The community's changing - the way we're represented must change too

The communal statistics for 2012 recently released by the Board of Deputies should come as no surprise to those who have kept a weather eye on the changing demographics of Britain’s Jewish populations.

From the analysis now presented by the Board’s senior researcher, Daniel Vulkan, three features stand out: (a) within 10 years, marriages within what the analysis refers to as the “strictly Orthodox” are expected to account for more than half of all Jewish marriages in the UK; (b) four out of every 10 Jewish children born in the UK in 2012 were the offspring of “strictly Orthodox” parents; (c) if these trends continue, then within “a matter of decades” strictly Orthodox marriages and births will outstrip those of all other sections of British Jewry combined.

As Mr Vulkan admits, the figures he presents are based on a number of no doubt debatable assumptions. I propose to focus on his conclusion, which is that “the British Jewish community now contains two very different sub-communities (even though the boundary between them is not always well defined).

The strictly Orthodox part of the community continues to exhibit characteristics (a younger age profile, earlier marriage and higher birth-rate) which ensure that it is growing at a significant rate, and that it comprises an increasing proportion of the Jewish population of the UK. The ‘mainstream’ community, meanwhile, is continuing to experience a gradual decline in size.”

The term ‘strictly Orthodox’ needs to be redefined

What do we mean by the “strictly Orthodox?” Mr Vulkan offers only an implicit definition of this phrase. In discussing marriage trends “by denomination,” he contrasts “strictly Orthodox” with “central Orthodox,” and defines the latter as comprising “the United Synagogue, the Federation of Synagogues, and other synagogues recognising the authority of the chief rabbi.”

I find this differentiation more than a trifle odd. To begin with, there are many families within the United Synagogue and the Federation of Synagogues whom I would have no hesitation in classifying as “strictly Orthodox,” and who would certainly so classify themselves. The same would be true of many members of Sephardi congregations, yet Mr Vulkan treats the Sephardim as a totally separate bloc (thus lumping strictly Orthodox Sephardim together with not-so-strictly Orthodox Sephardim).

I have more than once drawn attention to imprecisions in the use of the word “Charedi.” This is a term which some students of Jewish demography would apply to Jews whose lifestyles (in respect, for example, of the use of the internet, and of an eruv on the Sabbath) would seem quite out of character in some “strictly Orthodox” circles, but perfectly acceptable in others. This ambiguity, incidentally, is certainly true of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations and of communities analogous to it in Manchester and even Gateshead. I personally know of Masorti families to whom the term “strictly Orthodox” could confidently be applied.

While I have no difficulty in accepting that the “strictly Orthodox,” bolstered by high birth rates, are forming a greater proportion of the totality of British Jewry, it seems to me that the term itself needs redefining. As currently used, it no longer describes a discrete set of congregations, but refers rather to an outlook and a mindset.

The panorama of Jewish communities to be found in the UK today is much more complex than was the case a half-century ago. Our communal structures have simply not kept pace. A Board of Deputies whose representative base is synagogal cannot possibly speak for the unaffiliated (let alone for those synagogues which choose not to be affiliated to it). How legitimate can the representations of the Jewish Leadership Council be when – if Mr Vulkan’s projections are to be believed – in a few decades most British Jews will belong to no communal body for which the JLC can possibly purport to speak?

The answer is not to create new super-structures. What’s needed is a series of looser mechanisms of dialogue, exclusively secular in nature, meeting only as necessary to address a comparatively narrow range of issues common to British-Jewish communities that are obviously, now, in most respects, quite detached from each other.

Last updated: 3:45pm, November 22 2013