Slow erosion of middle-of-the-road Orthodox Judaism

Synagogue membership figures have been falling for at least a generation, if not considerably longer. But the overall decline masks important developments at the denominational level.

Critically, the sector that has declined most sharply is central Orthodoxy – broadly understood as the United Synagogue, the Federation and various independent modern Orthodox synagogues dotted around the country – which collectively have seen a 37 percent drop since 1990.

The decline is partly about disaffection, but it’s also been driven considerably by natural decrease – more members dying than being born.

The Charedi community is growing at the fastest rate – by 139 percent since 1990. A generation ago, Charedim comprised 4.5 percent of all synagogue members households; today they comprise 13.5 percent.

It’s not that vast numbers are being drawn towards stricter forms of observance, it’s rather that Charedi women, on average, have seven children. Slowly but surely, high birth rates in this sector are transforming the composition of the British Jewish community.

Taken as a whole, Liberal, Reform and Masorti figures have been fairly stable over time. Liberal and Reform have both declined slightly since 1990, whereas Masorti has grown, albeit from a lower base.

But the overall picture of stability is somewhat misleading. Data from JPR’s recent National Jewish Community Survey indicate that Liberal and Reform synagogues are both losing members at a similar rate to the central Orthodox ones, but unlike those central Orthodox ones, they are also attracting members from their religious ‘right’ to offset those losses.

There are two big trends in the British Jewish community. The first is towards greater religious liberalism or secularisation, driven by sociological forces.

The second is tremendous growth among the most Orthodox sectors, driven predominantly by demographic forces.

The result of both is a gradual shakeout of the middle ground – the slow erosion of centrist, middle-of-the-road, Orthodox Judaism.

About the Author
Jonathan Boyd is the Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, an independent research organisation based in the UK specialising in the study of contemporary European Jewish life. He holds a PhD in education and MA and BA in Modern Jewish History, and is the author of numerous sociological and demographic studies of Jews in the UK and across Europe. A former Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Institute in Israel, he is a Board member of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry (ASSJ) and a regular columnist for the Jewish Chronicle.
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