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[personal profile] liv
[personal profile] kerrypolka asked for:
what you think about Anglo-Jewry and its funny internal politics, the Board of Deputies, how well all the branches get along (and don't)
I said that sounds more like a late-night booze-fuelled rant than a DW post, but she still wanted to hear my opinions, so here goes.

In the words of Jane Austen, this is an account by a partial, prejudiced and ignorant historian; it's not based on anything resembling scholarship, just impressions I've picked up from being in the middle of Anglo-Jewry. The thing is, Anglo-Jewry and its funny internal politics is basically my family: my grandparents were from Eastern European immigrant backgrounds, from established Anglo-Jewish families with connections by marriage to some notable names, and from ethnically English backgrounds via conversion. My parents were brought up Liberal and Orthodox, and my immediate family has been very much involved in Reform synagogues and the Reform movement. I've dated various flavours of Jews, including an Orthodox-raised now Masorti guy and a Reform-raised now unreligious guy, but ended up married to a non-Jew. So this stuff comes from dinner-table gossip and conversations with influential people.

Also. There are about a quarter of a million Jews in the UK, and it's not quite true that we all know eachother, but people who are engaged in community life at all do tend to have connections to everybody else. We play a party game called "Jewish geography" where you meet someone for the first time and try to discover a common acquaintance; I've won in some spectacular circumstances, including meeting the abbot of a monastery (!) who turned out to have been born Jewish and was related to me by marriage. Anglo-Jewish politics is a total fishbowl.

I'm gonna talk about the 20th century and mostly about my own lifetime, because this is just personal opinions not a researched history. But I need to give a bit of background to explain how the last century got to be the way it was. There were certainly Jews living in England at the time of the Doomsday book, who probably came over in William the Conqueror's retinue. Pre-Norman times evidence isn't clear; there may or may not have been semi-itinerant traders. But anyway, there was a Jewish population in England from at least 1066 to 1290, when England expelled its Jewish population. They had a very weird relationship with Mediaeval Christian society, sometimes rising to positions of influence but sometimes being subjected to violent attacks and of course ending up getting thrown out. Although it was technically illegal for Jews to live in England from 1290 to 1656 when Oliver Cromwell invited the Jews back to the country, there's evidence that a few were tacitly tolerated.

From 1656 to let's say the middle of the 19th century, the Jewish population in England (later the UK) remained small but we were around. Part of Cromwell's motivation for ending the expulsion was humanitarian, part of it was religious (he was convinced that the Bible indicated that having Jews in every country of the world would hasten the Second Coming of Jesus), but also part of it was pragmatic: he wanted a mercantile class with strong links to continental trading empires. So the Jews who did settle here tended to be that sort of people, educated, with good commercial connections.

Contrary to stereotypes they were by no means all rich, but some of them were, and with the Enlightenment and the rise of the middle classes and an increasingly egalitarian social spirit, it became more and more possible to be successful in society even if you weren't descended from Norman barons or even Protestant. The major Anglo-Jewish families kept a fairly strong insistence on marrying within the faith, meaning that everybody ended up multiply connected by marriage – this historical group is sometimes referred to as The Cousinhood. It was reasonably common for ethnically English people to "marry in" and convert to Judaism, becoming absorbed into said Cousinhood. Most of the English Jews in these couple of centuries originated from Northern Europe, France, Germany, the Netherlands etc, though many of them were originally of Sephardi origin ie their families had been based in Spain up until their expulsion in 1492. As a broad generalization, religiously they tended to be fairly secular; they kept the major Jewish holidays and possibly a greater or lesser degree of religious observance, but it was much more a cultural and community thing than a religious commitment specifically. They participated enthusiastically in Enlightenment society which was all about the secular humanism and also very much saw themselves as British.

