A tale of two Jewries – who will stay and who will walk away?

A tale of two Jewries – who will stay and who will walk away?

By Rabbi Daniel ROWE, Education Director, Aish.

Daniel Rowe
Rabbi Daniel Rowe.

The survival of British Jewry does not seem under threat. That’s the good news.

The notion of traditional Jewry is all but over. That’s the bad news.

The latest Institute for Jewish Policy Research report, the most comprehensive survey of the British Jewish community ever undertaken, paints an increasingly familiar tale of two Jewries – the growth of the observant community, and the secularisation, and disappearance of the rest.

Will we have Jewish great-grandchildren? It might seem it all depends on who the “we” is.  First a look at the bad news. At a superficial glance, the study appears to show an inter-marriage rate of one in four – remarkably low, all things considered. But that is misleading. Around one in four adults who are currently married are married out. One in three are not married at all (some never married, others divorced).

Just one in two are currently married in. Most of those in long term non-marital relationships are “dating out”.

Taken together with existing data produced by the Board of Deputies, the figures offer an interesting picture. The high rates of in-marriage are sustained by the enormous rate of Charedi or Orthodox in-marriage. Huge numbers are currently not married at all, with a further quarter having married out.

Apart from the inter-marriage measures, the report also showed a significant decline in the “traditional” Jewish population, from 40 percent raised that way to just 26 percent still identifying as such. This sector has primarily assimilated further to the left.

In the past, traditional Jews could be counted upon to marry in and sustain the core of the community. No more.

So why is all this happening? Much in this report corroborates earlier research by Professor Steven Miller that found a deep disconnect between the factors that motivate Jews of different generations. Miller’s research found that older generations would increase involvement and engagement to the extent that they had strong identities – such as an ethnic sense of belonging, fighting anti-Semitism and standing up for Israel.

For younger Jews, ethnic identity plays a marginal role. Instead, it is identity based upon a connection to Judaism that is more likely, to enhance everything from in-marriage to Jewish practice, to supporting Jewish charities. The implication is profound. Enormous communal resources were expended on projects designed to enhance the very elements that worked for the older generations. But the world has changed.

And as Miller foresaw, what worked for the over 50s (today’s 60 to 80-year-olds) would not necessarily work for the under 30s (today’s 40 to 60-year-olds) much less the then children and teenagers (today’s 20 to 40-year-olds). But there were other sectors of the community that did invest in building an identity based on allowing young Jews to appreciate the beauty of Jewish thought, and the depth behind the practices, without judging anyone for what they chose to do or not to do.

Over the years, this approach has gained traction and today it is known colloquially as Orthodox outreach. It has increasingly been absorbed into the fabric of Jewish student life on campus, young professional hubs and informal programmes in both Jewish and mainstream schools. Could it be that these programmes –the ones that, according to earlier research ought to be the impactful programmes – have yielded success?

There is much anecdotal evidence for such a claim, but the JPR report may provide the first tantalising evidence for such a hypothesis. While the report shows a general diminishment of Jewish engagement, it also tells of a small but significant counter-trend, of Jews who are increasing their commitment to Judaism.

For the first time, the survey shows evidence that younger parts of the community are engaging more strongly with their Judaism than their parents’ generation. Most strikingly, increasing numbers of young Jews are beginning to shape their identity around factors such as sharing Jewish festivals and those appear to be some of the most significant considerations in distinguishing those who marry in from those who do not.

Almost all those who marry-in (93 percent) hold such factors to be important to their identity, compared with just around half of those who marry out. Of course, the published preliminary findings are the mere tip of the mountain of data the JPR has collected. But the very existence of such apparent counter-trends ought to be reason enough for the communal organisations who are committed to Jewish renewal to work with the JPR to find out much more about the factors that cause young Jews to either connect or disconnect.

This is our opportunity to hear the feedback, to learn what truly is working and to refine our investment in the future.

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