By Dr Jonathan BOYD, co-author of Jews in the United Kingdom in 2013: Preliminary findings from the National Jewish Community Survey.
Last month, after completing a long presentation on what the 2011 UK Census tells us about the UK Jewish population, a member of the audience came up to me with a pained look on her face.
“It’s all so depressing,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong – the data is incredible. It’s amazing to see what is happening in such extraordinary detail. But so much of the picture feels so bleak. I can’t help but feel depressed about the community’s future.”
The comment stopped me in my tracks.
My intention when presenting data is not to spread the seeds of anguish and despair. On the contrary, it is to empower Jewish leaders to resolve to work harder and more strategically, to build a better future for Jews in this country.
Data shouldn’t cause us to throw in the towel, believing all to be lost. It should act as a text, demanding close reading and thoughtful interpretation, to help us find the inspiration for community growth and enhancement.
So, in presenting my first thoughts on the Institute for Jewish Policy Research’s National Jewish Community Survey (NJCS), which was published this week, that is my intention. Not to create gloom or despondency, but to help us understand our present as a means of transforming our future.
That said, there are some worrying developments to consider. Some people will be concerned that, whereas 40 percent of respondents described their upbringing as traditional, mainstream, moderate Orthodox, only 26 percent describe their current position in that way.
The implication (although not the inevitable conclusion) is that mainstream British Jewry is slowly but surely withering away, destined in time to be replaced by something else.
The most likely candidate for that something else – troubling for some, encouraging for others – is observant Orthodoxy, which, principally by virtue of high birth rates, is a key growth industry in the British Jewish community. However, the data also demonstrates that, over time, significantly more Jews are moving away from religiosity than towards it, and that a growing swathe of British Jews is gravitating – actively or passively – towards more religiously liberal or secular positions.
When we put these trends together, the most likely future scenario points towards a UK Jewish population that will become increasingly divided between the strictly Orthodox at one end and the secular and cultural at the other, with a weakening bridge of moderation in the middle.
That sounds to me like a recipe for dissent, distrust and discord. But knowing that possibility exists does not mean it must come to pass.
Indeed, it should compel us to explore how our endeavours – in our shuls, schools, youth movements, community centres, care homes, and perhaps most of all, our families – can bridge the gaps that separate us. It should demand of us that we reach across the dividing lines in the community, and take up the Talmudic principle of becoming responsible for one another.
The data shows that “feeling part of the Jewish people” is important to most of us; perhaps the question now is how to translate that feeling into dialogue and cooperation.
Interestingly, a second survey finding points to another strong area of common ground. Provided with a list of 20 possible notions of Jewishness that might be important to them, 92 percent of respondents maintained that “strong moral and ethical behaviour” was a defining characteristic of their Jewish identity.
Indeed, there was more consensus on that than anything else; it came higher, for example, than studying Jewish texts, believing in God, observing Shabbat, donating to charity, supporting Israel or combating anti-Semitism.
While, no doubt, we all have different notions of what constitutes strong moral and ethical behaviour, it’s not exactly a bad place to start figuring out what might bind us together.
Examined carefully, NJCS data is full of insight and potential. Indeed, that was the intention: the survey was designed in close co-operation with Jewish leaders from across the community, not simply to describe contemporary reality, but to help Jewish charities plan for the future.
The preliminary findings report offers food for thought; over the coming year, we plan to produce follow-up studies, both for general consumption and for specific Jewish organisations. Not every finding will provide good news, but every finding should serve as a catalyst to push us to think more creatively about how to build a positive future for Jewish life in the UK. NJCS offers us a great opportunity.
It’s now up to the community to grasp it fully.