This is where we get the Board of Deputies from, basically. Mid-eighteenth century the Jewish community wanted to formally declare loyalty to the British monarchy, so they had to form a group who could be considered to be representative of the Jewish community. There was a bit of argy-bargy over several decades regarding exactly who had the right to represent the Jews. Tensions between Jewish sub-groups of different ethnic origins, primarily, mostly an Ashkenazi (mainly Northern European origin) versus Sephardi split. Since it was the era it was, everybody was obsessed with parliaments so eventually the Board formalized into a quasi-parliamentary structure where different communities could elect representatives, who then met regularly to have parliamentary debates. They tried to provide a reasonable, moderate "voice" of the British Jewish community so that when reporters wanted a quote about some matter of Jewish interest, there was an official body to talk to and hopefully steer them away from interviewing extremists who would provide headline-grabbing nationalist, separatist statements. They tried to project a civilized, respectable, assimilated image of Anglo-Jewry to the non-Jewish world, and also supported some of the early proto-Zionist movements within UK politics.

It's also where we get Liberal Judaism from. Some people from within these established, assimilated Anglo-Jewish families wanted a religious commitment that really engaged their values, not just attending Jewish events in order to socialize with people like them. They wanted a religion where they, born and brought up in the UK, felt comfortable, that wasn't full of quaint foreign rituals. Britishness was an important value, and so was Liberalism in the 19th century politics sense of the word, they were committed to women's lib and what we'd now call social justice and anti-racism, and they felt that religious communities should be involved in practical philanthropic projects. They partly looked to the Reform movement which was thriving in Western Europe (and had a minor presence within the UK), but rejected a lot of it as too foreign. So they had services in English which everyone could understand, and rewrote the prayers to reflect modern values so that people wouldn't be reciting prayers they understood and completely disagreed with! They took inspiration from the Biblical Prophets more than to the traditional Jewish legal codes. They also experimented with things like having services on Sundays because that was more "British" and also more practical for people to attend if they had to work on Saturdays, though that aspect didn't quite last! But they did have services that would not look weird to someone used to Anglo-Protestant models of religion, with things like unison reading, hymn singing, dignified and solemn services rather than everybody doing more or less their own thing as is typical of Orthodox prayer.

There were also Jews around who weren't part of this influential, anglicized group, of course. Recent immigrants who were pedlars, small-time merchants, later on with the industrial revolution, people who migrated to the new industrial cities and very often took on the secondary jobs created by the existence of the factories and the workers with somewhat more spending power than that social class had previously had. Things like running shops to sell mass-produced goods and ready-prepared foods, or sometimes acting as clerks, secretaries or similar within the factories themselves. The kinds of people who show up as Dickens characters, whether portrayed in a negative light like Fagin in Oliver Twist or a more positive, but still seen as a poor outsider forced into moneylending, like Riah in Our mutual friend. So I think as well as ethnic tensions within the Jewish community there were also class tensions; sometimes the richer, longer-established Jews acted philanthropically towards the recent immigrants and poorer members of the community, sometimes they tried to distance themselves from them.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the demographic picture changed dramatically because there was a substantial influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe. They were a mix of economic migrants who saw Britain as a booming economy with far more opportunities than existed in places like Russia and Poland, and political refugees who were suffering substantial social exclusion, persecution and increasing violence, especially in an era of nationalism and people starting to identify strongly with their ethnic groups. The UK in this era had full emancipation, as it was called, ie Jews could become full citizens and participate in almost all aspects of public life. These people mostly gravitated towards the major port cities, where there was a high demand for labour and housing was relatively cheap, so the East End of London, also Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and so on.

These immigrants were really not at all popular with most of established Anglo-Jews! They generally didn't have access to a secular education and most professions were closed to them in their countries of origin. Even those who were more educated spoke low-prestige languages like Yiddish and sometimes Polish, maybe Russian, so they didn't appear educated to the British observer. Many of them were already poor in their home country, anyway they certainly were poor by the time they made it across Europe the UK. There was a lot of anti-immigrant feeling among the general British population, and the respectable, middle-class sorts of Jews felt this reflected badly on them. However, again, there were also philanthropic efforts to help the immigrants, provide housing and basic medical care, teach them English etc.

Anyway, people whose ancestors come from this section of the population have been the huge majority of UK Jews for the past 120 years or so. Religiously they were mostly Orthodox-by-default because post-Enlightenment religious denominations hadn't really penetrated much further East than Germany. There was a split there between the mostly Polish-influenced version of Ashkenazi Judaism which tended to the popular and sometimes partly mystical, and the mostly Lithuanian-influenced version which was rather elitist, intellectual and legalistic. This isn't really a big split any more but I know there was a time when it was considered intermarriage for people from different communities to marry, as happened in my family. Some of them continued practising more or less as they had back in their countries of origin, some rejected religion as another of their outdated, peasant customs they were trying to get away from in order to become modern, civilized people. But as Golda Meir is supposed to have said, the synagogue they wouldn't set foot in was usually Orthodox.

