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Uncomfortable realities behind synagogue numbers

Beneath the raw statistics on synagogue membership in the UK lies a more complex picture

    The new survey on synagogue membership is the latest chapter in a now familiar story, which highlights the contraction of the central Orthodox and the rise of the religious right.

    The United Synagogue and kindred congregations, mostly under the aegis of the Chief Rabbinate, still represent a majority of synagogue members, but only just -  53 per cent (excluding Sephardim), compared with two-thirds a quarter of a century ago.

    And the central Orthodox figure might be slightly smaller in reality, since it includes the Federation of Synagogues, which arguably is now closer to the Charedi camp.

    Reform and Liberals can declare a bigger proportion of synagogue members than they did in 1990 but there is no room for complacency. Over the past 26 years, they have both lost numbers as the non-Charedi Jewish population has dwindled.

    If the Masorti movement had more financial muscle, it might be able to accelerate its growth, at least in the short-term, at the expense of other movements.

    Overall, household synagogue membership has dropped from over 59 per cent of British Jewry in 2001 to an estimated 56 per cent 15 years on (based on Census returns for the number of Jews: a 2010 report on synagogue membership put the percentage of synagogue-affiliated Jews at 70 per cent but the Institute for Jewish Policy Research is using a different definition of “Jewish household” than before).

    On the face of it, the decline in synagogue affiliation might chime with the growing trend in Britain away from organised religion.

    But the raw data masks a more complicated picture. Charedi families may often be twice as large as non-Charedi families, but when it comes to synagogue attachment, both families equally represent one household unit. The Charedi household, however, will contain more shul-going Jews.

    Since synagogues have traditionally been considered the bedrock of organised Jewish life, community leaders will be concerned at the long-term fall in membership.

    But while secularisation might partly be responsible, other factors could be in play. Younger people might prefer the new-style, experimental pop-up minyans that have emerged over the past few years to belonging to established congregations with their more conventional forms of service.

    Then again, although synagogue movements may offer discounted membership to young marrieds, the high cost of shul fees may deter a generation saddled with debts from university and struggling with the lack of cheap housing.

    It may be the case, too, that some parents now prefer to send their children to a Jewish school than join a shul (though perhaps signing up to synagogue briefly for their child’s bar or batmitzvah).

    One of the report’s most striking findings is that the Jewish community is geographically narrowing, huddling into a smaller number of areas. If current trends continue over the next quarter of a century, many places where a synagogue once existed will no longer have a visible Jewish presence. Even if the building survives the congregation, it will be a memorial than a living house of worship.

    If current trends continue over the next quarter of a century, many places where a synagogue once existed will no longer have a visible Jewish presence. Even if the building survives the congregation, it will be as a memorial rather than a living house of worshi

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