Brace yourselves, British Jews - There's a demographic earthquake coming

December 05, 2016 00:35

I didn't sleep well on the night of November 8 and 9. I woke up several times, checking to see the latest results from the US presidential election each time. And, as it became increasingly clear what was happening, my thoughts turned to the obvious topic really. Yup. British Jewish demography.

OK, I realise that's a bit weird. But bear with me.

Demographically, there are two British Jewish communities. There's the mainstream community, with an average age of 44 years, an average household size of 2.3, and a fertility rate of 2.0 children per woman. Then there's the Charedi community, which has an average age of 27 years, an average household size of at least 4.4, and a fertility rate of 7.0 children per woman. These demographic differences are driving a compositional change in the British Jewish community. Charedi Jews are rapidly becoming an ever larger part of the whole.

At present, the split is about 80/20. But we expect to reach the point where a majority of British Jewish children will be born into Charedi families in about 15 years time. Already, as the new JPR/Board of Deputies report released last week shows, there are more Charedi children in Charedi schools than there are mainstream Jews in mainstream Jewish ones, something that first became the case about a decade ago. The demographic shift is happening, and even if we want to, there is little, if anything, we can do about it.

Of course, the differences between the communities are not purely demographic. We pray in different types of synagogues, attend different schools, study in different academic institutions, and even care for our needy through different organisations.

The truth is, we don't know one another

And the truth is we don't know one another very well. Partly because of that, it is far from uncommon to hear rather pejorative language describing "them". Charedim are derided as extremists - religious dogmatists or freeloaders - whilst mainstream Jews are condemned as assimilationists - religious lightweights or destroyers of the faith.

So why did the US election prompt me to think about this? Well, the data seems to indicate that there are two American communities as well. One is politically liberal, universalist in outlook, predominantly urban, college-educated and religiously secular or progressive. The other is politically conservative, tribal, provincial, less likely to hold a college degree and religiously traditional. Both groups speak rather pejoratively about one another, and rarely have anything to do with each other. Sound familiar?

And then, of course, every so often, they wake up to the reality of the other's existence when a political earthquake occurs. One earthquake in America took place eight years ago for the conservatives when Obama was elected, and now, with the election of Trump, another is being felt in liberal circles.

One of the lessons of the American election seems to be that people need to understand and respect one another more. That should be obvious really: not everyone thinks in the same way, and those who don't agree with "us" shouldn't necessarily be treated with contempt. When we are not sufficiently open to alternatives, unwilling to countenance the idea that people on the other side of the fence might occasionally have a point, we take a small step down the path of dehumanisation. And when we collectively take too many steps in that direction, earthquakes happen.

There's an earthquake coming in the British Jewish community too. Some of the tremors can already be felt. The demographic figures predict it. The decline of the political and religious centre in favour of the Charedi and secular poles points to it. Even the recent tensions over partnership minyanim and greater gender equality within Orthodoxy may be predictive of it. When we look at "them", whoever they are, and start to feel contempt or even disgust, the warning bells start to ring.

The reason to counter this tendency is not simply to be nice to one another. That's insufficiently compelling, particularly when one believes one is absolutely in the right. No - the reason is because openness to alternatives forces both sides to reflect on their opinions, enabling their perspectives to become richer, more nuanced, sensitive and robust, whilst simultaneously strengthening their relationships with one another. Judaism is grounded in that tradition of dialogue, and we need that right now. Not just for our own sake, but as an example to the entire world.

December 05, 2016 00:35

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