Like a lot of immigrant groups, this cohort wanted nothing more than to become middle-class. They put a lot of emphasis on education (which was accessible to most people in the UK at this time), and encouraged their children into the Professions. Mind you, some of them were quite socialist and were deep into the International labour movements, anarchists and communists and all sorts. As far as I can work out the same people often held both these values at the same time, they wanted to overthrow the class system and they also wanted to be on the right side of it. It took a while for them to be respectable enough to intermarry with the old Jewish families, but it did start to happen and my own family is an example. Sometimes they socialized in Jewish contexts because they basically had to, things like working men's clubs and trade unions and sports leagues and so on weren't open to Jews. But they increasingly had non-Jewish friends and married non-Jews (some of whom converted and some didn't).

The other thing that is demographically significant is the rise of Nazism in the middle of the 20th century. A lot of people left Germany, Austria and other Nazi-influenced and later occupied countries in the 30s, and some of them ended up in the UK. These people were typically highly educated middle-class folk, because until the 30s Germany had been a highly integrated society where Jews had many opportunities. A couple of significant groups of people within this set: the scientists who were rescued from Europe by academics over here, who quickly became major figures within the UK academic establishment. And the Kindertransport people, kids who were sent to live with British families until the Fascist problem blew over, many of whom in fact never saw their birth parents again.

Religiously these Europeans were often entirely secular, though a high proportion were Reform, the Reform movement being very much established in Germany. R' Leo Baeck was a leading light among a group of people who joined up with the small Reform community in the UK and tried to recreate the intellectual basis of Reform Judaism that had thrived in Germany in the early 20th century over here. Although the Liberal Movement was very English and the Reform movement rather continental, they had obvious common interests and worked together to provide a serious alternative to Orthodox Judaism which had become the predominant religious stream in this country due to all the Orthodox Eastern Europeans. The secular people often attached themselves to Reform communities because hanging out in Jewish circles was the only way they could get a taste of the cultural life they'd left behind in Europe, German speaking but polyglot, highly cultured, engaged with politics, connoisseurs of art and music and so on. And being secular themselves they felt less uncomfortable in Reform communities than Orthodox ones.

So post-war, what do we have? A British society that largely rejects anti-semitism, out of horror of where it can lead, though historical traces still remain. A Jewish community that is predominantly Orthodox by the numbers, mostly people descended from the wave of Eastern European immigrants at the end of the 19th century. A small but highly engaged, and mostly cooperating, Reform and Liberal movement. An increasing proportion of people who are secular or have a very minor religious commitment, but again, the religion they don't engage with is usually Orthodox just for demographic reasons. The division between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews has all but disappeared, though sometimes it is politically relevant, but anyway the Sephardi element is numerically tiny by this stage. But the division between Orthodox and Progressive denominations becomes more and more entrenched.

One reason for this is to do with the State of Israel, I think. The State was established in 1948, and the way things panned out, the definition of "who is a Jew" ie who has the Right of Return to immigrate to Israel ended up in the hands of the Orthodox Rabbinate. Israel is an overwhelmingly secular society, and the Orthodox minority have been moving further and further to the right in the last 65 years, possibly in order to maintain their existence as an enclave within intensely secular society. This has massive knock-on effects for Jews in the diaspora, the rest of the world. Partly everybody looks to Israel because it's seen as the centre of authentic Judaism. Partly everybody wants to make sure their kids have the option open to move there if Europe should turn hostile again (and this is not mere paranoia, if you look at the situation of the Jewish community in Hungary currently it is not pretty, and even France is becoming increasingly difficult). So if the Israeli Rabbinate says that only people who follow their increasingly strict definitions are really Jews, diaspora Jews are heavily pressured to go along with that.

