Ultra-orthodox Jews on the rise in UK

BBC News/August 19, 2010

Members of Britain's Jewish community have been gathering for a conference examining the major challenges facing their community in the future. The BBC's John McManus joined them in the heart of Anglo-Jewry - north London.

Britain's Jewish community is one of the most established minorities in the country, first putting in a major appearance in these islands in 1066, with William the Conqueror.

Since then they have had a fractured history of expulsion and re-integration, and are now widely recognised as an integral and stable part of British society.

The 20:20 conference, taking place in the London Jewish Cultural Centre, is aiming to celebrate the place of Jews in Britain, and to look at where the community might be going in the future.

Amongst some familiar discussions on issues such as anti-Semitism and history, some commentators have raised concerns that one part of the community, the Haredim, or Ultra Orthodox, is facing serious problems.

Despite bucking the overall trend in the Jewish community and witnessing a rapid growth in birth rates, they are experiencing high levels of poverty.

Jonathan Boyd is from the Institute of Jewish Policy Research. He told the conference that the Haredim have been so successful in maintaining their numbers that they could double in size every 18 years.

But Mr Boyd also pointed out that on indicators such as educational achievement and levels of employment, they were falling badly behind, unlike most of the Jewish community.

'Inward looking'

"This is a community that believes in the absolute centrality of Jewish life. So what are the young boys learning in primary and secondary school?

"They're learning Torah, they're learning Talmud, they're learning traditional Jewish stuff.

"They are not on the whole learning Maths and English and French and Geography and History."

The Haredim have sometimes been accused of being unwilling to integrate into wider society.

If in the future they do form the largest subgroup of Jews in Britain, they will mirror the situation in Israel, where the ultra-orthodox are well on their way to a sizeable majority.

Geoffrey Alderman is a columnist for the Jewish Chronicle newspaper. Over coffee he told me that Haredi culture was inward looking:

"I think the Jews are the most successfully integrated ethnic/religious minority in this country.

"But it's been a success story because my ancestors who came here from Eastern Europe, they wanted to be British, they were extremely proud to be British.

"The Haredi communities in general do not seem to have inherited this ethos. They want to live in Britain but not necessarily be British."

'Duty to engage'

A few miles across London in Stamford Hill, Melanie Danan disagrees.

A Haredi herself, she works for Interlink, a charity supporting grass roots organisations within her community.

Sat in her office, Ms Danan gave several examples of Haredi Jews working harmoniously with other local groups.

"We feel that we are an integral part of British society. We have a responsibility towards the state and we also have a duty to engage in civic society.

"So there will be Haredi councillors, and people are very keen to vote in elections.

She did acknowledge that there were issues which needed tackling, such as poverty, which was exacerbated by the decline in traditional Haredi jobs in areas such as textiles, and cultural issues over working outside the community.

"There is a problem with employment. We are trying to address that problem."

Whatever size the Haredi grow to in the future, the staff at Interlink, and members of the wider community, seem to agree that the problem of poverty and exclusion must be tackled.

The challenge will be in working out a way to do that without compromising on strongly-held religious beliefs.

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