British Jews - liberal, secular and not so shul-going

By Simon Rocker
October 11, 2013

The YouGov poll, which we report this week, offers fresh evidence that many British Jews regard themselves as secular or cultural rather than religious.

A third of the Jewish sample said they did not have a religion. But 28 per cent of those who gave Judaism as their religion either denied or doubted the existence of God.

So if you add the third of Jews without religion to the “religious” atheists and sceptics, around half of Jews overall could fall within the secular bracket.

But the finding is not all that surprising from previous research. Nearly three out of five United Synagogue members thought that belief in God was not central to being a good Jew, according to the 1992 Kalms report.

The Institute for Jewish Policy Research concluded from its 1995 survey that around a third of Jews were unaffiliated to synagogues, while another JPR poll of London Jews in 2002 found that more than half believed themselves to be “secular” or “somewhat secular”.

What is interesting is how Jews in different countries reflect the religious climate of their society. Compared with the third of UK Jews who said they have no religion, the figure is only one in five among Jews in the USA.

It was Prime Minister Tony Blair’s press secretary Alastair Campbell who famously said the government “did not do God” - in contrast to American presidents who often invoke the deity.

Like every set of stats, these naturally prompt more questions in their wake. Since this sample consisted of just 300 Jews, I wonder if it accurately reflects the Charedi community (who represent a far larger proportion of British Jewry than American Jewry): if the Charedim were under-represented, that could well skew the results on religious participation and identification.

It would also be useful to know how the third of Jews who said they had no religion actually responded in the last national Census: did they still tick the “religion” box, or instead prefer to identify themselves in the “ethnic” section as Jews? If the latter were the case, then we should expect to see a rocketing number of Jews in the UK, once the census numbers are finally crunched.

The poll did not measure participation in home rituals – such as Seder or Chanucah lighting – which remain significant for many Jews, whether they call themselves religious or not.

Surveys like these do not take place in a vacuum; they feed into policy debates about the best way to guarantee Jewish continuity, especially in the diaspora. The Pew survey of American Jewry, released last week, has fuelled a fresh round of argument about its future.

Does Jewish survival ultimately lie in the hands of the Orthodox? Or at least those strongly committed to religious practice (of whatever domination)?

Intriguingly, almost half of those Jews in the YouGov poll who claimed to be without religion, nonetheless, did not see themselves as atheist or agnostic. So what kind of spiritual beliefs do they harbour – and what in the Jewish community might attract them?


Chaim Pesach

Mon, 10/14/2013 - 16:22

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This is remarkably similar to what is happening in America.

The percentage of U.S. adults who say they are Jewish when asked about their religion has declined by about half since the late 1950s and currently is a little less than 2%. Meanwhile, the number of Americans with direct Jewish ancestry or upbringing who consider themselves Jewish, yet describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religion, appears to be rising and is now about 0.5% of the U.S. adult population.

The changing nature of Jewish identity stands out sharply when the survey’s results are analyzed by generation. Fully 93% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion (called “Jews by religion” in this report); just 7% describe themselves as having no religion (“Jews of no religion”). By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults – the Millennials – 68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.
Secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America, and most U.S. Jews seem to recognize this: 62% say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion. Even among Jews by religion, more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, and two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.

More worrying for the leadership of British Jewry is the attitude towards Israel and its policies. There are similar developments in the UK

Overall, about seven-in-ten Jews surveyed say they feel either very attached (30%) or somewhat attached (39%) to Israel, essentially unchanged since 2000-2001. In addition, 43% of Jews have been to Israel, including 23% who have visited more than once. And 40% of Jews say they believe the land that is now Israel was given by God to the Jewish people.

At the same time, many American Jews express reservations about Israel’s approach to the peace process. Just 38% say the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians. (Fewer still – 12% – think Palestinian leaders are sincerely seeking peace with Israel.) And just 17% of American Jews think the continued building of settlements in the West Bank is helpful to Israel’s security; 44% say that settlement construction hurts Israel’s own security interests.

Simon Rocker

Fri, 10/18/2013 - 09:40

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I think Rabbi Naftali Schiff, the director of Aish UK, was right - in his JC essay of a few weeks ago - to argue that continuity (or whatever one wants to call it now) should be at the forefront of the community's agenda.

Chaim Pesach

Fri, 10/18/2013 - 11:32

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With all due respect to Rabbi Schiff, he would say that, wouldn't he? And his agenda is an orthodox one which speaks to fewer and fewer people as time passes.

I think he's swimming against a tide.


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