It’s hard to be a Jew, especially in a recession

Communal bodies, families and individuals are facing stark choices if Jewish life is to be maintained

By Simon Rocker, January 8, 2009

The harsh winds of recession have started to make an impact on the Jewish community. Donors have cut back pledges, synagogue bodies are laying off staff and one institution has already gone to the wall. MST College, in North-West London, which specialised in teacher training for strictly Orthodox schools, closed at the end of last month.

MST may not be the only casualty. Despite the falling Jewish population, the number of Jewish charities has been increasing at more than five per cent annually in the UK in recent years.

Compared to a figure of 0.3 charities for every 100 people in England and Wales generally, there are nine Jewish charities for every 100 Jewish people. That rate of growth surely could not have continued even in good times and, in this difficult economic climate, many charities are bound to struggle.

The question is: should market forces simply be allowed to do their work and the survival of charities left to donor choice?

Or is some intervention necessary, in the form of an agreement between the leading Jewish organisations, with access to major donors, to protect what are judged essential services?

From a longer-term view, MST probably should not have been left to collapse. The strictly Orthodox school network is expanding and it faces a tougher government inspection regime, so the provision of qualified teachers would seem an imperative. But then this would not be the first time that Jewish education has been hit badly in an economic downturn.

The recession is likely to accelerate moves by charities to co-operate in order to cut overheads and wasteful duplication.

We may even see a merger or two (there was talk of a UJIA/JNF union a few years ago though that is most unlikely to be on the cards now). The financial crisis may also reopen the old question of whether too much British-Jewish philanthropy is directed at Israel rather than support of education and welfare at home.

The Jewish Leadership Council’s new leadership network — a group of activists in their 30s and 40s being groomed as future leaders — has, as it happens, launched a review into the funding of the community.

But it may take at least a year to report so, in the meantime, the JLC may need to take some interim decisions on British Jewry’s spending priorities.

Meanwhile, the effect of the recession is likely to be felt in other ways across the community. The cost of Jewish living is already high for families on modest incomes. A couple with two children at state-aided Jewish primary schools who belong to a synagogue are already likely to be asked to pay more than £3,000 a year in voluntary contributions for Jewish studies and membership subscriptions.

Even before the dismal state of the economy became headline news, some of these schools were reporting problems with collecting enough parental contributions.

The Institute for Jewish Policy Research is about to start follow-up work on a previous survey which identified more than 3,000 British Jewish children living in poverty two years ago. That number may well increase as unemployment takes its toll.

Jewish agencies will also have to keep watch to make sure that economic pressures do not, in effect, force some people to drop out of the community.

Even before the recession, the high cost of housing was making it ever-harder for someone on, say, a teacher’s salary to afford a mortgage to live in Jewish neighbourhoods in London.

That is important because you are more likely to remain part of Jewish life if you are able to congregate easily with other Jews.

Add to that the consequences of the current credit crunch, job losses, rising debt and pay freezes and some people may be at risk of being priced out of Jewish society.

Simon Rocker is the JC’s Judaism editor

    Last updated: 5:40pm, January 8 2009