Is this the last generation of British Jews?
It is 350 years since Oliver Cromwell readmitted Jews to Britain, but a leading Israeli rabbi warns that Judaism here is now in imminent danger of extinction
Leading figures from Britain’s Jewish community will join the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh this week at a glitzy ceremony at St James’s Palace to mark the 350th anniversary of Cromwell’s decision to allow Jews to return to these shores.
It is hard today to envisage British society without Jews. It is more than 100 years since Benjamin Disraeli became prime minister and there are Jews prominent in every profession and in every corner of British culture: from Lucian Freud, the artist, to Sacha Baron Cohen, the comedian; Harold Pinter, the playwright, to Harry Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice.
As the Government has conceded that it is time to reconsider the success of the multicultural experiment, Jews in Britain have provided the perfect example of an immigrant people able to retain their identity while playing a full part in society. However, their very success in assimilating into British life now appears to be threatening their survival in this country.
Earlier this month, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the world’s leading Talmudic scholar, on a visit to Manchester from his home in Jerusalem, delivered an apocalyptic vision of Anglo-Jewry, warning that a once thriving community faces extinction.
“The Jewish community in England, as in other parts of Europe, is demographically unviable,” he said. “It is a dying community, without even counting assimilation. They say that in order to remain stable, a community needs to average 2.2 children. I don’t think this is the case in Anglo-Jewry. Whatever the figure, when you add the devastating devaluation of assimilation and intermarriage, it is becoming smaller all the time.”
His comments are borne out by the decline in the outward expressions of Judaism, from weddings to synagogue attendance, and the disappearance of its cultural heritage, with Jewish architecture said to be more at risk than ever before.
It is the continual rise in the number of Jews marrying gentiles that poses the biggest challenge facing the community. In 1990, there were estimated to be about 340,000 Jews in Britain, but the population has declined by a fifth to only 270,000 today. According to the 1996 Jewish Policy Review, nearly one in two are marrying people who do not share their faith.
The problem has not been helped by the unwillingness of Orthodox leaders to confront the issue. “For a long time the community has been in denial,” says Rabbi Jonathan Romain, a prominent member of the Reform community and author of The Jews of England. He is critical of the stigmatism that has been attached to mixed marriages.
“Rabbis used to tell couples that they were doing Hitler’s work for him by marrying out. The community used to assume that once you married out, that was it – you had opted out. But slowly attitudes are changing.”
While congregations at Progressive synagogues have remained relatively steady, the last report from the Board of Deputies and Jews showed that membership in Britain’s mainstream Orthodox synagogues fell by 12 per cent between 1996 and 2001. Since 1990, the number of families attending a synagogue has fallen by 18 per cent from 102,000 to 94,000.
However, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, the president-elect of Liberal Judaism, argues that this decline would not be as steep if synagogues were more welcoming to those who still identify with Judaism, but have married out. She argues that many people retain a residual sense of their Jewish heritage, which often grows as they approach marriage or starting a family.
“A lot of people are looking for some sense of roots, belonging and community. They have fond vestigial memories, particularly of Passover, and they want to bring up their children with something to believe in.”
This is certainly true of Lynn Walmsley, 34, who met her non-Jewish husband Tom at university, where she enjoyed the typical student lifestyle and turned her back on her traditional Jewish upbringing. “My parents were involved in the local synagogue for as long as I can remember. We celebrated the festivals and I wouldn’t go out on Friday nights.”
That may have changed at university, but as she prepared to have her first child she felt an overwhelming need to rediscover her heritage and pass it on to her son. This led to a tension in her marriage as her husband struggled to come to terms with her religious reawakening. “He got more than he bargained for,” she says. “He had to come to terms with the strength of my emotion that came out as we’ve become a family.”
Conversation turned to whether their son, Josh, should be circumcised and the type of religious upbringing he should receive. Their different backgrounds ensured that these were emotive issues for Lynne and Tom. “If I were married to a Jewish man, bringing our son up as a Jew would have been a shared responsibility. It would have been taken for granted, but I realised that the pressure would be on me.”
Although Tom still does not share her faith, she is immensely grateful at how accepting and supportive he has been in allowing her to follow her convictions. However, the majority of people who marry out are afraid to talk of their relationship for fear of offending their parents. For traditional Jewish families, it is still seen as a slight on their heritage.
