We all need to look outwards

November 24, 2016 23:12

There's a part of the High Holy Day liturgy that stops me in my tracks every year. It comes up repeatedly throughout Yom Kippur, during the vidui - the confession. Ma anu? Meh chayeinu? Meh chasdeinu? Ma tzidkoteinu? "What are we? What are our lives? What is our kindness? What is our righteousness?"

The questions are asked in the plural - they are about us collectively, not me individually. So, as we enter the 10 days, it is pertinent to ask what are we - the British Jewish community? What are our lives, our kindness and our righteousness?

When I look across the various sources of data available to JPR, there is one overarching trend that seems particularly significant. We are taking an increasingly inward turn.

Demographically, we are becoming more Charedi. We are not choosing to do this, nor is it much to do with compelling Jewish educational experiences. It is happening for almost exclusively demographic reasons, because more and more British Jews are being born into Charedi families every year. The long-term implication is that Charedi Judaism will increasingly become the norm: other forms, including Modern Orthodoxy, will become minority pursuits.

Educationally, we are choosing to bring up our children in exclusively Jewish environments. More of us are sending our children to Jewish schools, and worry about not getting a place in them, despite often living in close proximity to some of the best private and state schools in the country.

We are in many respects closing ourselves in

We're doing this because it makes economic sense, and because Jewish schools get good academic results, feel comfortable and safe, and offer Jewish educational input. But, in doing so, increasing numbers of us are bringing up our children with little, if any, meaningful contact with non-Jews. What might that mean long-term?

All of this is happening within a wider context filled with anxiety. EU data gathered by JPR show that about half of us hide our Jewishness in public, at least occasionally, for fear of antisemitism. We worry about terrorism against Jewish targets, and about the hostile political climate that is growing at both ends of the political spectrum. We worry about online antisemitism- tweets, Facebook discussions, comments. So we invest more and more in security - cameras, guards, protection - in order to minimise the risks that lurk outside.

We are, in many respects, closing ourselves in. Constructing barriers around us that keep out the wider world. Creating spaces that are secure, where we're in optimal control.

To be clear, we have taken all these decisions for very sound reasons. A generation ago, we were deeply concerned about our collective continuity. Intermarriage, assimilation, declining numbers, apathy, were all genuine and legitimate apprehensions. Fears about antisemitism and terrorism followed soon afterwards. We needed to take a collective inward turn to protect ourselves, to secure the next generation, to revitalise Jewish life. So we had large families, built new schools, created new organisations, and constructed Jewish lives that had never before been so vibrant, dynamic and safe.

The results of these efforts are slowly becoming clear. The intermarriage rate is essentially stable. The British Jewish population is growing, for the first time in over half a century. British Jews now practise Judaism in higher proportions than any other Jewish community in Europe, not to mention the United States. Jewish cultural life is in the ascendancy. Co-operation with the police and security services is at an all-time high, and the government is investing unprecedented sums in our security. We can, in many respects, give ourselves a well-deserved pat on the back.

But our inward-looking focus comes at a price. As we shield ourselves from others, we know them, and they know us, less and less. And the liturgical question remains. What are we? What is this life we have built for ourselves really about? An inward turn might be necessary from time-to-time to counteract external factors that adversely affect Jewish life. But if we only focus inwards, what are we?

With all the political vulnerabilities that surround us, we may be tempted to batten down the hatches further. But perhaps it is time to do the opposite. To take everything we have built, and go out and create a better world for others. Judaism demands that we look inwards to consider the ma anu question, but the best way to find a compelling answer may well be by looking outwards.

November 24, 2016 23:12

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