A dramatic new report on synagogue membership in Britain reveals that while overall synagogue membership itself is declining, there are more synagogues today than ever before — and the Charedi membership is up by a staggering 139 percent from the 1990s.
The report has been prepared for the Board of Deputies by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. The compilers are the JPR’s executive director, Dr Jonathan Boyd, and Dr Donatella Casale Mashiah, a research fellow at JPR.
The last such survey was prepared in 2010 and the authors say many of the trends they have found echo the figures seven years ago. But among the more extraordinary statistics is the fact that in 2016 there were 454 synagogues across the UK, the highest number in recorded history; and that while what is broadly termed “Central Orthodoxy” is declining by eight percent from 2010, the strictly Orthodox are up by 18 percent from the last survey.
The report, carried out between April and September 2016, shows that “the most significant changes in synagogue membership since 1990 can be seen in Central Orthodoxy, which has experienced a 37 pr cent decline over the period, and in Strict Orthodoxy, which has experienced a 139 per cent increase.
“These trends have continued since the last synagogue membership report was published in 2010. The Central Orthodox share has declined by eight percent over the past six years, while the Strictly Orthodox share has grown by 18 percent”.
Half of all synagogue members in the UK belong to synagogues located in just five areas: Barnet, Westminster, Hertsmere, Redbridge and Stamford Hill; while Manchester accounts for 11 percent of the total synagogues in Britain.
The report breaks down denominational affiliation into six groups, as follows: “Central Orthodox (the United Synagogue, the Federation of Synagogues and independent modern Orthodox synagogues); Liberal (synagogues affiliated to Liberal Judaism, plus Belsize Square Synagogue); Masorti (synagogues affiliated to Masorti Judaism); Reform (synagogues affiliated to the Movement for Reform Judaism, plus Westminster Synagogue, Chaim v’Tikvah, and Hastings and District Jewish Society); Sephardi (synagogues affiliated with the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi Community, plus synagogues that identify with the Spanish and Portuguese tradition); and Strictly Orthodox synagogues (synagogues aligned with the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations and others of a similar ethos”.
Dr Boyd and Dr Mashiah say that the largest denominational group in 2016 was Central Orthodox, with 52.8 percent of the total membership, followed by Reform with 19.4 percent, Strictly Orthodox with 13.5 percent, Liberal with 8.2 percent, Masorti with 3.3 percent, and Sephardi with 2.9 percent.
But they add: “However, in terms of the relative number of synagogues associated with each denominational strand, Central Orthodox and Strictly Orthodox share the dominant position with an identical number, each accounting for 37.4 percent of the total 454 synagogues. Nevertheless, in assessing these figures it is important to bear in mind that the average congregational size in the Central Orthodox strand (247 members) is almost four times larger than in the strictly Orthodox strand (63 members). Reform synagogues have the highest mean congregational size, with an average of 344 members per synagogue”.
For the first time, says the report, Masorti has grown so that it is no longer the smallest of the six denominations, just beating those affiliated to the Sephardi movement.
The authors say: “The most striking figures are for the Central Orthodox and Strictly Orthodox strands, albeit for contrasting reasons. Central Orthodox
membership figures have declined by over a third in the past quarter of a century, from 66,201 in 1990 to 41,990 in 2016 – the equivalent of about 930 household memberships per annum.
“By contrast, Strictly Orthodox membership figures have increased dramatically, by 139%, rising from a recorded count of 4,489 in 1990, to 10,712 in 2016, the equivalent of about 240 new households per annum. As is the case with UK Jewish population data in general, these dynamics in the Charedi community, which are driven predominantly by demographic forces (particularly high birth rates), are helping to offset the decline seen in other parts of the Jewish community”.
“The data also reveal contrasting fortunes for the various non-Orthodox strands. The counts recorded both for the Reform and the Liberal movements are at the lowest levels seen since 1990. Membership of Reform synagogues has declined by eight percent since 1990 (a net loss of 1,366 members, or the equivalent of an average of about 53 per annum), while among the Liberal strand, the equivalent figure is 16 percent (an average loss of about 49 members per annum)”.
In contrast, the report says “Masorti has grown consistently since 1990, from 1,226 members at that time to an all-time high of 2,620 in 2016. These are significantly lower numbers than either of the other two non-Orthodox denominations, but an increase nonetheless of 114% (or the equivalent of about 54 members per annum). Indeed, in 2016, for the first time, Masorti membership counts exceeded Sephardi ones, rendering it no longer the smallest denominational strand”.
The authors conclude that “mainstream Orthodoxy” is being squeezed from two directions — non-Orthodox and strictly Orthodox. They say: “Whereas mainstream Orthodox contraction is due to a combination of shrinking membership caused by ageing and ‘leakage’ to non-Orthodox denominations or non-affiliation, Strictly Orthodox growth is predominantly driven by high fertility. The impression is one in which mainstream Orthodoxy is being slowly ‘squeezed’ from both sides, albeit for different reasons, and more so by the Strictly Orthodox than the non-Orthodox”.
The two biggest synagogues in Britain are both Reform — Edgware Reform and West London, each holding between 1500-1900 synagogue memberships by household. And the table of synagogues with under 50 members by household is a surprising mix of places like Aberdeen and York, together with strictly Orthodox “shtieblach” in Glasgow, Barnet or Islington.
Senior Rabbi and Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism Danny Rich told Jewish News: “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.
“It is clear from these figures 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.