The rise and rise of the Strictly Orthodox

According to a new report, four out of every ten UK Jews are projected to be Charedi by 2040


LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 19: Jewish men walk along the street in the Stamford Hill area of north London on January 19, 2011 in London, England. The residents of Stamford Hill are predominately Hasidic Jewish and only New York has a larger community of Hasidic Jews outside Israel. The area contains approximately 50 synagogues and many shops cater specifically for the needs of Orthodox Jews. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

The figures portend the most significant internal transformation of the Jewish world over the next 20 years. According to new research by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, the global Charedi population now stands at 2.1 million, representing one in every seven Jews.

On current trends, that proportion is set to rise from 14 per cent to around 23 per cent of world Jewry by 2040. Most Charedim live in the two largest Jewish centres, Israel and the USA. But the two Jewish communities with the highest proportion of Strictly Orthodox are Belgium (35 per cent) and the UK (25 per cent).

JPR’s estimate of 75,500 Charedim in Britain is the highest number quoted for the community, acknowledging that previous tallies were an underestimate. By the end of the next decade, the Strictly Orthodox will comprise around 40 per cent of the UK Jewish community.

While unforeseen events can disturb projections, JPR is relatively confident that its calculations in Haredi Jews Around the World are accurate for the short-term. With large families of six to seven children, high life expectancy and minimal defection compared to the rest of the Jewish world — JPR suggests that around 20 per cent of born Charedim drift religiously to the left — the strictly Orthodox will continue to grow in strength.

More difficult than crunching the numbers is assessing the impact of this phenomenal rise. One of the visible consequences in the UK is that geographically the Charedi community has begun to spread beyond its heartlands in North London, Manchester and Gateshead: the new Canvey Island settlement, which now has 100 families, and a smaller group in Westcliff will surely inspire other examples as people look for more affordable housing. The limiting of state benefits to only two children which was introduced five years ago can only have added to the economic pressures on this particular sector of the Jewish community.

Since regional Jewry has been shrinking in recent decades, the founding of a new community outside London such as Canvey Island is a significant development.

So far the Charedi community has remained decentralised in having no overarching national authority. The creation  of an umbrella organisation to defend Charedi schools across the country in 2018 — Chinuch UK —has not led to a wider representative body but that could change if community leaders feel they need a stronger collective voice to assert their interests.

It also remains to be seen whether the expansion of the community will result in more widespread influence on Orthodoxy. The United Synagogue, arguably, delegated halachic authority to the Charedi community long ago, selecting new dayanim for the London Beth Din from the ranks of the Strictly Orthodox. In contrast, the S & P Sephardi Community has recruited one new dayan from a more centrist Orthodox background and another from a home-grown training course.

Charedi rabbis have largely been content to tend to their own flock and not intervene in the affairs of the broader community. But there are exceptions — for example, when Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis announced in 2013 that he would be the first in his office to attend a Limmud conference.

His decision prompted a letter from several influential rabbis including former London Beth Din head Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, Gateshead Yeshivah head Rabbi Avrohom Gurwicz and Rabbi Shraga Faivel Zimmerman, then Gateshead Rav, now religious head of the Federation of Synagogues, an organisation which has gravitated more towards the Charedi community in recent years. The letter did not mention Rabbi Mirvis but was intended to discourage other Orthodox rabbis from following his lead, arguing that participation in the cross-communal event “blurs the distinction between authentic Judaism and pseudo-Judaism that would bring about tragic consequences for Anglo-Jewry”.

In an interview some years later, Rabbi Zimmerman noted with satisfaction that the letter had achieved its aim and “only the most isolated left-wing rabbis attended”.

Differences have also emerged in the area of equality. Four years ago, the Chief Rabbi published what was hailed as a groundbreaking guidance on LGBT pupils in Jewish schools in consultation with KeshetUK, the charity which works for LGBT inclusion within the Jewish community.

But his promotion of empathy and understanding contrasts with the stance of the Charedi leadership, which continues to resist the introduction of any discussion of the subject in their classrooms. An uneasy status quo remains in which the Department for Education has indicated it will not unduly penalise Charedi schools for avoiding LGBT issues as long as they comply with educational standards in other respects. Five years ago a number of Charedi rabbis urged followers to stay away from JW3 after it hosted LGBT-themed events, signalling the distance between the Strictly Orthodox and the broader Jewish community.

Charedi conservatism may act as a brake on the religious advance of women elsewhere. Earlier this year the independent Borehamwood partnership minyan Kehillat Nashira became the first UK Orthodox group to appoint a female spiritual head, trainee rabbi Miriam Lorie, following similar moves in the USA and Israel.

While supporters of Orthodox women rabbis hope they will become an uncontroversial  fact of Jewish life, the United Synagogue as well as the central Orthodox rabbinate in the USA continue to oppose female ordination. Organisations like the US may find it hard to take the plunge and risk the condemnation of the religious right.

And more internationally, expect Charedi advocates to flex their religious muscles on issues like the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. Israel’s fragile coalition has yet again stalled on the long-delayed implementation of an extension of the egalitarian area, which would give it acess from the main Kotel plaza, for fear of provoking an Orthodox backlash.

For many Progressive Jews, this remains a touchstone issue that symbolises a commitment to religious diversity in Judaism. But pluralism remains anathema to the Charedim and they will not accept it quietly.

JPR will be discussing its report in a webinar with the Jewish People Policy Institute at 6pm May 31. You can register here

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