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(photo credit: www.miamibookfair.com)
Judaism in Britain is dying because of "devastating" rates of inter-marriage and a low birth-rate, according to one of the world's leading Talmudic scholars.
In a warning that appeared timed to coincide with the 350th anniversary of Oliver Cromwell's readmitting Jews to Britain, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz of Jerusalem said on a visit to Manchester that the community was "dying" in the UK.
But his comments have opened up a division between the different Jewish religious denominations in Britain, with Reform and Liberal leaders appearing to accuse the mainstream Orthodox sector of a lack of inclusiveness and "complacency" over the issue.
In a notable twist to the figures, they show that British synagogue membership is plummeting almost exclusively in the traditional Orthodox sector, while membership of the progressive Reform and Liberal sectors is actually holding steady.
"The Jewish community in England, as in other parts of Europe, is demographically unviable," Steinsaltz was quoted as saying in the Sunday Telegraph.
"It is a dying community, without even counting assimilation," he said. "They say in order to remain stable, a community needs to average 2.2 children. I don't think this is the case in Anglo-Jewry.
"Whatever the figure, you add the devastating devaluation of assimilation and intermarriage, [and] it is becoming smaller all the time."
Steinsaltz's comments came as estimates of Jews living in Britain showed a sharp drop over the past 15 years. In 1990, there were an estimated 340,000 Jews in the UK, but the population has now declined by one fifth to 270,000.
The response from Britain's Reform and Liberal denominations partly blamed the traditional sector, which makes up 57 percent of the UK's Jews, for the problem, hinting that its strong sense of apparent exclusivity could be putting Jews off.
According to Rabbi Jonathan Romain, a Reform community leader and author of the book The Jews of England, "For a long time the community has been in denial. Rabbis used to tell couples that they were doing Hitler's work for him by marrying out. The community used to assume that once you married out, that was it - you had 'opted out.' But slowly, attitudes are changing."
And Rabbi Julia Neuberger, the president elect of Liberal Judaism, argued that this decline might not be so steep if synagogues were more welcoming to those who still identified with Judaism but married out.
"A lot of people are looking for some sense of roots, belonging and community," she told the Sunday Telegraph. "They have fond vestigial memories, particularly of Passover, and they want to bring up their children with something to believe in."
Indeed, figures show that Liberal and Reform sectors are making progress in addressing the decline, in contrast to the Orthodox sector. In the last report of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, membership of Britain's mainstream synagogues fell by 12% between 1996 and 2001, while Reform and Liberal synagogue membership remained steady.
Along with an overall decline, the UK Jewish community has also seen a notable geographical shift over the years as it assimilated successfully into its surroundings. Whereas shortly after arriving in Britain immediately after World War II many Jews lived in some of the country's poorest areas, such as Sunderland and the northeast of England, most now live in northwest London's affluent suburbs or the surrounding commuter belt, while the second biggest community is in Manchester, mainly in the northern part of the city.
In Sunderland, an economically deprived northeastern town and a former Jewish stronghold, the city's synagogue was closed earlier this year after the number of Jews slipped from 1,000 in its heyday down to just 30. The number of Jewish communities in the industrial northeast has dropped from 12 to two.
As well as a geographical shifting around the UK, immigration to Israel has also doubled over the last three years.