The number of households affiliated to synagogues in the UK has fallen by 20 per cent over the past quarter of a century, with central Orthodoxy the biggest loser, after shedding more than a third of its members.
Synagogue membership dropped from 99,763 households in 1990 to 79,597 last year, according to a report by the Board of Deputies and the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) published this week.
The overall total is “the lowest count recorded for many years,” the report says.
But while the Orthodox middle has suffered a squeeze, the dramatic growth of Charedi communities continues apace. Strictly Orthodox congregations have increased their membership by 139 per cent since 1990 and their share of the overall synagogue market has more than tripled over that time — from four per cent to 13 per cent in 2016.
Jonathan Boyd, JPR executive director and co-author of the report, said: “Because the more Progressive wing is largely stable, representing just under a third of the total, the trends point to a future in which stricter forms of Orthodoxy will hold an increasingly prominent position, not only in synagogue membership, but in how Judaism is practised and how Judaism is seen and understood by others.”
Apart from the strictly Orthodox, the only stream to grow is Masorti, which has more than doubled its membership since 1990 and is no longer the smallest grouping, having overtaken the Sephardim.
Although the Reform and Liberals have increased their share of overall synagogue membership since 1990, both have lost numbers over time.
Membership of central Orthodox synagogues, which include those under the Chief Rabbinate, has fallen by 37 per cent over the past 26 years.
Overall, the percentage of Jewish households which belong to a synagogue has dropped from around 59 per cent to 56 per cent since 2001.
But while membership has declined, the actual number of congregations has risen to “almost certainly the largest… there has ever been in Britain”.
There were 354 synagogues in 1990, but the recorded number had risen by 100 to 454 by last year. Post-war there were 415 synagogues in the UK. The Jewish population was reckoned to be at least a third larger then than it is now.
The rise in the number of synagogues is “most likely a result of a growing number of [Charedi] shtiebl-type synagogues entering the system,” the report says. Shtiebls usually serve a few dozen people rather than the hundreds who belong to typical central Orthodox or Progressive synagogues.
While central Orthodox was the dominant synagogue group in 1990, representing 70 per cent of shul members including Sephardim, that had fallen to 56 per cent by 2016. Over the same period, the non-Orthodox rose from 26 per cent to 31 per cent.
Rabbi Avraham Pinter, chairman of the external affairs committee of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, said: “We are proud that we have such an engaged and growing community and particularly the number of young members our synagogues have.”
It was, he added, “sad that the numbers of people who are members of the Orthodox community has declined in total and we hope that the wider community will instill pride into the younger generation and follow the pattern of our community in the future”.
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi of the Movement for Reform Judaism, said the report “underlines that we are two communities going in very different directions. People are increasingly rejecting a Judaism that does not reflect their values”.
A United Synagogue spokesman pointed out: “Orthodoxy continues to constitute over two-thirds of those affiliated to communities in the UK and we are aware that a small number of US members are moving to the right, with an even smaller number moving to non-Orthodox groups.”
Matt Plen, chief executive of Masorti Judaism, said he was proud the community’s youngest movement was “bucking the trend” in having increased membership from 1,226 in 1990 to 2,620 by 2016. “We have been particularly successful in attracting young families and this promises further growth in the future,” he said.
But the report, he added, “pointed to two worrying developments — lower levels of involvement in Jewish community life and increasing polarisation as evidenced by the growth of Charedi communities compared with the decline of centrist Orthodoxy”.
Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, said the “massive growth in the strictly Orthodox sector — at the expense of mainstream Orthodoxy — has the potential to transform the nature of Judaism in this country from outward-looking and inclusive to introverted and isolated. That would be bad for British Jewry and bad for Britain”.
The figures clearly showed, he added, that “mainstream Jewry — and mainstream Orthodoxy in particular — has failed to respond to this threat by offering an attractive alternative to the false certainties of fundamentalism. I believe we need to be more open, more inclusive and more flexible”.
Reform has increased its share of synagogue-attached households from 17 per cent to 19 per cent in quarter of a century, and Liberal from just under eight per cent to just over eight per cent. But in terms of net membership, both have dropped in size.
The number of Reform households has slipped by eight per cent since 1990 and the Liberals by 16 per cent. The latest membership tallies were “the lowest levels” for both movements since 1990, the report said.
Rabbi Janner-Klausner said it was “sad that synagogues of all denominations are declining because they are at the beating heart of Jewish life. The decline in real numbers is due to a general trend in our increasingly secular society, and the question of birth rates”.
The movement had “identified ways to engage younger people who are mobile and to find models of membership that are attractive to them”.
But the Jewish community “as a whole needs to consider matters at the highest level, for example, ensuring that there is more affordable housing so that people can live close to family, cultural and faith institutions”.
Alison Rosen, executive director of the S & P Sephardi Community, the country's oldest synagogue body, commented, "While our membership is small, our impact is high, both programmatically under the inspirational leadership of Rabbi Joseph Dweck and our City programme at Bevis Marks, but also the wider services we provide to the community including kashrut, burial and Beth Din.”
The report suggests that one factor in the overall reduction in synagogue membership is that, apart from the Charedi community, young people are marrying and having children later and therefore not joining synagogues until they are older.
While synagogue membership fell most sharply in the first half of the 1990s — by seven per cent — the rate of decline had slowed to just one per cent in 2000 to 2005. But it increased to four per cent from 2010 to 2016.
The report also notes that data from JPR’s community survey of 2013 indicated that “a significantly higher number and proportion of mainstream Orthodox affiliated Jews have moved towards more non-Orthodox or progressive movements than the other way round”.
But JPR had not found evidence of the same degree of movement from strictly to central Orthodox.
The report also illustrates a geographically contracting community. Half of synagogue members belong to congregations in just five areas: Barnet, Westminster, Hertsmere, Redbridge and Stamford Hill.
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have lost around half of their membership since 1990.
Around three-quarters of synagogues are situated in Greater London, Hertfordshire and South-West Essex with 11 per cent in Manchester.
Sheila Gewolb, Board of Deputies vice-president, said it was “clear there is a numerical decline in many of our regional communities, but there are some, like Manchester, bucking the trend, and even some new communities emerging, like York. Size isn’t everything and there is a lot of vibrancy and warmth in these communities.
“Belfast, for example, might be a small community, but has tremendous political respect and a fantastic cultural programme. Last year, my own synagogue in Cardiff partnered with the Board to host its first ever hustings event for the Welsh Assembly elections.
“While economic factors and London and Manchester’s abundance of Jewish institutions are certainly a pull, it will be interesting to see what impact there is on Birmingham’s community from HS2 improving connectivity, or of satellite communities like Canvey Island, which move parts of the Charedi community out of expensive inner-London where house prices are prohibitive.”