As a result partly of this, Orthodox Judaism within the UK has also moved quite a long way to the right in the last six decades. Another issue is, Orthodox Judaism prohibits travelling on the sabbath (and because of the move to the right, this prohibition is taken increasingly seriously), which means that in order to participate in Jewish life, you have to live in a fairly close (walking distance) proximity of other Jews. Increasingly strict definitions of what food counts as kosher also contribute; you need to live with a sufficient concentration of Jews to justify the existence of kosher shops and restaurants, if you're not willing to count food as kosher when it's sold in non-kosher establishments. These factors mean that it's more and more difficult for Orthodox communities to continue to exist other than in areas with high concentrations of Jewish populations, and this is a positive feedback system, because more and more people leave the small Jewish communities and move to the Jewish suburbs of big cities, making it even harder for provincial synagogues to survive. So Orthodox communities are becoming more and more insular and segregated from general society, which in turn contributes to ever-stricter definitions of what counts as valid Orthodox observance.

The major political issue is always going to be status, aka "who is a Jew"? The Israeli Rabbinate hews to a more and more Orthodox-centric definition, and because of the Israeli citizenship question it's extremely hard to resist that. The situation is that people are Jewish if they have a Jewish mother or convert to Judaism. Maternity should be simple, but it isn't, because it's becoming more and more an issue that non-Orthodox communities can't certify anyone's mother as Jewish to a standard that will satisfy the Rabbinate. A bigger problem is that only Orthodox conversions are recognized, with a more and more strict definition of what counts as a valid Orthodox conversion. Currently I believe it takes an average of 7 years to convert to Orthodox Judaism in the UK, and during that time you have to prove your willingness to live a strictly Orthodox life according to the most stringent interpretations of the law. There are also more and more multi-generational investigations of not only an individual's conversion, but their mother's conversion or their mother's mother's conversion or their great-great-great grandmother's conversion. So anyone who marries a non-Orthodox Jew has to contend with the possibility that the Rabbinate will refuse to recognize their offspring or even distant descendants as Jewish.

The issue of who-is-a-Jew is also tied up with the issue of who has the right to ordain rabbis, because a conversion can only be accepted by a Beth Din, a rabbinical court. In theory, any rabbi may ordain any other rabbi. However there's a big argument about whether it is legally possible for a woman to be a rabbi. The current Orthodox movement (particularly the Israeli bits of it, there's some softening in the international community) holds that women can not be rabbis under any circumstances. Therefore any non-Orthodox rabbi's legitimacy can be questioned because at some point in the "chain" some rabbi is likely to have been ordained by a female rabbi, and therefore their rabbinical authority is not valid, and therefore anyone ordained by them isn't a real rabbi either. And anyone whose conversion is accepted by a non-valid rabbi isn't a valid Jew according to irritating divisive definitions. This really shouldn't matter as much as it does, it should be possible for Orthodox Jews to insist on male rabbis and everybody else to go on being happily egalitarian, but because of the immigration status issue, it is a very difficult problem to get round. It's not only women rabbis, it's technical details of the process of how conversion works, and the fact that non-Orthodox movements are (definitionally) not going to insist that their converts take on the obligation of following the strict letter of Orthodox law and stringent practice.

This whole thing creates a ratchet where not only do Orthodox authorities have disproportionate amounts of power over non-Orthodox Jews who might otherwise just ignore their rulings, but the rightmost wing of the movement can drag the moderates rightwards, because there's always the danger of not being strict enough to meet the Israeli rabbinate's definition. Example: a practising Orthodox Jewish couple apply for a place for their child at the prestigious Jewish Free School. The child is not considered to be Jewish because his mother was a non-Orthodox convert, even though she has been practising Orthodox Judaism along with her husband for years now. The couple end up taking the school to the secular court for discrimination, which is as far as I can determine a complete disaster for everybody because we end up with a High Court ruling that the traditional definition of Jewish status (having to have a Jewish mother) is racist.

