Stable census figures mask key changes among British Jewry

Latest statistics suggest dwindling non-Orthodox community is being replaced by the ultra-observant

Illustrative: Jewish women in Golders Green, London. (Photo credit: CC BY/Satguru via
Illustrative: Jewish women in Golders Green, London. (Photo credit: CC BY/Satguru via

LONDON — Confounding expectations, the size of the UK Jewish community appears stable, with a decline in the mainstream Jewish population offset by growth in the Orthodox sector, newly released figures from the 2011 census indicate.

The numbers, published Tuesday, show 263,000 people in England and Wales identified as Jews in 2011, compared to just under 260,000 in 2001, the year of the last census. The slight rise will surprise many, as the community has long been perceived as being in terminal decline, dropping steadily from a high of 410,000 in the 1950s.

“Talk of a shrinking community has often been exaggerated, and now appears to be plain wrong,” said Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies, British Jewry’s main representative organization.

The data ‘throw up some key challenges for our community. . . and we ignore some of them at our peril’

As in 2001, Jews constitute 0.5 percent of the total population of England and Wales. By comparison, the Christian population has decreased by 11 percent, while the Muslim population grew by 75 percent, Buddhists by 71 percent, Hindus by 48 percent and Sikhs by 28 percent.

Despite the overall stability of the Jewish numbers, the census “masks substantial local and regional change,” says Jonathan Boyd, the executive director of the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

While the questionnaire did not ask respondents to identify the stream of Judaism to which they belong, the figures show strong growth in Orthodox areas such the London borough of Hackney — home to the Hasidic neighborhood of Stamford Hill — as well as parts of Greater Manchester and the city of Gateshead, which grew by an astonishing 92 percent. Meanwhile, areas on the periphery of London and towns such as Leeds and Liverpool, once home to substantial Jewish communities and now to mostly non-Orthodox populations, have shrunk significantly.

Jews were still very much concentrated in Greater London, which accounted for 65.3 percent of all Jews. One in five Jews in the entire country lived in just one borough, Barnet in north London, which includes heavily Orthodox neighborhoods such as Golders Green and Hendon. This marked an increase of 15 percent.

‘Talk of a shrinking community has often been exaggerated, and now appears to be plain wrong’

According to Peter Mason, director of the London Jewish Forum, the consolidation of the city’s Jewish community into just a few areas “will throw up some key challenges for our community to adapt to in the coming years, and we ignore some of them at our peril.”

These include, he said, relocating and adapting some of the Jewish infrastructure, in particular schools; providing appropriate housing for large Haredi families in rapidly growing areas, a problem which “is now reaching crisis point;” and providing affordable housing in the few areas in which Jews are choosing to live.

“In London, despite the [troubled] economic environment, property prices have continued to rise,” he said. “Increasingly, younger members of the community are finding it almost impossible to get onto the property ladder for the first time, with many unable to rely on the Bank of Mum and Dad for support. Just like the rest of London, our community needs to be invested in the drive to ensure that good, affordable accommodation is built in and around our existing communities.”

The figures released this week cover England and Wales, where more than 97 percent of UK Jews live. The figures for Scotland, which in 2001 showed a Jewish population of 6,400, are due in the summer, while the figures for northern Ireland, where fewer than 400 people identified as Jewish in 2001, will released in January.

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