Hidden cost behind the growth of Charedim

Anglo-jewry in the 21st century: the strictly orthodox

By Simon Rocker, February 9, 2012
Members of the strictly Orthodox community taking part in a service at Manchester's Higher Crumpsall shul

Members of the strictly Orthodox community taking part in a service at Manchester's Higher Crumpsall shul

Halls Green, outside Sevenoaks in Kent, was once a woodland activities centre for children, run by a Christian charity. But the newest residents will not be spending their days abseiling or shooting arrows.

The teenage boys of what is now the Yeshivah Gedolah Torah Veyirah will study in the garden of England, a world away from the inner-city streets of London's Stamford Hill. Britain's newest yeshivah indicates that the rapidly expanding Charedi population is beginning to spread beyond its traditional strongholds of Hackney, Golders Green and Hendon, Salford and Gateshead.

Demographer David Graham, of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), which collects data on British Jewry with the Board of Deputies, puts the current Charedi population at around 33,000 - comprising 11 per cent of British Jewry - and increasing at around four per cent a year.

Yaakov Wise, an honorary research fellow at Manchester University's Centre for Jewish Studies, and strictly Orthodox himself, thinks the true figure is almost twice the size, at 59,000, and accounting for nearly a fifth of UK Jews - a figure which Dr Graham says lacks "robust evidence".

The JPR/Board statistics are an undercount, Dr Wise contends, because not all Chasidic synagogues return the forms sent out by the Board to request information, as "they don't want anything to do with the Board."

It makes little difference to the long-term trend. If you accept Dr Graham's 33,000 and a four per cent annual increase and if the current middle-of-the-road Anglo-Jewish population continues to fall, then the strictly Orthodox are still on course to become a majority in the latter half of the century.

But this extraordinary rise is posing new problems, exacerbated by the economic downturn. The shortage of affordable housing in urban areas is in particular putting pressure on large families.

Nava Kestenbaum, director of the Manchester branch of Interlink, a training and advisory service for Orthodox charities, said: "Housing is one of the big challenges in Salford. A lot of private sector rental property is in very poor quality."


33,000 according to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and the Board of Deputies
59,000 according to Manchester University's Centre for Jewish Studies

Welfare cuts have begun to bite since the start of the year, with councils reducing housing benefit and introducing a cap of £400 a week.

Michoel Posen, director of Agudat Israel Community Services, reckons the number of families likely to be hit by this squeeze at "20, 30 or 40. It is not hundreds". But there are other cuts to contend with as well - the loss of a £30-a-week grant for students over 16 in education, which will hit those with children in yeshivah or seminary.

Meanwhile, families in Stamford Hill hoping to extend their properties to house their growing brood are encountering increasing planning objections from Hackney Council on grounds of architectural conservation. Orthodox councillor Simche Steinberger, a member of the local Tory opposition, said: "Children stop me in the street and ask when they are going to get their loft and a proper bedroom. I get calls day and night, and they are mainly to do with planning problems."

As well as bedrooms, more children also need more school places. "There are schools that want to open but won't because of planning issues," he said. "It can't continue like this."

Some families have already begun moving into South Tottenham, in the neighbouring borough of Haringey, whose council, says Councillor Steinberger, "understands much better the needs of big families."

In Gateshead, "housing is much less of a challenge than other places and there are houses available," according to Rabbi Binyomin Herskowitz, a father of five, who works in a local kosher food store and whose mother is a sixth-generation resident there.

The Tyneside town is home to Europe's best known yeshivah, founded more than 80 years ago. Since then, the Charedi educational network has expanded, by Rabbi Herskowitz's count, to two yeshivot, two girls' seminaries, four full-time kollelim (yeshivot for married men), several part-time kollelim and six schools.

There are growing vocational opportunities, not only in computer skills but in trades such as plumbing. One advantage of using a Jewish electrician, said Rabbi Herskowitz, is "he knows that I need Shabbat clocks. A Jewish builder knows when he puts in a kitchen to put in deeper sinks - because Jews have lots of washing up."

Last year, a JPR survey foresaw rising poverty within the Charedi communities in Hackney and Salford because of "a toxic mix of a paucity of secular skills, more mouths to feed, a reduction in government support and a likely diminution of charitable donations".

The lack of secular qualifications among boys in the most conservative parts of the Charedi community is starkly evident. In three of the biggest Chasidic girls' schools in Stamford Hill, around three-quarters gained a minimum of five GCSE passes including maths and English - well above the national average.

It is not that the boys perform less well. But, by 15, many Chasidic boys are simply out of school and immersed in classical Jewish study at yeshivah.

"It is correct that boys do not have formal qualifications," Mr Posen said. "But they do go through a proper schooling system where they get a basic understanding of life and a good level of skills which they can, and do, utilise. You may not need to know about Shakespeare - as long as you speak basic English, you can manage."

But while leaders grapple with the economic and social issues, some followers are planning to leave for greener pastures. Dr Wise said his wife's cousin is part of a Golders Green group hoping to move to leafier Letchworth in Hertfordshire. "They are going to set up a Charedi enclave. In London, there is pollution, there is nowhere to park, the houses are smaller. They want a better quality of life. In Letchworth, you can get more bang for your buck."

Last updated: 11:33am, February 9 2012