Jewish schools, argh. When I was a kid nobody went to a Jewish school except maybe the most strictly Orthodox families. Now the huge majority of Jewish kids, of all denominations, are educated in Jewish schools. This is partly an artefact of the thing where more and more of the community are concentrating in a few small Jewish areas (more than 4 out of every 5 Jews in the UK currently live in a single London borough these days). But it's also to do with this utterly awful status anxiety; parents are more and more desperate for their kids to marry other Jews, not just any Jews, but Jews with completely impeccable Jewish status, because otherwise there's the chance that their grandkids or descendants will not be recognized as Jewish by the Israeli rabbinate and if the next Hitler comes along they won't be able to escape Europe and move to Israel. This means that the generally good integration of most of the Jewish community into British society is seen as a threat, not a positive thing, because the more integrated you are into wider society, the more likely you are to marry a non-Jew. And people are trying to achieve this by sending their kids to Jewish schools so that they have an almost exclusively Jewish social circle. I am a hardline multi-culturalist, I think this is a disaster. I'm against religious schools in general, and I'm particularly against this trend of Jewish kids only having Jewish friends, and quite often going to university and continuing to hang out with the people they knew as teenagers, schoolfriends and neighbours and pals from the Jewish youth movements.

Tied up with this is the fact that the Jewish community is tearing itself to pieces over inter-marriage, which is to my mind entirely needless and borderline racist. I mean, if communities throw out their members for marrying a non-Jew, it's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy that any offspring the couple have are not going to feel engaged in the Jewish community! But the fact of having a non-Jewish spouse is blamed instead of the actual problem, namely the community's rejection of them and their kids. It's also deepening the divisions between denominations, because the Orthodox movement is so hardline against inter-marriage or even marriage to non-Orthodox raised Jews who might have non-Orthodox converts in their ancestry. The Reform movement isn't very happy with intermarriage, but is trying not to be absolutely awful to people in mixed marriages or their offspring. The Liberal movement is largely supportive of inter-marriage, and particularly regards the offspring of Jewish fathers but non-Jewish mothers as fully Jewish. This has massive status implications because anyone who's ever had a Liberal Jewish ancestor may potentially trace their ancestry back to someone whom the Liberal movement would regard as Jewish and the Orthodox movement wouldn't.

Other political issues: same-sex marriage and general rights for GSM groups within communities are kind of hot at the moment, but I think that will sort itself out, it's becoming increasingly politically impossible for anyone to be seriously homophobic. The Orthodox movement is still officially holding to homophobic positions but I think they'll come round eventually. Right now the Reform and Liberal movements perform same-sex marriages and campaign politically for legal recognition of such. The Reform movement was slow to come round on this, Liberal Judaism has always been more pro-actively positive towards LGBT+ folk. But both denominations have pretty much always been willing to ordain gay, lesbian and bi rabbis including those in same-sex relationships, for about as long as there's been such a thing as a gay identity. In fact there used to be a kind of wry joke that the whole intellectual base of Reform and Liberal Judaism was made up of disaffected gay Orthodox Jews, who brought their traditional Orthodox educations with them when they had to leave the Orthodox world.

It's possible I'm being too optimistic, the Orthodox movement might dig in its heels and make hating gay people an identity thing (as in, we're not like those awful Reform people who include all those weird people in their communities who aren't even heterosexual), as they have done to some extent with full inclusion of women. However, that can only work to a certain extent, because eventually the gaps between religious communities and normal society just grow too wide. A good example is the thing of bat mitzvah. The Reform community gave girls the opportunity to celebrate a bat mitzvah from fairly on, that is the exact equivalent of a boy's coming-of-age ceremony. And the Orthodox movement initially condemned this as totally unacceptable in every way, and later introduced the idea of a bat chayil, which is sort of like a consolation prize bat mitzvah, in that it takes place on a Sunday and doesn't include reading from Torah. And over the years, bat chayil has kind of drifted more and more towards being like a bat mitzvah to the point where the terms are nearly interchangeable. The worldwide Orthodox movement is ordaining women, it's still controversial yet but it's happening, and I think in a few years it'll be, perhaps still exceptional but undeniably something that Orthodox people do, and at that point the UK Orthodox community will discover that in fact women rabbis were acceptable all along.

I think a more pressing issue that there is increasingly less and less space in Anglo-Jewry for people who are religiously observant (whatever that may mean to an individual) and also fully integrated into British culture. That partly comes back to the issue with everybody flocking to Jewish areas and all the kids going to Jewish schools and being cocooned in a nearly exclusively Jewish social life. But it's also partly that everybody is getting so entrenched in their denominational and political positions, and so much trying to keep up with Israel (and to some extent the US) that we're kind of losing what I see as particularly valuable about the Anglo tradition, which has been multicultural for centuries before the word was invented.

