by Keith Kahn-Harris
The UK is home to the world’s fifth largest population of Jews, a total of about 269,000. This is a highly diverse group – religiously, culturally, politically and ethnically – but this has not stopped British Jews from establishing a broad and complex network of institutions and organisations across the country.
How many Jews are there in Britain?
There are at least 269,000 Jews in the UK. This is the fifth largest Jewish population in the world, out of an estimated 15-17 million worldwide.
More than two-thirds of British Jews live in London (particularly the borough of Barnet and North West London) and South Hertfordshire. While many provincial Jewish populations have declined in recent decades, there are still significant Jewish populations in Manchester, Leeds, Gateshead, Glasgow and a number of other cities.
The Jewish people are highly diverse religiously, culturally, politically and ethnically, both in the UK and globally. Jews are also enthusiastic institution-builders and the complex network of Jewish organisations in the UK reflects this diversity. There are about 2,500 Jewish charities in the UK.
Religious organisations and synagogues
Not all British Jews identify as religious. In addition, membership of a synagogue is not always an indicator of how a Jew identifies and practises religiously.
The most recent figures from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research estimate that more than 79,000 households in the UK include at least one member who belongs to a synagogue. 71% of households where all members are Jewish, include at least one synagogue member and 56% where at least one household member is Jewish, include at least one synagogue member.
There are an estimated 454 synagogues in the UK, most of them affiliated to a number of denominational umbrella bodies. The following are the principal Jewish denominations in the UK:
Haredi, or strictly orthodox, Jews are committed to living lives of religious stringency and usually aim to limit their interactions with the rest of society. They dress modestly and distinctly, with men usually bearded and wearing black attire. They usually eschew universities and secular education, with a life of full-time study of Jewish texts being the ideal for men.
Haredi Judaism was decimated in the Holocaust. But from a few thousand in 1945, there are now more than one million Haredi Jews worldwide, due to their high birth rate. In the UK, estimates of the size of this community range from 30,000 to 44,000 and they are growing at a rate of over 4% per year. An estimated one in two Jewish births in London are to Haredi families. Most Haredim live in tight-knit communities in Stamford Hill, Golders Green and Hendon, Gateshead and Salford.
The Haredi community is highly diverse. There are two principal streams: The ‘Lithuanian’ stream, which has historically emphasised study as the pre-eminent value; and the ‘Hassidic’ stream which emphasises joyful spirituality alongside study.
The latter is itself divided into multiple sects, usually led by a revered ‘rebbe’ or master, and often named by place of origin. Important Hassidic sects with a presence in the UK include Belzer, Lubavitch, Satmar and Vishnitzer.
Haredi synagogues are often small (known sometimes as a shtiebel) and there are many of them. Haredi synagogue members constitute 18% of synagogue members in the UK, but 37% of synagogues. The principal umbrella body for Haredi synagogues is the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations although by no means all synagogues are members.
Modern or ‘Central’ Orthodox
Modern or ‘central’ orthodoxy shares with Haredi Judaism a commitment to living lives according to the traditional strictures of Jewish law. However, unlike Haredi Judaism, modern orthodoxy believes it is possible to live an observant Jewish life and still take part in modern society to the fullest.
Some 52% of UK synagogue members belong to central orthodox synagogues. Its share of the synagogue member population has dropped over time – in 1990 the proportion was 66%.
The UK’s largest Jewish denominational body is the United Synagogue which broadly adheres to modern orthodox practice (although some of its religious authorities lean towards the Haredi world) and has 62 constituent and affiliated synagogues. The Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, is the spiritual head of the United Synagogue but religious rulings are usually made by the London Beth Din, or religious court. Membership of a United Synagogue congregation is not necessarily a sign of modern orthodox practice.
There is also a smaller orthodox body, known as the Federation of Synagogues, which has 24 constituent and affiliated synagogues and tends to be more religiously conservative in outlook than the United Synagogue, and some member synagogues cross over into the Haredi stream. There are also a number of independent synagogues that straddle the boundary between Haredi and modern orthodox.
Masorti Judaism (known as Conservative Judaism in the USA and some other countries) also sees itself as bound by what it understands as authentic Jewish law (although there are a variety of views as to what this means within the movement).
However, it also has a much more robust view than orthodoxy as to the possibilities for developing Jewish law in response to changing social conditions. One example of how this works is that while the liturgy and style of prayer in UK Masorti synagogues are similar to those of the United Synagogue, most UK Masorti synagogues allow greater female participation in worship and some are fully egalitarian.
The Masorti Judaism movement in the UK is home to 3% of UK synagogue members. With 11 synagogues and groups, it is the fastest growing UK Jewish denomination outside the Haredi stream, having doubled in membership since 1990.
Progressive Judaism is the umbrella term for those Judaisms that emerged in the modern period that rejected a literal approach to understanding Jewish law and instead applied modern thinking and understanding to traditional practice and theology.
