On Tuesday 21 June the inelegantly-titled “Minister for Welfare Delivery,” Will Quince MP, was graciously pleased to receive [virtually!] a high-powered delegation from the UK’s Charedi world. The mission included no less than four representatives from the Jewish Community Council of Gateshead and two from the Interlink Foundation, which started life in 1990 as a support mechanism for charedi charities in London but which has since expanded into Manchester and other centres of charedi life, and which, according to its website has now “extended its role to communal advocacy, partnership and representation.”
Charedim are blessed with large families, so it will come as no surprise that the topics discussed at the 21 June virtual meeting included the current level of housing benefit paid to families renting from private landlords and the ‘cap’ on the payment of child benefit, which payment is currently restricted to two children, regardless of family size or financial circumstances.
Charedim have every right to be concerned about these matters, and to want to raise them at high ministerial level. But what interested me about the meeting was the fact that the charedi delegation was headed by Mr Edwin Shuker, a Vice-President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and that also present were two officers of the Board. Indeed in his statement following the meeting, Mr Quince referred to it as a meeting with the Board.
Until 1971 the charedim – or rather, to be absolutely accurate, some charedim(mainly those whose synagogues and shtiebels were affiliated to the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations [UOHC] ) – were in membership of the Board and elected deputies to it. At that time the Board had (as it still has) two co-equal ecclesiastical authorities, whose advice it was and is constitutionally bound to follow on all matters of a religious nature (such as marriage and divorce laws) that came or come before it. These authorities were and remain the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations [UHC] and the spiritual head of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews’ Congregation [S&P].
Deputies elected by non-orthodox congregations, such as the then Union of Liberal & Progressive Synagogues were unhappy with this state of affairs, and in 1971 the then president of Board – Tory MP Michael Fidler – agree to an amendment to the Board’s constitution, conferring a right of consultation upon the religious authorities of synagogues not recognising the authority of either the chief rabbi of the UHC or the spiritual head of the S&P.
The fury of the UOHC knew no bounds, and its deputies walked out of the Board (literally) and have never returned. This walkout was a setback for the Board, certainly in terms of its much-trumpeted claim to be the supreme representative body of all UK Jews. But in 1971 the charedim occupied a miniscule if noisy periphery of the British-Jewish world. This is clearly no longer the case. Noisy and quarrelsome the charedim might still be. But in 2015, and based on its analysis of the 2011 census, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research [IJPR] calculated that although “ultra orthodox” Jews constituted just 16% of British Jewry, their high birthrate meant that charedi children will form fully one half of all British-Jewish children by 2031.
Then there is their political impact to consider. It’s safe to say that in 1971 most charedim living in the UK were not British-born. They were – for the most part – politically immature. This is no longer the case. In London, Manchester and Gateshead they play a very full part in public debate about the issues of the day. They elect local councillors and fill a range of policy-making offices. As the recent controversies over the behaviour of coroners’ courts and the teaching of relationships and sex education in schools has shown, they have become adept at gaining the attention of local and national politicians, and of exploiting print and social media.
The claim of the Board of Deputies to be the major if no longer the sole medium of communication between British Jewry and British government has already been eroded through the efforts of the Jewish Leadership Council and the Community Security Trust. As the charedim move from the periphery to centre-stage, this claim is likely to be put under further strain. The Board’s current leadership clearly knows this. Hence its determination to rekindle its interest in matters of concern to the charedi world.
I have deliberately omitted from this discussion any attempt to offer a definition of charedim. Descriptions such as “ultra orthodox,” “strictly orthodox,” and “Torah orthodox” are widely used, but we need to remember that strictly orthodox Torah-observant Jews are to be found both in the United Synagogue and the Federation of Synagogues, which in 2016 the IJPR still insisted on classifying as “Central Orthodox” bodies. When, on 15 July last the Board of Deputies held a webinar entitled “An introduction to the charedi community,” amongst the speakers was rabbi Avi Lazarus, chief executive of the Federation, which must clearly now be regarded [I write as a Federation Council member] as a charedi enterprise. Another presenter in this very significant “Bodcast” was Shmuel Yosef Davidsohn, who actually sits on the Board of Deputies as a representative of the South Tottenham United Synagogue.
Times change and leadership changes. Behind the scenes there is now a great deal of interaction between the Board of Deputies and the Anglo-charedi world. “Long before the 21st century is over,” the 2015 IJPR report concluded, “strictly orthodox Jews are expected to constitute a majority of the British Jewish population.” The leadership of the Board of Deputies presumably knows this. If, at that time – perhaps just 30 years away – the Board is perceived as failing to address the charedim and their concerns, its own future might well be in jeopardy. That is why its leadership has launched its sensitive courtship of the charedi world.