Orthodoxy grows complacent
THIS MONTH, THE Institute for Jewish Policy Research published the findings of its inquiries into the demography of Britain’s Charedi communities. Authored by the executive director of JPR, Dr Jonathan Boyd, and Dr Daniel Staetsky (a former analyst at Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics), the report tells us some things we already knew in outline, or strongly suspected, but does so in the context of a painstaking analysis of national census material. The authors also pose some questions based on their conclusions.
I also want to pose some questions. The questions that Drs Staetsky and Boyd posed led to immediate — and predictable — condemnations from a variety of Charedi quarters. Perhaps mine will as well. But they are all questions that need to be asked.
“The British Jewish population,” the report begins, “is on the verge of significant demographic change.” At present, the majority of British Jews are either secular or “moderately religious.” Analysis of the 2011 census data suggests that, at that time, about 16 per cent of British Jewry were what the report terms “Strictly Orthodox.” But whereas the nonCharedi Jewish populations are declining by 0.3 per cent per annum, the Strictly Orthodox communities — in which high birth rates are the norm as is longevity — are expanding at almost five per cent per annum.
You do not need to be an accredited statistician to work out that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the Strictly Orthodox will, in terms of numbers, overtake the secular and moderately religious. By 2031, 50 per cent of Jewish children in Britain will be “Strictly Orthodox,” and 30 per cent of young adults. We can argue about a few percentage points one way or the other. The inescapable conclusion is that well before the end of the century, Strictly Orthodox Jews will — if trends continue — constitute a majority of the British Jewish population. What will this mean? The JPR report attracted condemnation from the “Interlink Foundation,” an umbrella body for Orthodox Jewish charities. The JPR report rightly pointed out that the “presence of high proportions of young people in the population has been linked by political scientists and demographers to social and political unrest, and growth in criminality, especially in the absence of attractive employment prospects.”
Interlink condemned this comment as “reprehensible,” and made the breathtaking claim that “whatever economic issues face the Charedi community… they have never remotely been linked to social and political unrest and criminality.”
This is dangerous nonsense. Over the past year alone, there have been several high- profile criminal trials involving Charedim, who have been found guilty of a variety of offences — mainly, but by no means only of a sexual nature. None has been reported in the Anglo-Charedi press. But that is no excuse. To insist that Charedim “have never remotely been linked to… criminality” is a downright lie. Among Charedim in London there is known to be a drugs problem, which surfaced publicly at the inquest into the tragic death of Rabbi Benzion Dunner (a cocaine addict) in 2008. Isn’t Interlink aware of this? If not, why not?
The Charedi “youth bulge” that the JPR study identifies is also likely to result (as the authors point out) in higher levels of apathy, disillusionment and the abandonment of Strictly Orthodox lifestyles by young Charedim whose precariously narrow schooling has simply not equipped them with the basic skills needed to earn a decent living.
I see little evidence of this educational deficit being seriously addressed. On the contrary, while Ofsted continues to issue reports that are highly critical (damning, in fact) of overly-narrow curricula in Charedi schools, the parents of the pupils educated therein, along with their rabbinical leaderships, seem to delight in averting their gaze from a calamity in the making.
But there is one point the JPR study does not make but about which we all need to ponder nonetheless. Charedim do not care very much about non-Orthodox Jews, whom they have largely written off. I am delighted that British Jewry is becoming more Orthodox. I would be dismayed, however, if, as a result, one set of communities ceased to have any meaningful dialogue with the other.
They delight in averting their gaze from this calamity