We must ask th­ese three ques­tions

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Jonathan Boyd THE VIEW FROM THE DATA

SINCE PUB­LISH­ING the JPR/Board of Deputies re­port on sy­n­a­gogue mem­ber­ship last month, I have been asked many ques­tions about its find­ings. Is the prob­lem that young adults aren’t join­ing sy­n­a­gogues un­til much later than they used to? Is it that re­li­gious con­ser­vatism is pre­vent­ing sy­n­a­gogues from evolv­ing into at­trac­tive mod­ern in­sti­tu­tions? Is the Bri­tish Jewish com­mu­nity des­tined to be­come a “tale of two cities”, based only in Lon­don and Manch­ester?

Th­ese are all good ques­tions. But un­der­pin­ning them are three deeper ques­tions, all of which, I be­lieve, ought to find their way on to the agenda of the com­mu­nity.

First: is Jewish be­long­ing as a whole in de­cline, or are pat­terns of be­long­ing sim­ply chang­ing? The re­port finds a de­cline of 20 per cent in sy­n­a­gogue mem­ber­ship since 1990, caused partly by de­mog­ra­phy, partly by dis­en­gage­ment. How­ever, we also know that there are many other ways in which peo­ple can “be­long” to the Jewish com­mu­nity that are not cap­tured by the re­port’s find­ings. Peo­ple can be mem­bers of Jewish or­gan­i­sa­tions other than sy­n­a­gogues, or at­tend a sy­n­a­gogue reg­u­larly with­out be­ing a mem­ber. They can be strongly com­mit­ted to an al­ter­na­tive or “pop-up” minyan that doesn’t have a for­mal mem­ber­ship scheme, or they can feel a close affin­ity to a sy­n­a­gogue with­out ever pay­ing mem­ber­ship dues. Th­ese nu­ances need to be in­ves­ti­gated to un­der­stand more pre­cisely what the prob­lem is that needs to be ad­dressed. Is it that Jews are dis­af­fil­i­at­ing in greater num­bers and pro­por­tions, or that our pref­er­ences for how we af­fil­i­ate are chang­ing? The an­swer will help us to di­rect our en­er­gies best: to­wards mak­ing sy­n­a­gogue mem­ber­ship a more com­pelling propo­si­tion, and/ or to­wards de­vel­op­ing a more multi-faceted ap­proach to Jewish be­long­ing that in­cor­po­rates more in­no­va­tive modes and mod­els.

Se­cond: what are the costs and ben­e­fits of the de­nom­i­na­tional shifts that are oc­cur­ring? In 1990, there were about 17 cen­trist Or­tho­dox and six non-Or­tho­dox house­holds to ev­ery one Strictly Or­tho­dox house­hold. To­day those ra­tios are about four to one and three to one. The Strictly Or­tho­dox share has climbed from 4.5 per cent of sy­n­a­gogue mem­ber­ship house­holds in 1990 to 13.5 per cent.

That growth has been driven al­most en­tirely by de­mog­ra­phy — specif­i­cally, very high birth rates and nor­mal mor­tal­ity rates within that part of the com­mu­nity. At the same time, mem­ber­ship of cen­trist Or­tho­dox sy­n­a­gogues has fallen from two-thirds of all sy­n­a­gogue mem­bers to just over a half dur­ing the same pe­riod. In short, the bal­ance be­tween “mod­er­ate” and “strict” Ortho­doxy is shift­ing in an in­creas­ingly con­ser­va­tive di­rec­tion. Whether that is good or bad is a mat­ter of per­spec­tive. But it has im­pli­ca­tions, per­haps par­tic­u­larly in the realm of in­tra-Jewish re­la­tions, co­op­er­a­tion and co-or­di­na­tion. The col­lec­tive com­mu­nal agenda item should be clear: what needs to be done now to en­sure that in­tra-Jewish re­la­tions be­come a source of in­spi­ra­tion and en­light­en­ment, rather than descend­ing into in­ternecine con­flict?

Third: how should we man­age a more ge­o­graph­i­cally con­cen­trated com­mu­nity? For the past 150 years, Bri­tish Jewry has been con­sis­tently split two-thirds in Lon­don, one-third out­side. But the bal­ance is now shift­ing to­wards Lon­don. In­deed, al­most half of all sy­n­a­gogue mem­bers in the UK be­long to shuls in just four bor­oughs, in or around Lon­don: Bar­net, West­min­ster, Hertsmere and Red­bridge. Only about a quar­ter be­long to sy­n­a­gogues out­side Lon­don and its sur­round­ings, and that pro­por­tion is fall­ing over time.

Con­cen­tra­tion is hap­pen­ing even out­side Lon­don. With a hand­ful of ex­cep­tions, no­tably Manch­ester and Gateshead, the ma­jor­ity of re­gional com­mu­ni­ties are in de­cline. Greater ge­o­graph­i­cal con­cen­tra­tion means fewer non-Jews will ever meet Jews, and fewer parts of the UK will be touched by the con­tri­bu­tions to civil so­ci­ety Jews liv­ing there can make. In that con­text, the po­ten­tial for Jews to be seen as stereo­types is only likely to grow, with all the per­ils that en­tails. We must work out how we can con­trib­ute to Bri­tish so­ci­ety across the coun­try, par­tic­u­larly in ar­eas where Jewish pop­u­la­tions are small­est.

So the data point to the risks: less com­mu­nity en­gage­ment, greater cross­com­mu­nal ten­sions, and lower lev­els of un­der­stand­ing in wider so­ci­ety about who Jews re­ally are. The chal­lenge now is to ask the right ques­tions that can lead the way to­wards wise com­mu­nal pol­icy.

How can we, as Jews, con­trib­ute to Bri­tish so­ci­ety?

Jonathan Boyd is Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Jewish Pol­icy Re­search ( JPR)

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