British Jewry should encourage higher fertility rates and usher in a nationwide learning project as part of efforts to counter threats to the “continuity” of the community.
That was the stark message from Senior Reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner on Sunday, as she set out a four-point plan for addressing the challenges facing 21st century Anglo-Jewry during a meeting of the Board of Deputies last Sunday.
She expressed concern over the contents of the Pew report in America which showed the percentage of adults who say they are Jewish by religion has nearly halved in six decades while there has been a 50 percent rise in intermarriage in one generation.
And the Reform leader also pointed to the “remarkable” change being experienced by British Jewry, “where the growing Haredi population counterbalances our diminishing non-Haredi population” and one in three births are now within the Haredi community.
At the same time, many young Jews saw being Jewish in Britain as “expensive, hierarchical and institutional” and viewed the doors of communal institutions as being “firmly shut”.
“We are now at one of those critical, pivotal moments in our history,” Rabbi Janner-Klausner told a packed audience. “It is sneaking up on us, threatening our cohesive fabric and our continuity.”
But, saying there was a need to engage youngsters “in a way they want rather than what we may deem is right”, she suggested four key steps which could help the community flourish if undertaken urgently.
They included subsidies for more youth camps and more money to employ youth workers, as well as the introduction of a national project to “ensure literacy in 30 basic Jewish skills”.
“Judaism is so knowledge and skills heavy that we lose people who feel too embarrassed to say they’re unable to perform central tasks. We seem to specialise in raising and maintaining barriers. We’re experts in excluding,” said Rabbi Janner-Klausner, who added that people were also excluded through attitudes to conversion. “Disdain does not sustain,” she said.
Another urgent issue, she claimed, was falling fertility rates “when they are already too low to be sustainable”, as the average age of marriage increases.
The Reform leader said: “We need to raise fertility rates. The intervention that would impact on this would be affordable Jewish pre-school centres. This enables people to meet the expense of childcare and both parents to work and connects Jewish-Jewish couples and intermarried couples.”
Laura Marks, Senior Vice President of the Board, said the rabbi “demonstrated her grasp of the changes to Jewish demographics and the resultant challenges that the community faces.”
“She is spot on in her assertion that UK Jewry needs to face assimilation, something that the Board and communal partners are attempting to counter through improved infrastructure, Jewish schools and playing our part in a cultural renaissance which enables people of all ages and denominations to enjoy celebrating their Jewishness in a variety of ways.”
“We are also in agreement about the challenges facing the community around social care and affordable housing and facilities for the elderly.”