‘70% of European Jews won’t go to shul on High Holy Days despite heightened security’

Poll by EJA and RCE finds decrease in synagogue attendance and increase in security measures for Jewish communities.

French soldiers patrol the street in a Jewish neighbourhood near a religious school and a synagogue as part of the highest level of "Vigipirate" security plan after the Islamist attacks in Paris January 20, 2015.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
French soldiers patrol the street in a Jewish neighbourhood near a religious school and a synagogue as part of the highest level of "Vigipirate" security plan after the Islamist attacks in Paris January 20, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A poll released on Tuesday claiming that 70% of European Jews won’t go to synagogue on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur due to security concerns, has been met with skepticism by prominent Jewish leaders.
The online survey, conducted last week by the European Jewish Association and the Rabbinical Center of Europe had 78 respondents, who the EJA says are a representative sample of 700 capital cities and peripheries throughout Europe – spanning from Britain to Ukraine.
The pollsters explained that while the number of respondents is far lower than the number of communities represented, each respondent speaks for multiple communities, as within certain cities and areas, many communities have similar characteristics.
The margin of error was ±4.9%.
Participants were asked if there was an increase or decrease in the number of registered individuals in their Jewish communities in comparison with last year; whether there was an increase or decrease in the number of Jews expected to attend synagogue on the High Holy Days in comparison with last year; how concerned they and their community members are by the increase in antisemitism in their countries; and whether there was heightened security at Jewish institutes in their community in light of the increase in terrorist attacks in Europe.
Approximately half of Jewish communities across the continent reported a decline in the number of active members, while only 11% reported a rise in members and 39% of the communities reported no change.
The poll also found that 80% of respondents are concerned about a rise in antisemitism in their countries.
Meanwhile 75% of the communities reported increased security measures taken by their respective governments.
Rabbi Menachem Margolin, general director of both the European Jewish Association and the Rabbinical Center of Europe, said that this was in light of an increase in antisemitism since last year’s High Holy Days, and that the vast majority of community leaders reported increased security and policing measures around Jewish schools, synagogues and other affiliated institutions.
This poll is conducted annually, and having analyzed the results and compared them with previous years, the groups deducted that the drop in synagogue attendance is a direct result of increased antisemitism. Margolin told The Jerusalem Post that while other factors do come into play, such as secularization, a comparison with previous years shows that security concerns are the main factor.
“The challenge for most of the Jewish communities has doubled in recent months,” said Margolin.
He cited an increase in attacks on Jewish individuals, institutions and communities, which he partly blamed on the influx of refugees to Europe. He also pointed to a growing influence of the far Right across the continent. “Currently the focus of the extreme Right and their activity is focused on Islamophobia, but testimonies of rabbis and community leaders show a great deal of concern about growing nationalism and xenophobia, also against the Jews of Europe,” he warned.
Margolin called for the European Union and governments across the continent to increase educational efforts in the fight against antisemitism. “Counter- terrorism is of course an important measure to save lives – but not enough to solve the problem from the root. As long as there will not be an educational effort focused on the elimination of antisemitism, the problem will continue,” he said.
The groups responsible for the poll said respondents included rabbis as well as Jewish community leaders, both religious and secular. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, however, described the organizations as “a group of Chabad rabbis with no mandate whatsoever to speak for European Jews.”
Indeed, Jewish leaders in Britain and Ukraine, two countries mentioned in the press release on the poll results, responded to the findings with absolute skepticism.
Pointing to the number of people interviewed for the poll, Board of Deputies President Jonathan Arkush opined that the sample was far too small to be reliable.
“The poll does not represent reality for the UK and I suspect greatly overstates the position elsewhere in Europe,” Arkush told the Post, noting that he had consulted with the Community Security Trust which is of the same opinion. “Of course not every Jewish individual attends synagogue on the High Holy Days, but the reasons are generally nothing to do with fears about security.”
Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich echoed Arkush’s sentiment that the poll was populist and sensationalist. “I’m not sure which Jews they [EJA and RCE] associate with,” he said, before disagreeing with the poll’s findings that fewer Jews are going to synagogue. In fact, he told the Post that while the number of Jews living in Ukraine has drastically reduced in the 26 years he has lived there, the number of Jews going to synagogue has increased. “I think Jewish identity is becoming stronger and there are more practicing Jews.”
Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich too asserted that in his country the trend is the reverse of what the poll states. “The security concerns have not touched Poland, radical Islamic terrorism has not touched Poland; therefore I don’t think it will have any impact.”
Meanwhile, Robert Ejnes, the director of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF), said the figures released in the poll have been the same for a long time in France.
“I don’t think it’s any different to previous years,” Ejnes said regarding the statistic that 70% won’t go to synagogue on the High Holy Days. The estimate in France for many years has been that 25%-30% of Jews attend services on those days. He noted that polls of this kind are difficult to conduct in France since ethnic statistics are forbidden there.
He also expressed disbelief that synagogue attendance is connected to security concerns, and stated that in his experience as the president of one of the largest congregations in the Paris area, more people are showing up to shul.