This has included non-literal approaches to the divine, an emphasis on personal choice with regard to observance, and editing traditional liturgy, including a use of the vernacular in worship. Progressive Judaism is egalitarian in terms of gender, with women and men worshipping together and many women serving as Rabbis in both movements, together with a similarly egalitarian approach to sexuality (gay marriage is now accepted).
In the US, the largest Jewish community in the world, progressive Jewish movements account for the majority of synagogue affiliations. The UK has two progressive movements, the Movement for Reform Judaism which has 19% of UK synagogue members in 41 synagogues and Liberal Judaism which has 8% of UK synagogue members and 40 synagogues. The latter has historically taken a more radical approach to theology, liturgy and observance than the former, although these differences have eroded over time.
The majority of British Jews are Ashkenazi, meaning they have ancestry in Germany, Eastern Europe and Russia. However, the first Jews to return to the UK after they were re-admitted in the seventeenth century were Sephardi, meaning that their ancestors came from Spain and Portugal. There are significant differences between the customs and liturgical style of Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews.
About 3% of UK Jews are members of a Sephardi synagogue. The S&P Sephardi Community is the umbrella body for Sephardi synagogues with four synagogues and eight affiliated congregations. The movement is religiously orthodox although it has a reputation for some leniency in its strictures compared with other British orthodox movements.
There are also a number of synagogues that follow the rites of Mizrachi (from the Middle East) Jews and other non-Ashkenazi or Sephardi traditions. Some of these are affiliated to the S&P Sephardi Community.
There are a number of independent synagogues and less formal groups that meet for worship, sometimes known as minyanim. These include the emerging phenomena of ‘partnership’ minyanim that follow modern orthodox practice but allow for greater women’s participation in This is part of the global development of ‘open’ orthodoxy.
There are also a number of groups, such as Grassroots Jews, that deliberately eschew denominational affiliation (they are sometimes known as post-denominational).
Schools and education
According to this report from the Institute for Jewish Policy Research there has been a 500% growth in the number of Jewish children attending Jewish day schools since the 1950s and a 400% growth in the number of Jewish day schools during the same period. Today two-thirds of Jewish children attend Jewish day schools (100% of Haredi children, 43% of the rest of the community).
There are 139 Jewish day schools in the UK, 97 of which are in the Haredi sector (which also includes a number of unofficial, unregistered schools). These include both state-aided and private schools.
Historically, most non-Haredi schools, such as the Jewish Free School, are under the auspices of the Office of the Chief Rabbi in terms of religious outlook, although pupils do not necessarily follow orthodox practice. In recent years, Jewishly pluralist schools such as the Jewish Community Secondary School have been founded.
While no one overarching body represents the interests of all Jewish schools in the UK, the Partnership for Jewish Schools and the related Jewish Schools Network support and co-ordinate many non-Haredi schools. The National Association of Orthodox Jewish Schools works with Haredi and the more conservative orthodox schools.
There are many other forms of Jewish educational institution in the UK, including:
- ‘Supplementary’ schools, usually taking place on a Sunday morning, run by synagogues to provide Jewish education for their young people.
- Orthodox and Haredi Yeshivot that focus on intensive study of Jewish texts (as well as kollels which are yeshivot for married men). The Gateshead Kollel is one of the most well known.
- Rabbinic ordination programmes such as those run by the Montefiori College (Sephardi/Modern Orthodox) and the Leo Baeck College (Reform/Liberal).
- Adult learning institutions such as the London School of Jewish Studies.
- The influential cross-communal educational conference Limmud.
- ‘Informal education’ is conducted within a number of Jewish youth movements, as well as within Jewish schools and synagogues.
- Lead – a division of the Jewish Leadership Council offers leadership training programmes across the community.
Representative, campaigning and political bodies
Dating its origins to 1760, the Board of Deputies of British Jews is the UK’s oldest Jewish representative body. Its deputies are elected from within synagogues and other Jewish organisations and they, in turn elect a President and Vice-Presidents. The Board represents Jewish interests to government and within the wider public sphere.
Secular Jews who do not engage in Jewish organisations are imperfectly represented by this body and most Haredi synagogues and organisations are not members (although they do co-operate on selected issues).
The Jewish Leadership Council was founded in the 2000s and brings together representatives from a number of major Jewish organisations. It also conducts representative work (often in collaboration with the Board) as well as co-ordinating activities and research within the community. Other Jewish representative organisations include the London Jewish Forum and Scottish Council of Jewish Communities.
Representative activities on behalf of the Haredi community are conducted on an ad hoc basis, sometimes working with the Board and other representative organisations, sometimes conducted by prominent Haredi rabbis and sometimes by umbrella bodies within the Haredi community.
The Community Security Trust provides security and training for the Jewish community, as well as conducting research and making representations to government, police and other bodies regarding anti-Semitism. The Campaign Against Antisemitism is a newer body that takes a more publicly combative stance on anti-Semitism.