I can't really discuss this without mentioning the Jacobs affair. R' Louis Jacobs was a leading Orthodox rabbi, a respected scholar, I've heard it said he was tipped for chief rabbi. And somehow or other he managed to get himself excommunicated (which, by the way, is not something that Jews normally go around doing!) He wasn't especially small-l liberal by the historical standards of Anglo-Orthodoxy, though he kind of looked it compared to where the movement is these days with the ongoing rush to the right. The ostensible reason was for writing a book that argued that the first few chapters of the Bible are mythological and metaphorical rather than literally historically true, which really really should never have been a controversial position whatsoever. Jews haven't been into Biblical literalism for a couple of thousand years at least.

So he went on to found the Masorti movement, which is more or less the UK equivalent of Conservative Judaism and is largely a good thing. Masorti Judaism is a halachic movement, one centred around traditional rabbinic law, but taking a pragmatic, realistic interpretation of the law informed by modern scholarship rather than always trying for the most stringent possible interpretation due to worry that the Israeli rabbinate will declare anything less invalid. It's currently tiny but growing. The problem is that it's seen as in some ways more of a threat to Orthodoxy than the non-halachic movements, because it's similar enough to attract people away from Orthodox communities. This in turn has caused some Orthodox groups to get even more entrenched, unwilling to countenance any sort of forward movement because they need to differentiate themselves from the Masorti. And of course there are status issues and arguments over whether Masorti conversions are valid and it's a whole big mess.

The other thing that's going on is that Jews in this country are becoming more and more disengaged from communities based around synagogues. Lots of reasons for this, one being the growing lack of any synagogues that are big enough to be viable outside the major centres. And in the major centres, all the kids are going to Jewish schools so there's a feeling that they're kind of getting enough religion during the week and they deserve a break at the weekend. Another is to do with the changing relationship between the rabbis and the laity. Immediately post-war there was a problem that communities were basically expecting rabbis to do religion on their behalf. This was partly influenced by the Christian model where priests have specific ritual roles that only priests can fulfil (and therefore moving away from the more traditionally Jewish role of a rabbi which is simply to be a source of Jewish knowledge, education and where applicable legal decisions.) And partly because the communities had been fragmented three times in as many generations, the refugees who came over at the turn of the last century and either deliberately discarded or lost access to religious knowledge, the massive death rate of the younger generation in WW1, and then the influx of more refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe.

The pendulum has been swinging away from this in recent decades. In lots of ways this is a good thing, more empowered and knowledgeable and engaged laity, Jewish communities that are flexible and interested in aspects of religion like social justice that go beyond simply turning up and holding services. The problem is that you're getting a generation of Jews who think they don't need a rabbi... until they do. Rabbis are poorly paid in this country, compared to either the level of education they have or the salaries rabbis can attract in places like the US. And the dwindling provincial communities increasingly can't afford to pay a full-time rabbi and it's pretty grim trying to scrabble together a living by acting as quarter-time rabbi for two or three different small communities, plus free-lance funerals and the odd paid radio or TV gig.

Very few English Orthodox men want to train as rabbis, so the Orthodox community ends up hiring people from America or Israel or from the Chabad movement, all of whom are much more hardline than the Anglo tradition has historically been. The Orthodox shul where my parents were semi-regulars for the first years of my life (though we actually belonged to the Reform shul) found itself in this position. The new Chabad rabbi insisted on replacing the nominal mechitza, the division between the men's and women's sections, with an opaque, 8-foot high wall. And when the community complained that women felt unable to take part in the service if they were behind a big wall, the rabbi claimed that it was desecration to remove part of the fabric of the synagogue building. And anyway the men were mixing far too freely with women anyway and it could only lead to immorality. That's the kind of thing you hear quite a lot from small Orthodox communities, when it isn't the perhaps even worse news that the shul has had to close because there just aren't enough people to keep it viable and they can't get a rabbi at all.