Rachel David (not her real name), 61, mixes in almost exclusively Orthodox circles, where she admits that the first question that is asked when somebody’s son or daughter gets engaged is whether the union is “in or out”.
“People say: ‘Are we to wish them mazaltov or comazalrations?’ After my friends’ kids intermarry, the grandchildren are often not brought up Jewish.” Her friends tend to have between two and three children with at least one intermarriage per family. “When their upbringing has some Jewish component, it is quite tokenistic, and certainly too watered down to count as a sustainable type of Judaism that can be passed on to future generations. To be meaningful, it needs to permeate family life. This is not happening, and it will inevitably be lost.”
For this reason, Alan Berkley, 26, was determined to find himself a Jewish wife. “It never crossed my mind not to marry a Jew,” he says. “It is not viable in terms of my lifestyle. Someone who is not Jewish would not appreciate the way I live my life. I think it’s a shame if people marry out. It’s difficult to bring your children up as Jews if you have two conflicting cultures or beliefs.”
In contrast to Lynn Walmsley, Alan has few friends who are not Jewish and strictly observes holy days and festivals. But his search for a Jewish wife forced him to leave Glasgow, traditionally considered as one of the strongest Jewish communities in Britain, as the numbers there have decreased drastically.
Alan, like an increasing number of Jews who find their communities shrinking, was forced to move to London. In Sunderland, once a stronghold of Orthodox Jewry, the city’s synagogue was closed earlier this year after the number of Jews dwindled from 1,000 in its heyday to only 30. There used to be 12 Jewish communities in the North-East. Now, Newcastle and Gateshead are alone in being able to sustain a weekly minyan – a communal prayer group comprising at least 10 male Jews.
The mainstream Orthodox community, which accounts for about 57 per cent of the total British synagogue membership, may be suffering from decline, but it is clear from the growing number of men wearing black suits and black hats in Hendon, the north-west London neighbourhood where Alan now lives, that the Charedim, or ultra-Orthodox, are rapidly becoming the dominant group.
In fact, the Charedi community is one of the fastest-growing sections of the population and is expected to become the biggest Jewish group in Britain within the next three decades. A study by the Board of Deputies and Jews found that membership of ultra-Orthodox synagogues has doubled since 1990, spurred by a soaring birth rate — Charedi families have an average of 5.9 children, significantly more than the national average of 2.4.
Yet even in London, where an influx of Jews from the regions has stabilised the community’s numbers, synagogue membership has dropped by 20 per cent over the past 15 years, from 68,540 households in 1991 to 55,040 today.
Lady Neuberger believes that Anglo-Jewry is at a crossroads, faced with a choice between following the ultra-Orthodox path and risking becoming isolated, or embracing people such as Lynne Walmsley who have married out and are no longer considered Jewish by many Orthodox rabbis.
“We are worried about numbers, yet we don’t include lots of people who see themselves as Jewish,” she says. “There is a limited view of what constitutes a Jew. It is sad that most communities won’t accept people who might not have a religious belief, but still identify with Jewish culture.”
For Anglo-Jewry to survive, Rabbi Romain agrees that it must be prepared to adapt. “We need to recognise that Jewish identity is cultural rather than religious. Jews have changed. It is possible to be Jewish and an atheist at the same time. They might not be sure about God, but feel at home in the Jewish community. We should be putting people before ideology, whether they are gay or in a mixed marriage.”
The Orthodox community is still struggling to come to terms with these taboos, he says, but it can no longer rely on an influx of immigrants fleeing anti-semitism as it has done in the past. In previous generations, the Jewish population of Britain has been constantly boosted by immigrants, but if anything the trend has reversed.
Over the past three years, emigration to Israel has nearly doubled. By the end of this month, 635 Jews will have flown out to the Holy Land this year and today hundreds more will be at the Israel Expo to look at the real estate on offer in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
In September, an all-party parliamentary inquiry said that anti-semitic violence has become endemic in Britain, both on the streets and university campuses, yet Jews are not leaving Britain out of fear, but because they feel that in Israel they can join a community confident in its identity.
Despite concern over synagogue attendance figures, and Rabbi Steinsaltz’s warning, Baroness Neuberger is optimistic. “Anglo-Jewry is undergoing a renaissance,” she says, pointing to the success of Jewish Book Week and musical and arts events. “There is a huge revival going on,” she says. “We have been in Britain for a very long time and I’m confident that we will continue to be a strong minority community.”