Counting the potential for the future of British Jewry

Census shows that though British Jews are greatly outnumbered by those who categorize themselves as part of "Jedi Knight" religion, the community is growing.

By RABBI MARK GOLDSMITH
August 1, 2013 19:07
4 minute read.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth is shown the Codex Valmadonna I book by Jewish guests

Britain's Queen Elizabeth is shown the Codex Valmadonna book. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Traditionally Jews have been suspicious of censuses ever since King David made a count of his troops, unauthorized by the Divine, and thereby brought on a plague (2 Kings 24). The British Jewish community however is delighted with the 2011 government census whose results are being published and analyzed this year by the London Institute of Jewish Policy Research.

In 2001 the UK census first gave the voluntary option of answering the question “What is your religion?” The number of people who answered this question giving the answer “Jewish” was 259,927. They were greatly outnumbered by the 390,127 people who showed that the British sense of humor is alive and well and answered the question “Jedi Knight.”

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The Jedi Knights must have had a crisis of faith over the succeeding decade because in the 2011 UK Census only 176,632 people said that they were still intergalactic warriors. Something encouraging though happened to the number of people answering that they are Jewish – it grew. This time round 263,346 people in England and Wales are Jewish, the Scottish results are not yet available though there are certainly fewer than 10,000 Jews in Scotland.  As in 2001, even this number is likely to be an under-reporting since the question on the census is voluntary but further analysis of the data makes it clear that the growth in the British Jewish community -- assumed to have been inexorably shrinking since the 1950’s -- is real and sustainable.

That is because over the past ten years the British Jewish community has been getting younger. The median age in 2001 was 43. Now it is 41. This is much older than the median of for the much larger British Hindu community at 32 or the even larger British Muslim community at 25, but it is now close to the average for Britain as a whole at 39.
 
How has this change taken place? The Jewish community still has twice as many people over 85 years of age as the average in Britain, four percent as against two %. The longevity of our seniors may be a reflection of the quality of care for the elderly in our communities and the relative prosperity of today’s Jewish seniors at least for the past fifty years of their lives. The big change though, is in the numbers of 0-20 year old Jews. These young people now make up just fewer than 60,000 of the Jewish community. The synagogue which I serve, North Western Reform Synagogue in London, known after the road where we are located as Alyth Gardens, is home to just under 1000 people of up to 20 years old, a gradually growing number.
 
But it is not in mainstream Reform and Orthodox congregations that the growth of young people has come. Rather it is in haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities where the 2011 census shows just under half the people are aged 20 or under. The average age of haredim is only 27, comparable to fast-growing Muslim community in Britain, whilst for the remainder of the Jewish community it is 44. Haredim are estimated by the Board of Deputies of British Jews to be responsible for 40% of Jewish births in the UK whilst their community is only 13% of the whole British Jewish community.

If this trend continues then the future British Jewish community will need more of the facilities which are necessary for the haredi lifestyle, such as places in Jewish only faith schools, extended provision for children with special educational and physical needs who are more likely to be born into large families, more work opportunities which are compatible with a strictly observant Jewish lifestyle and larger houses. There is a big business in haredi parts of London in converting roof voids into bedrooms.  

At the same time, a slowly growing Jewish community will help it retain its significant within British society.

There has been substantial transfer between the Jewish denominations over the decades, thus in the future it is not unlikely that children brought up haredi may find in other denominations a religious home more to their liking; this means that there will be a potential for growth all round. In the meantime the openness of the Reform sector of the Jewish spectrum to the children of mixed marriages, and our welcoming attitude to conversion is another engine for growth in the Jewish community.  This means that the Jewish community in Britain must not polarize but must try hard to work together for the good of all in the spaces where we can, such as Jewish social services, social justice work in the larger society and governmental representation. The UK Government Census is a useful tool every decade to encourage the ambition that we need for a thriving Jewish community.

Mark Goldsmith is Rabbi at North Western Reform Synagogue, known as Alyth, in London, a community of over 3000 members. He has recently completed his term as Chair of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis UK and is currently leading the production of a new Machzor for the UK Movement for Reform Judaism.  He gained Semichah from Leo Baeck College in London in 1996.


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