The number of identifying Jews in England and Wales has risen slightly over the past decade, indicating a stability which contrasts with the usual perception of relentless diaspora decline.
According to the first results of the 2011 census published this week, 263,346 people answered “Jewish” to the voluntary question on religion, compared with 259,927 in the previous count of 2001.
The breakdown of figures by borough shows that the population level has held up largely due to the rapid growth of the Charedi community.
Strictly Orthodox strongholds such as Hackney, Salford and Gateshead experienced dramatic rises, while mainstream regional Jewish communities in Leeds, Liverpool and Brighton suffered a big drop in numbers.
Outside the Charedi areas, the borough with the most significant growth was Hertsmere, north of Greater London, whose Jewish population has risen sharply — by a third — in just 10 years.
Board of Deputies chief executive Jon Benjamin said: “Talk of a shrinking community has been exaggerated — and now appears to be plain wrong.”
Numbers for Scotland and Northern Ireland are still to be released, as well as for those Jews who chose to identify as “ethnic” rather than “religious”. Overall, the 2001 census recorded just over 270,000 Jews — which demographers believe represented more than 90 per cent of the actual UK Jewish population at the time.
Jews remain at 0.5 per cent of the national population, as they were in 2001. “Christianity has declined, Jews have stayed static and almost all other religions have increased,” said Jonathan Boyd, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, which analysed the Jewish statistics with the Board of Deputies.
The proportion of Christians in England and Wales slumped from 71.7 per cent in 2001 to 59.3 per cent in 2011, with a corresponding rise in those who professed no religion from 14.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent. The Muslim share increased from three per cent to 4.8 per cent; Hindus from 1.1 per cent to 1.5 per cent; and Sikhs from 0.6 per cent to 0.8 per cent. Just under eight per cent of the overall population opted not to answer the religion question.
For the first time, there are known to be Jews in every local authority in England and Wales: the sole district without them in 2001, the Scilly Isles, can now boast a Jewish population of four — the smallest pocket of Jews in the land, along with the four in Merthyr Tydfil in Wales.
At the other end of the scale, Barnet remains the borough with the highest number of Jews, rising by nearly 16 per cent from 46,686 to 54,084. It contains a growing Charedi sector, as well as some of the largest Orthodox and non-Orthodox synagogues in the country.
Mr Boyd said that the data revealed “a clear shift to Orthodoxy, the decline of certain provincial and suburban London communities and the emergence of Hertfordshire as a major centre”. The yeshivah community of Gateshead has almost doubled in size from 1,564 to 3,004 in a decade. The Jewish population of the north London borough of Hackney — location of Britain’s largest concentration of Charedim — leapt by 44 per cent from 10,732 in 2001 to 15,477 last year, while another Charedi centre, in Salford, grew by 48 per cent from 5,179 to 7,687 in the same period.
The Hackney figure in 2001 appeared a substantial undercount, with many strictly Orthodox Jews thought to have boycotted the religion question.
Chaya Spitz, chief executive of the Hackney-based Charedi charity, the Interlink Foundation, said: “We’d like to think that the work of community organisations, like Interlink, to encourage people to complete the census in 2011, paid off and got more households to respond. I’m sure it made a difference — but it’s not clear how much.”
She believed that “a sizeable proportion” of Charedi households in Hackney did not return the census form or declare their Jewish faith.
The census figure for Hackney was still “about 25 per cent lower than our own estimate of the community size. We make it over 20,000 Charedi people, and Hackney Council’s own research in 2011 found 17,587 Charedim, while the census found 15,477 to be the number of all Jews in Hackney.”
In contrast, Tower Hamlets, site of the historic East End of London, dropped out of the list of 25 boroughs with the biggest Jewish populations.
The north-west London borough of Brent, and Redbridge in east London, lost almost a third of their Jews, while the Jewish communities of Liverpool and Brighton were down by 20 per cent on 2001 and in Leeds by 17 per cent.
There were some quirky results, too; Newport in South Wales, home to probably Europe’s smallest synagogue building, enjoyed an increase from 87 Jews to 99 last year.
Keith Kahn-Harris, co-author of a book on modern British Jewry, believed that the figures could still mask “a significant undercount”.
He suggested that “a proportion of those Jews who have a purely secular identity” may not have answered “Jewish” on the religion question. “Given the sharp jump in overall numbers who answered ‘no religion’, in part due to campaigns by the British Humanist Association and others, it’s possible that some of this increase includes secular Jews.”
London Jewish Forum director Peter Mason said that the consolidation of London Jewry into certain areas would throw up “some key challenges for our community in the coming years, and we ignore some of them at our peril”.
Those challenges, he said, ranged from “increased demand that care providers will face, from an ageing community and the demand for primary school places in Jewish schools, to the crisis in affordable housing”.
With the community moving further north-west out of London, he added, “the location of Jewish communal infrastructure will need to change, too”.
Further analysis of the census data along with a JPR survey of British Jewry, due to start next year, will yield, Jonathan Boyd declared, “the richest picture of the Jewish community we have ever had”.
Simon Morris, chief executive of the largest communal welfare charity, Jewish Care, said: “This, along with release of the details on age and health within the Jewish population, will assist us in our planning for services now and in the future.”