The recent piece of research by Jewish Policy Research (JPR) on the global growth of the Charedi population makes for fascinating reading. I have long been a fan of JPR. The work they do helps community leaders become better leaders, through providing reliable statistical information upon which to base policy decisions. The authors note that to date there has been no real effort to collate statistics for the Charedi population. Although this is partially due to the challenges involved in analysing a particular sub-group of the Jewish community, an additional reason for the lack of data has simply been due to the issue of prioritisation. “Religiosity in the West”, write the authors, “has declined over the past 120 years among Jews and non-Jews alike, and strong and committed religiosity has become very marginal in many Western societies”. Thus, “monitoring the population dynamics of the haredim did not feel like a high priority”.
The import of this statement is remarkable in light of the report’s headline findings. Today, one in seven Jews are Charedi. In 2040, close to one in four Jews will be Charedi. Perhaps there is no better rejoinder than this statistic to the perceived increasingly irrelevant role of religious communities in society. It provides further proof, if such was needed, for a particularly honest reflection by one of the most pre-eminent sociologists of the 20th century, the late Peter Berger. Writing in 1988, he confessed to having made “one big mistake” in his career. That error was to, “believe that modernity necessarily leads to a decline in religion… Most of the world today is as religious as it ever was and, in a good many locales, more religious than ever”.
From a Jewish perspective, however, the JPR report is of far greater significance. For 200 years, the collective Jewish people have agonised over their future in the face of seemingly endless assimilation. With the opportunities of modernity came the ever-present risks that future generations would cast off the traditions of their ancestors, traditions which had held strong against all the odds during millennia of exile. Looking at these statistics, however, things appear to have dramatically changed.
Viewing the Jewish people as a single collective leads to one inescapable conclusion. The assimilationist tidal wave has failed to drag us under. The Jewish people, thank God, will continue long into the future.
Now, I hear the well-rehearsed counterargument to this, of course. Charedi Jews represent a specific segment of the Jewish people. Does their numerical success have any real bearing on the future prospects of even Orthodoxy as a whole, let alone the rest of the Jewish world?
In response to this, I would venture the following two arguments. First, we spend far too long sequestering ourselves into ever smaller boxes and labels. Instead of a Jew is a Jew, we look to split, divide and further sub-divide a people which altogether constitutes a mere 0.19 per cent of the world’s population. On a number of occasions I recall the late Rabbi Sacks, of blessed memory, refer to his personal distaste at attaching any appellation to “Orthodox” – whether of the “ultra” or “modern” variety. He felt that “Orthodox” should suffice as a broad enough definition of Jewish identity, without the need to categorise it further. Adopting this attitude means that the success of any part of a people is a success of the whole — and one we should celebrate.
Secondly, more significantly, a cursory overview of the social history of the past 30 years leads to the conclusion that the growth of Charedi Jewry has brought immeasurable benefits to the Jewish people as a whole. From life-saving organisations such as Hatzola and infertility pioneers such as Chana, to worldwide chessed organisations and crisis-trauma response teams such as Zaka and Bikur Cholim — the Charedi world has inspired others to follow their lead in how to care for those in need. In the sphere of education, too, the Jewish world has never had as many and as varied opportunities for inspirational learning as it has today. Whether knowingly or otherwise, the roots of these initiatives can often be traced to the heart of the Charedi world, with projects like the hundred-year-old Daf Yomi study programme from the Yeshiva world of Lublin, and the system of modern Jewish schooling for women from the Beth Jacob movement in Krakow.
The Jewish people are one people. Whatever our internal differences, our shared history and future destiny are inexorably intertwined. That is why we should all celebrate wholeheartedly the many positive implications of this report. May we always share such simchas.
Rabbi Dr Yoni Birnbaum is rabbi of Kehillas Toras Chaim synagogue in Hendon, London