Jews in decline: Britain's disappearing tribe

Jews in decline: Assimilation and emigration mean numbers have dropped below 300,000 for the first time this century
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The Independent Online
IT IS A situation any member of the Jewish community will dread. For the first time in more than 70 years, the number of Jewish people in Britain has dropped below 300,000, and is set to fall steadily. If the decline continues, numbers are projected to drop to below 200,000 within a generation and nobody seems sure how to reverse the trend.

The figures, compiled by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and published in yesterday's Jewish Chronicle, are particularly alarming in the provinces: Leeds, Glasgow, Birmingham and Southend all reported sharp losses between 1985 and 1995, the year for which the figures were compiled.

Nationally, the number of Jewish people is dropping by 2,300 every year; the country has 285,000 Jewish residents, down from 308,000 10 years ago. Even the South-east, home to the vast majority of the Jewish population, is suffering a haemorrhage of 5 per cent every decade.

Ostensibly, the figures make for frightening reading for anyone aware of the contribution of the Jewish population to British society over the centuries.

A word of caution was sounded by Marlena Schmool, director of the Community Research Unit at the Board of Deputies, who said that "by concentrating on quantity, you lose sight of the qualitative changes, and they are not all that bad."

Other Jewish leading lights also pointed out that the figures were less a sudden drop than a continuation of a trend. Emigration, assimilation and secularisation have been constantly gnawing at every population with a religious identity since the end of the Second World War.

So worried are Jewish leaders that the chief rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sacks, recently endorsed Kosher Sex, a book which advocated the expansion of the range of "acceptable" sexual positions (currently strictly limited to the missionary) in what many interpreted as an attempt to avoid a further waning of those who wanted to be bound by Jewish tradition.

But behind the debate over the statistics lies a fundamental split which reformers in the Jewish community believe many of their fellow-Jews are avoiding to the long-term cost of the community. For the primary reason for the decline in the Jewish population is not emigration, but assimilation.

Emigration to Israel, a source of diminishing numbers across Europe, accounts for about 800 people a year. Emigration strikes a double-whammy: those who leave for the Promised Land are, on the whole, the most devoted and energetic, and thus the least likely to have become assimilated in the future. And they also tend to be young: either newly-formed families or single people in their twenties.

With their zeal likely to be passed to their children, Rabbi Jonathan Romain, of Maidenhead Reform Synagogue, said: "Israel's gain in these cases is our loss."

But emigration isn't the primary source of attrition. There are an equal number of Jews estimated to leave for the other promised land - the United States. But by most estimates they are replaced by an equal number of new immigrants from across the world.

But the main sources of drainage are "assimilation" and "secularisation", processes which the Orthodox community, by far the dominant one in Britain, has traditionally countered with calls for greater education for children. This isn't working, and education has no effect on those above 20.

Some 44 per cent of Jewish males in Britain are estimated to be married to gentiles, meaning almost one in two Jews is unable to be accepted by the Orthodox synagogue, which frowns on intermarriage, and is unlikely to bring up children who are Jewish, something which bodes ill for the future in a world where racial diversity is on an unstoppable increase.

Many reformers, however, believe that "assimilation" is a misnomer, that many of those who are counted as being assimilated are reluctant castaways, and that they would have remained part of the community if they had been given the chance.

Rabbi Romain, who is a historian of British Jewry and self-proclaimed reformer, says Judaism must change with the times or risk "much bigger problems" in the future.