Welcome to the two-track community

By David Graham, January 30, 2014
Follow The JC on Twitter

In an age of big data, our community is right up there. We now have the information to help us make the important decisions about the future.

The 2011 Census has given us literally millions of Jewish demographic, geographic, and socio-economic facts, within which is a multitude of different stories. But one in particular stands out.

It is the story of demographic change, the tale of two Jewish communities. In one community the norm is high births rates and large families. In the other, low birth rates and relatively small families are normal.

And while there are many Jews somewhere in the middle, the two-track picture is very much a reality of British Jewish life today.

But to this tale we can now add a second dimension from another big data set: JPR’s National Jewish Community Survey, launched this week, which takes us well beyond the demography and delves deep into Jewish identity.

This too, is replete with stories, but one especially complements the two-track narrative. Out of every 100 respondents, 40 were raised in what they describe as “traditional” Jewish homes. But what is so striking is that just 26 out of every 100 respondents currently identify as “traditional”.

In other words, we are witnessing a “shake-out of the middle ground” — a significant movement away from mainstream Judaism.

Where have all those traditional Jews gone? Our data tell us that one in three have switched to more Orthodox positions, but two in three, the majority, switched towards more progressive and secular positions.

Indeed, we see that there are almost as many self-described secular/cultural Jews as there are traditional Jews.

The two-track community is therefore not simply a demographic feature; it is also a sociological process.

No doubt many will find this scenario uncomfortable as any significant structural population change involves upheaval and realignment. It has happened in the past and will surely happen in the future.

It elicits big questions about how the community should best respond to such a dramatic shift — should it act passively or actively? Is it good, bad or neither? Such questions are surely for organisations and institutions to address and debate.

But one thing is clear — whatever approach we choose to take to address big communal issues, without data and evidence we talk in ignorance. Big issues demand big data and as a community we are now fortunate to have this in abundance.

Dr David Graham is senior research Fellow at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, and co-author of ‘Jews in the United Kingdom in 2013: Preliminary findings from the National Jewish Community Survey’

Last updated: 1:27pm, January 30 2014