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The Times: Orthodox faith wanes as Jews quit middle ground

22nd September 2014

This story is taken from today’s edition of The Times - http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/faith/article4213635.ece

By Oliver Moody

Orthodox Judaism in Britain is “withering” as it is caught between modernisation and religious conservatism, a study has found.

Some Jewish progressives believe their numbers could overtake the Orthodox mainstream within a generation as thousands of traditional Jews switch to more liberal movements, while a surge in the numbers of ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, is radically altering the faith’s composition.

Previously unreported statistics from a survey of more than 3,700 Jews last year by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), a think-tank, show the scale of the change. Only 26 per cent of British Jews identify themselves as “traditional” — a term usually used to denote conventional Orthodox Judaism — although 40 per cent said they had been raised that way.

This represented a decline from a similar study carried out a decade before, which found that 37 per cent said they were traditional Jews, and 53 per cent had been brought up in that strand of the faith.

“The loss of one in three formerly traditional adherents has broader significance than the withering of the formerly dominant category,” the report’s authors wrote. “This switch away from traditional is suggestive of a shakeout of the middle ground within the British Jewish community.”

David Graham, a senior research fellow at the JPR, also pointed to the “phenomenal” growth of ultra-conservative movements such as the Haredim. “We’re seeing a huge polarisation with a major push to the religious right through high birth rates, and a shift to the left where formerly traditional and formerly reform Jews are increasingly identifying as cultural,” he said.

Almost half of those born into traditional Judaism “switched away”, with 33 per cent shifting to progressive or “cultural” strands, and 13 per cent moving to more conservative groups.

United Synagogue, long viewed as the main voice of British Jewry, is now thought to account for fewer than half of those who claim to be Jewish and, according to the JPR analysis, is likely to be outnumbered by secular Jews soon. Last week Liberal Judaism and the Movement for Reform Judaism announced a reformist alliance that will represent around a third of the UK’s observant Jews.

Rabbi Danny Rich, the chief executive of Liberal Judaism, said that he believed many Jews had turned away from organised religion because they were “dissatisfied” with its strictures.

“We’re conscious that many Jews are leaving the religious community altogether; large numbers of them are not attuned to Orthodox Judaism and we want to offer them a religious, modern alternative.”