Will our children stay?
Our oppressive communal climate may be driving our people away
Does this community have a future? And if so, what kind of a future?
A recent conversation has left me profoundly concerned. Earlier this week, my husband and I hosted a dinner party for three other couples. Although we are all in our 30s, we were otherwise diverse: secular, traditional and religious; sending our children to both Jewish and mainstream schools; working both within the Jewish community and without.
Although everyone was currently residing in Greater London, two had emigrated here from overseas, and others grew up in east London or the north of England.
At a certain point during the evening, the conversation turned to the JFS case. The court’s “interference” in this internal Jewish matter, said one guest, had left him depressed. He was also stressed by the deep communal divisions revealed by the case. Though not new, these seemed more intractable than ever. “If I could,” he said, “I would leave this country in a heartbeat.”
To my surprise, the table took him seriously. Every guest confessed that he or she had serious misgivings about bringing up their children here. The JFS case had clearly had a more profound impact on the mood of my friends than I’d realised, undermining the sense of security they had derived from living in this country. But there was also pervasive angst about getting children into Jewish schools, and about the quality of their Jewish education. There was worry about our dwindling numbers, waning political influence and the increasing isolation of Jewish students on campus. A mental weariness, too, attended the increasingly hostile attitude to Israel in public discourse.
'If I could,' said my dinner guest, 'I would leave this country in a heartbeat'
While more general concerns, such as the coarseness of British society and a sense that this country had lost its sense of cohesion and national purpose, were voiced as well, the tipping point seemed to be the Jewish issues. “I blamed my parents for bringing me up here,” one guest revealed. “Now, if we don’t move, our children will say the same thing.”
Now, my little gathering was in no way a scientific sample. And nothing is more British than having a good moan. So why do I nevertheless take this conversation seriously?
First, because figures recently released show that aliyah from the UK increased by a whopping 34 per cent last year. Although this is still only 835 people — a tiny fraction of the local Jewish population — no country experienced a larger jump in the number of emigrants to Israel.
And there is no accounting for the number of British Jews moving elsewhere.
So, while I am sure that, despite their talk, most of the guests round my table are here to stay — tied down by family and work obligations — more and more are moving away.
Of course, the economy may be a factor for those considering emigration. But if my guests are at all representative, the most pressing issue seems to be an underlying unease about the quality of local Jewish life.
This is a problem that our community has failed to address, simplistically attributing recent peaks in aliyah to “antisemitism”. But very few consider life here “dangerous” for Jews. Rather, the daily drip-drip of disputes over entrance to Jewish schools, conversion, Israel, visiting Israelis, etc, combined with unfortunate demographic realities, create the impression that this community is in serious decline.
Second, even if very few people act on these feelings, I worry about a community where the desire to live elsewhere is openly discussed over dinner party tables. How invested can one be in a community when, mentally, you are halfway out the door? What are our children picking up? Even if we stay, how likely are they to?
There are a lot of fine things about modern Britain. Many still consider it to be a wonderful place in which to lead a Jewish life. But, for others, the exit signs are ominously beckoning.
Miriam Shaviv is the JC’s foreign editor.