An Irrelevant Anglo-Jewry

I saw my friend in the queue to board a flight from London to Tel Aviv. She was chatting to her friend, and after the benign introductory chit-chat, I realised that between us, we had 14 adult children, 11 of whom live in Israel. Let’s not label these young adults, but it’s relevant that they are Sabbath observant and come from professional families who value both a Jewish and secular education. Crucially, most were involved in, and inspired by, the religious youth movements. In their absence, they are helping to shape the future of Anglo-Jewry, but it seems communal leaders are taking no notice.

These 11 adults will not be contributing to the future financial sustainability of the UK Jewish community.  They will make some online purchases for UK clothes and ask their obliging parents to bring the goods to Israel, but they won’t be spending a penny on the UK Jewish community via synagogue membership, support of Jewish charities or communal infrastructural organisations.  These are people who have benefited from the financial investment that their parents and generous benefactors have made in the community, but they will not be paying it back financially.  Nor will they be available to help with arranging charity dinners, shul events, or serving on the Chevra Kadisha. They come from communities with a strong volunteer ethic where communal organisations rely on the next generation to continue their activities, but they won’t be there. Communal leaders may rightfully lament that the ‘return on investment’ is poor.

While many who make aliyah are among the more engaged youth of their London community, their challenge in Israel will be to actually make their mark – despite the rhetoric that living in Israel is the paramount contribution to Jewish survival, many a frustrated oleh has wondered if he or she could better serve the Jewish people in the Diaspora. Baka and Talpiot, upscale Jerusalem suburbs, are full of under-employed Jewish idealists who rely on overseas gigs in Jewish communities bereft of educators so that they can raise their own children in Israel.

Israel benefits economically – it’s likely that most of these 11 will receive some financial support from their parents at various stages of their life, like they would have in London. This means more pounds being pumped into the booming Israeli economy.  Further, the air traffic between the UK and Israel is full of parents visiting their children, siblings visiting each other, not to speak of weddings and family events that support Israeli businesses.  However, in the short-term, these young adults cost the Israeli economy– two of my daughters are currently serving as lone soldiers and on top of their salaries, they receive additional funds for rent and food.  After their army service, their university studies will be paid for. They are entitled to free health care and other benefits like every Israeli citizen, however, their contributions to fund the system are to date, minimal. Israel is playing the long game, investing in these young people as the harbingers of the future.

There may be an exception or two among this group of 11, but they will marry and raise their families in Israel, and given current trends, it’s fair to assume that each of them will have at least 3 or 4 children. The maths is simple: 40 young children who won’t be growing up in the UK and attending its myriad of recently established Jewish state schools. If this trend continues, together with data showing that the birthrate among the non-charedi UK community has not reached ‘replacement’ level, the need and type of Jewish schools may need to be re-calibrated.  For despite the current challenges to the charedi schools by the UK government, it’s clear that they will be the face of UK Jewry in the future – estimates suggest that by 2031, half of Jewish children born in England aged 4 and under, will be charedi.  Their thriving communities are already establishing satellite communities due to the physical and social costs of their cramped living conditions in London.

On average, 600- 700 Jews make aliyah annually from Britain, however 2015 was considered a bumper year when 774 left Britain for Israel. In a community of approximately 250,000 Jews, it’s easy to say that less than a 1,000 people a year making aliyah hardly warrants a footnote. But I would argue it deserves a headline, for what’s interesting is their profile: in a report on the 2015 cohort, 60% were under the age of 35 and 69% defined themselves as Orthodox [i.e. not charedi] . From what I observe, this trend is continuing, so the concern has to be the sustainability of the small modern Orthodox community in London.  This is a niche section of Anglo-Jewry with the capacity to maintain a Judaism that is firmly entrenched in tradition, but comfortable with the secular world – a combination that is under threat by more extreme forces. It is a community that stands a little outside the establishment and has the potential to infuse Anglo-Jewry with a more vibrant and engaged modern Judaism. However, the modern Orthodox community in London is under threat for at least three reasons:

  • Parents generally do not encourage their own children to be Jewish educators
  • Educational establishments have not produced enough indigenous rabbinic leaders to challenge the charedi bias of the unelected and centralised UK rabbinical authorities who hold sway over the status and standards of a much less observant constituency
  • The next generation are themselves becoming charedi, making aliyah or in fact, moving away from religious practice as has been seen in Israel and the USA among the modern Orthodox communities. It appears that the number of young people replicating their parents’ lifestyles is not at ‘replacement’ level.

So, if these threats are not reversed, if the predictions about the charedi community are accurate and if the intermarriage rate across the wider Jewish community continues to increase, Anglo-Jewry will become even more irrelevant in the larger global Jewish conversation.  Those with children in Israel want them to stay there, and in the future, it’s likely many of  the older generation will join their children. Even though sustaining a vibrant modern orthodoxy is crucial to saving Anglo-Jewry, as things stand now, the chances of that are pretty slim.

About the Author
Sally Berkovic is the author of Under My Hat, short-listed for the Jewish Quarterly prize, which reflects on raising her daughters while straddling the tensions between Orthodoxy and modernity.
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