The revival of British Jewry

The strength of a community is not determined by the existence or absence of threats, but by its ability to recognize those threats and to organize itself to defeat them.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (photo credit: BLAKE EZRA PHOTOGRAPHY)
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The surprising news is that British Jewry is in the middle of a revival. Its numbers are up, younger people are more religiously observant than their parents, Jewish schools can’t meet the demand for places and Jewish cultural activities are booming. Anti-Semitism and the threat of terrorism are ever present, as they are for all Jewish communities, but British Jewry is well organized, well connected and well prepared to meet the challenges as they arise.
The numbers come from the UK government census.
After decades of decline, the number of Jews increased, between 2001 and 2011, by some four percent. The main reason was the growth of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community, but haredim only account for around one in six British Jews. There was also net migration into the community, from Europe, particularly France, but also, surprisingly, from Israel. For every two British Jews that made aliya, three Israelis went the other way.
The National Jewish Community Survey, conducted in 2013, showed that younger Jews are more observant than their elders. While 28% of those under 40 never travel on Shabbat, the figure drops to 10% for those over 65. In the case of turning on a light on Shabbat, the respective figures are 26% to 8%.
The decline in synagogue membership, which was sharp in the latter period of the 20th century, has stabilized.
New approaches to prayer organization such as partnership minyanim and egalitarian services have been moving from the periphery into the consciousness, if not the buildings, of the Orthodox mainstream.
There is much discussion, perhaps less action, but at the very least a feeling of change in this most traditional of areas. Jewish schooling continues its fast growth. Leave aside the haredim where the growth in school numbers simply reflects the high birth rate and look at the rest of the community, where the birth rate has been much lower and where any increased demand for Jewish schools reflects a deliberate choice by parents.
In the 15 years to 2010 the number of non-haredi children in Jewish schools increased by 60%. In areas where a Jewish school is available more than two-thirds of parents make that choice. Moreover, the demand continues to rise and community organizations find themselves playing catch-up trying to increase the supply.
Jewish schools have no fees (besides, ironically, for limudei kodesh or religious studies), but this is not the reason for the high numbers. Schools have been free since the end of World War II and the rapid growth has only happened in the past 20 years. The growing demand is a cultural not a financial phenomenon, caused primarily by: • The establishment by then chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Jewish Continuity and his haunting question, “Will we still have Jewish grandchildren?” • Growing concern among parents about falling standards of academic achievement and behavior in non-Jewish schools.
• Official reports together with league tables of academic performance which placed Jewish schools in the top bracket.
• The demonstration effect or tipping point at which a significant number of children within any social or synagogue group are attending Jewish schools.
The cultural scene within British Jewry has also improved dramatically. Limmud is now an international phenomenon, but it began in Britain and its annual winter conference now attracts over 3,000 eager participants.
JW3 is the new Jewish community cultural center, located in a prominent site in Hampstead and attracting increasing numbers to its range of activities.
Jewish Book Week now stretches over more than a week, extends across the community and its events are generally sell-outs, as is the Jewish Film Festival. Of course not everything is buoyant. Most of the Jewish action is centered on London where two-thirds of the community live. Another 10% live in Manchester with its growing haredi influence. But more than 20% of British Jews live in communities which are declining and aging, some slowly, others more rapidly. Most are still viable in terms of providing religious services and kosher food and the larger communities help out the smaller ones. The orderly management of decline remains a major challenge.
And then of course there is anti-Semitism. Currently the focus is on anti-Semitic attitudes within the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labor Party, but the community also has to watch closely the old anti-Semites of the far Right and those on the extreme end of Islam. Jewish students are continually under pressure whether from boycott resolutions, anti-apartheid weeks, or meetings being violently attacked. The virulent anti-Zionism of the cultural elite whether in universities or the media veers more than occasionally into anti-Semitism and increases fear and anxiety within the community.
But a sense of perspective is also needed. Anti-Semitism is an existential part of Jewish life. Every community throughout the world has been subjected to it in varying degrees over the generations. The strength of a community is not determined by the existence or absence of threats, but by its ability to recognize those threats and to organize itself to defeat them.
By those criteria the British community is strong.
The Community Security Trust (CST) runs a highly professional and effective operation with important links with the police and other security agencies. No communal event secured by CST staff has ever been successfully attacked. Those in government in Britain have expressed an unequivocal opposition to anti-Semitism and are taking continuing action to prevent it and to deal harshly with its perpetrators through legislation and other policies.
In the universities, brave Jewish students confront their opponents and secure victories in defeating resolutions.
All the noise comes from student and staff societies and has no impact on the policies of the universities themselves. No UK university has approved an academic boycott of Israel and there are dozens of examples of academic co-operation between UK and Israeli universities, including a formal agreement for scientific co-operation signed by the two governments.
Britain has not (yet) had a Charlie Hebdo-style event, although with high-alert terrorist warnings in effect there is no guarantee that it won’t happen. If, God forbid, it does, the community’s resilience will be tested and will not, I believe, be found wanting.
The Israeli response to Diaspora anti-Semitism needs re-thinking. Sometimes, as with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attack, it can be interpreted as an opportunist attempt to promote aliya. The sad fact is that currently Jewish lives are more under threat in the Jewish state than in the Diaspora. Israel and World Jewry need to work together to neutralize the continuing virus of anti-Semitism.
As for British Jewry, the key question is whether it can sustain its revival. Time alone will tell.
The author is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former chancellor of the University of Derby in Britain.