Private Lives: `We must redefine Jewishness'

The number of Jews in Britain is declining, and those committed to the religion's traditions are falling. Is it time, then, for an unorthodox approach?
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Rachel was sitting at a table next to the big tree at the Spaniards' Inn, in Hampstead, drinking vodka and bitter lemon with her friends. There were seven of them in all, in their late teens, in their last year at school or just about to start college, jabbering excitedly about Home and Away.

All north London girls, they were dressed in black tank tops and tight skirts and gold jewellery.

Rachel's group is the British equivalent of Manhattan's Jewish American princesses - well-off, well-educated, family girls with high hemlines and expectations.

Traditionally, north London boys of whatever persuasion quickly learned one thing about girls like Rachel: never ask for a date on a Friday night. In the leafy suburbs which are their homes, Friday, the evening of the Jewish Sabbath, is spent with the family. Even the wildest party girls could tell you that.

But last week in the Spaniards, everything seemed to have changed. Rachel had been out the previous Friday with Ben, a boy she met in a club the Saturday before that and, if he called, she was going to see him the next Friday. Amy, her best friend, was going clubbing in Brixton. Crew-cut Jon, Amy's ex, was taking Nicola, with her hand in his, to see Saving Private Ryan.

None of them was going to spend Friday dinner at home.

Their parents, they said, were either unconcerned or resigned. "I don't really feel any of that Jewishness," Rachel said. "I mean, synagogues aren't really me. It's great if my parents want to stay in and I'm quite close to my mum and dad. But I'll see them when I want to, not when I'm supposed to."

Britain's Jews are a dwindling tribe. A population of 450,000 in 1950 shrank to 308,000 in 1985 and just 285,000 in 1995, the last year for which figures are available. According to one estimate by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, there will be fewer than 230,000 Jewish people here in 20 years' time. The main reason behind the decline, and a source of heated debate and worry within both the Orthodox and Reform communities, is assimilation. Those who are born Jews are drifting away from the faith and the community, marrying non-Jews or simply not identifying themselves as Jewish in the secular, individualistic society of late Nineties Britain.

Jonathan Romain, the rabbi of the Reform Synagogue in Maidenhead, Berkshire, is pushing forward with his idea of a solution, one that is raising the ire of traditionalists in what is becoming a increasingly pervasive and heated debate about the way forward. Rabbi Romain, a Jewish historian, says: "We have to redefine what being Jewish means. There are many different ways of being Jewish, as well as the faith. Lots of Jews are atheists or agnostics and will stay so and it's something the synagogues need to recognise, or risk losing two-thirds of British Jewry."

He is one of a growing number of vocal reformers within the rabbinical system (another is Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, author of Kosher Sex, a controversial guide aimed at getting Jews to enjoy reproducing more) who argue the ancient religion has to wake up to the new millennium or risk losing its "people" forever, particularly in countries like Britain which has a comparatively small Jewish community.

The views are anathema to traditionalists and those within the orthodoxy (with a small "o"), who argue that to change the rules on being part of the faith will irretrievably dilute what has never been a proselytising religion.

If Jewish men are marrying out of the faith (as 48 per cent of British ones are), they say, their children and wives will not, without a long conversion process, ever be Jews, and that is the end of it.

Among ordinary Jews, though, the reformists are finding growing support. Last Friday night some 60 people attended Rabbi Romain's sabbath service in Maidenhead. Classes and social activities on weeknights, ironically, attract a higher attendance. The synagogue is a converted large detached house on a suburban road, next to a bed and breakfast.

Isaac Greenberg was among those participating in the kiddush, the blessing with wine, after the service. Mr Greenberg, who is Israeli by origin, is typical of Rabbi Romain's flock. "I wasn't religious at all when I was a teenager," he says. "I went very, very rarely to synagogue. We were what you'd call `barmitzvah and wedding Jews' in Israel. My family was too busy living their lives."

Mr Greenberg, now 52, moved to Britain in 1967 after he met and married a British woman from Liverpool. His wife was Church of England, but as lapsed as he was. They had a register-office wedding.

It was a few years later, when Mr Greenberg and his wife Joyce had two daughters, that they moved to Cheshire and he started visiting local synagogues "out of curiosity". He found the experience comforting, particularly after his father's death. But one day, in an orthodox synagogue in Sheffield, where he worked on occasion, he had an arresting experience. "I visited the synagogue quite frequently, and I was going to touch the Torah during a service. But then someone whispered in the ear of the rabbi, and I was stopped and they told me, `You're not married within the faith, you can't go to the Torah'. Within seconds I was reduced to persona non grata in the synagogue, and didn't feel like going there again."

Mr Greenberg's story is not atypical among the diverse flock at Maidenhead; Jason and Sarah Miller, a professional couple in their late thirties living in west London, told of being "frozen out" by the regulars at their local synagogue. "After years without ever feeling Jewish, we wanted to participate in the community, just to see what it was like," said Mrs Miller. "But it was like they didn't want to know." If their uncle hadn't introduced them to Rabbi Romain, they say, they probably wouldn't have ended up feeling Jewish at all anymore.

Eventually Mr Greenberg, who was becoming quite devoted in his middle years, found an Orthodox synagogue where he was accepted, "against the rules"; he asked that its name not be revealed as those working there may get into trouble. It wasn't until he started coming to Maidenhead (after a move south) that he and his family felt welcomed. His elder daughter, Tamar, comes to services every Friday. She, too, has married out of the faith; she, too, was "frowned upon" (her expression) by other synagogues. "I would like my children to be brought up like I was," she says, "with both Christmas and Rosh Hashanah, so they could make up their own minds." It is an arrangement her rabbi is happy with.

Last Friday, Len Driver dropped in to say hello to the rabbi. Mr Driver (his name has been changed at his request) is one of Rabbi Romain's converts. "If it wasn't for my experiences here, I wouldn't be with the faith now. I would have completely been put off being Jewish," Mr Driver says. As a child he rarely saw the inside of a synagogue and he didn't even have a barmitzvah, the traditional "coming-of-age" ceremony for 13-year-old boys.

Wanting to explore Judaism when he was in his twenties, Mr Driver visited a local Orthodox synagogue. "It didn't attract me at all," he says. "It was an exclusive place for the wealthy and I hated it. My Hebrew was poor, and I felt left out."

Through a family friend, he found out about the Maidenhead Reform, and started visiting several nights a week for classes, social activities, history lessons and services. "It was never rammed down your throat what you must and mustn't do; everybody was friendly. I loved sitting with old couples and talking about their experiences, and it really brought something out in me."

Mr Driver, now 32, became very devout in his twenties, and when he moved to Yorkshire with his (Jewish) wife, became a stalwart of his local synagogue, which is Orthodox. "I love being part of a community. I am a believer but I know a lot of people who come who don't believe, who love talking and meeting up and the whole spirit."

But now, he thinks Rabbi Romain goes too far. "I'm not happy with welcoming non-Jews into the faith. They have to be 100 per cent committed, because otherwise the whole faith will become diluted, with people who are not born Jewish who also don't share the values. That's dangerous."

On Friday, Mr Driver sat in on one of Rabbi Romain's conversion classes for inter-marrying couples, which are conducted in a jolly, even irreverent, tone. He would mutter his disagreement when his old mentor outlined a liberal interpretation of a ceremony or ritual. "I don't like that," he said once. The tension in the little room in Maidenhead echoed the arguments within the whole of Britain's declining tribe.