jews have a non-Jewish spouse. Within intermarried couples, there is an evident slackening of Jewish identity. Under half of intermarried Jews attend a seder every year, compared to over 90 percent of in-married Jews, while only one third of intermarried Jews fast on Yom Kippur either every year or most years. Intermarried Jews are far less inclined to support Israel or share Jewish values with their families.

If any of this seems familiar, it is because the findings of Britain’s National Jewish Community Survey echo those of the much-discussed Pew Research Center report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” In the latter, it was shown that mainstream Judaism, in this case Conservative Judaism, is in grave decline, retaining only 36 percent of members and affiliates from childhood to adulthood.

Orthodox Jews, by contrast, are younger, in-married, more observant, and growing in number, having an average of 4.1 children per family. Orthodoxy is also better at retaining adherents, with 83 percent of 18-29-year-olds who say they were raised Orthodox still being so. The majority of Jews of no religion — the other burgeoning demographic – say being Jewish is not important to their lives. 67 percent are not raising their children Jewish in any way and only 4 percent to belong to Jewish organizations outside of synagogues.

Since American Jewry is much larger in number and the trends are moving more rapidly — the number of Jews who married a non-Jewish spouse after 2000 number 25 percent in the UK but 58 percent in the US, for example — the generational shift feels more seismic and has begat a deal a great deal of hand-wringing, introspection, and navel-gazing.

But when placed one on top of the other, the JPR and Pew surveys demonstrate that America is not alone. Jewish communities in the UK and US are experiencing the same generational shift in attitudes when it comes to Jewish identity – the portions of the community turning in on itself and moving out of Judaism are expanding, all as the middle crumbles away. In the United States, it is only a question of scale and extent.

Haredisation and assimilation – the mothballing and minimising of Jewish identity – are then crises that have befallen communities throughout the Diaspora. They are crises of Diaspora. As such, the generational shift must be analysed as an international movement requiring international solutions, with British and American Jewish leaders cooperating on ideas and programmes that strengthen Jewish identity and remove the walls that separate both ultra-Orthodoxy and the disaffiliated from the mainstream.

Even before the Pew survey, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks published a pamphlet in which he recognised that the Jewish future would be most impacted by “those who embrace the world and reject Judaism, and those who embrace Judaism and reject the world.” The Jewish world, he said, is “spinning apart” – “While the two extremes are growing, the centre is shrinking.”

What is necessary, Sacks asserted, is to concentrate efforts into making Judaism “more compelling for the next generation, intellectually, ethically and spiritually. We must be prepared to engage with the world, unashamedly and uncompromisingly as Jews. Otherwise we will find yet again that the choice will be either to assimilate or segregate, leaving no one left to challenge the world or make a contribution to it as a Jew.”

This indeed is the challenge, for British and American Jews alike.

Liam Hoare is a freelance writer whose work on politics and literature has been featured in the Atlantic and the Jewish Chronicle.


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