The Shomrim are an organisation that conducts security patrols in Haredi neighbourhoods, although they also assist other local residents. They work closely with police and are involved in monitoring anti-Semitic incidents in the Haredi community.
Most UK political parties contain significant Jewish involvement and, in some cases, Jewish affiliated bodies. The Labour Party, for example, includes as an affiliated society, the Jewish Labour Movement, which is the heir to the Labour Zionist tradition and has more than 2,000 members.
The newer (and much smaller) Jewish Voice for Labour, emerged in recent months as an alternative body (although it is not yet an affiliated society). Israel-critical and (often) anti-Zionist, it takes a sceptical stance on the anti-Semitism controversy within the party. The Jewish Socialist Group is another long-established group for secular non-Zionist socialist Jews.
Established in the mid-2000s, Jewdas is a collective of generally young Jews who hold a variety of socialist, anarchist, non-Zionist, anti-Zionist and Israel-critical views. Initially focused on satirical activities and poking fun at establishment Jewry, its approach has become more seriously political over time. They offer a Diaspora-centric view of Jewishness and engage in political manifestations, campaigning, education and often controversial and playful happenings and parties.
On the political right, the Conservative Party does not have an affiliated Jewish society. However, there are, and have been for decades, prominent Jewish MPs, members of the House of Lords and supporters and funders. There are also close ties between the Jewish community and Conservative Friends of Israel (as there are with Labour Friends of Israel and Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel) although these are not specifically Jewish groups.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on British Jews, formed in the last two years, seeks to ‘broaden and deepen connections between Parliament and the UK Jewish community’ and its secretariat is provided by the Board of Deputies. The All Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism also works closely with Jewish communal bodies and has produced some serious research reports and policy papers.
Israel and Zionism
Israel is often the focus of Jewish political organising, as well as educational and cultural programming in the Jewish community. More than 90% of British Jews support the principle of a Jewish state and more than 70% consider themselves Zionist. Beyond that, there are considerable differences (and sometimes tension and conflict) within the community in how Jews relate to Israel. Israel and Zionism-related organisations include:
- The Zionist Federation, a coalition of 30 constituent organisations, conducts pro-Israel advocacy and organises events celebrating Israel
- Charities that raise money for organisations or projects in Israel, some of which conduct educational work as well. These include the United Jewish Israel Appeal, the Jewish National Fund, the New Israel Fund and ‘Friends’ of various Israel charities and organisations such as the Friends of the Hebrew University. Many have affiliated bodies in Israel and elsewhere in the Diaspora.
- Zionist youth movements, including everything from secular socialist Habonim to the (orthodox) religious Zionist Bnei Akiva
- A plurality of campaigning and advocacy organisations that include supporters of the Israel religious right such as Mizrachi, the liberal pro-two states organisation Yachad, ‘grassroots’ groups that defend Israel in the public sphere such as Sussex Friends of Israel and non-Zionist or anti-Zionist campaign groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians.
In addition, many other Jewish organisations discussed in previous sections also conduct Israel and Zionism-related activity, including campaigning, education and advocacy.
The UK Jewish community contains a highly developed welfare infrastructure, including many organisations offering a broad range of social services, such as Jewish Care, Manchester Jewish Federation and Leeds Jewish Welfare Board.
There are also organisations offering services to sections of the Jewish community, such as Norwood (which works with children with special needs) and Nightingale Hammerson (residential care for old people).
Specialist Haredi organisations also exist, such as the umbrella body Interlink and a multiplicity of other charities plus less formal gemachs which lend out items within the community.
The Jewish Volunteering Network promotes and co-ordinates volunteering across the Jewish community.
The UK Jewish community also includes a diverse cultural and heritage sector, including the Jewish cultural centre in London JW3, the Jewish Museum, Jewish Book Week, the Jewish Film Festival and many others.
Other notable Jewish groups
Amongst the multiplicity of other Jewish organisations and projects, there are several which are not ‘Jewish’ per se but work to remember and educate about the Holocaust with input from the Jewish community such as the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.
There are also Jewish development charities such as Tzedek and World Jewish Relief, as well as Jewish social action organisations such as ReneCassin and the JCORE. There are organisations that deal with sensitive issues within the community such as Jewish Women’s Aid which supports Jewish women affected by domestic violence and abuse and Mavar which supports people considering leaving the Haredi community.
British Jews also rely on authorities that regulate kosher food such as the Kashrut Division of the London Beth Din, as well as plenty of Jewish restaurants and shops and Jewish sports clubs and teams, including the Jewish football leagues run by Maccabi GB.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that activities within synagogues are not confined to worship. They also offer welfare and support, cultural and educational programming, youth groups and social activities.
Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist. He is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College (the UK’s progressive Jewish rabbinic seminary), an associate lecturer at Birkbeck College and runs the European Jewish Research Archive at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.