And very few non-Orthodox people want to train as rabbis either, partly because the Progressive communities are increasingly not willing (and in many cases not financially able) to pay someone a professional salary when they can lead their own services and download educational materials from the internet. And besides who needs a formal religious service when you can create meditative, spiritual Experiences with a loosely Jewish flavour? Plus there's still the issue of inter-marriage: right now no denomination is officially prepared to ordain anyone with a non-Jewish partner. They used to kind of turn a blind eye to same-sex non-Jewish partners, but now that we have same-sex marriage or something that's nearly as good, the prohibition on mixed relationships is starting to bite a lot more. Nobody can really explain why a denomination that doesn't follow the strict letter of Jewish law anyway is so hung up on the idea that rabbis must only be romantically involved with other Jews, but that's the way it is. And frankly, outside the increasingly insular Orthodox enclaves, more and more engaged committed Jews have non-Jewish partners, so freezing them out of leadership (to some extent lay positions as well as formal ministry) is creating a serious gap in the community.

Informal communities can be great in some ways. They can answer a need that people really have, they can be far more inclusive than liturgy which can only move at the pace of re-editing prayerbooks (at best). They're getting back the "gap generation" the young adults from 13 to 30 who tended to avoid traditional, synagogue based Judaism because it was so pedagogic, so focused on giving kids an education that it had little to offer to people who were too old to actually be kids and too young (in our society with its prolonged adolescence) to have kids of their own. And they're much more social justice engaged because the kinds of people who form their own alt and indie communities see religion as meaningless if it's just pious words not accompanied by action.

The downside is that if there is no motivation for regular prayer in a central location, there's no continuity. The only people who can get involved are those who are already friends with the ones who start the alt communities. So often these communities are sorely lacking in diversity, particularly age diversity (though they're probably better than many mainstream communities at gender and sexual identity diversity). If people are going to only bother showing up to something that speaks to them personally, there's a big temptation to spend all your religious time with the same people who are your obvious social peers anyway, who are going to be all into the same things. This model of Judaism isn't very useful for people who don't have particularly great social skills, who maybe aren't going to be seen as shiny assets to an indie group that gets to pick and choose who counts as a valuable member. There isn't much of a place for people who have become alienated from religion for many years and find they need to come back at a time of crisis – how are they going to find anything to come back to? There isn't support for that rather obnoxious old man when he finds that being prickly at everybody throughout your adult life leaves you isolated in your widowhood.

People who only want to take part in religion if it's "meaningful" don't bother doing the boring grindy things that you need to keep the infrastructure going. It's all a bit tyranny of structurelessness; if you don't have boring things like a managing committee and you reject authority, you end up having your community run by the people who happen to be able to put lots of time and energy into it and are best at persuading. Sometimes those people burn out and then the community falls apart, sometimes they just shout over the parents of young kids and the older people and the carers and the people with disabilities. And when there does come a crisis that needs serious religious education and pastoral skills, a group of random enthusiastic people with no training can't cope. At the moment what happens is that they come crawling back to the mainstream communities they broke away from as being too stuffy and boring. But my worry is that if everybody is off having meaningful experiences in informal indie groups, it won't be long before the boring mainstream communities fade out of existence altogether.

OK, this is over 5K words, I had better shut up and post it! I may do a separate post on how this relates to the Board of Deputies, particularly since both my parents are currently Deputies, so I might ask them for some input. As before, if you have any questions I am happy to try to answer them, if you have factual corrections that would be great because this is mostly just my personal opinions with a lot of over-simplification. [personal profile] kerrypolka, I hope this satisfies your desire to see me ramble!

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Date: 2013-05-10 09:55 pm (UTC)
randomling: Tony Stark, in sunglasses, waves his whisky glass around. (i need a drink)
From: [personal profile] randomling
I found this really, really interesting to read! There was a lot here that as an outsider I had no idea about at all, and I have a feeling I'll be doing a lot of Googling over the next few days. So thank you.

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Date: 2013-05-10 09:59 pm (UTC)
angelofthenorth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] angelofthenorth
Wow that was really interesting. Thank you!

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Date: 2013-05-10 10:28 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] dsgood
What aboout Hasidim?

US Jewish history is more complicated. Partly because different areas got different sets of Jewish immigrants. (Not to mention the conversos who went to what were then Spanish colonies.) Partly because there's never been a central Jewish organization.

The latest wave of Jewish immigration, from the former Soviet Union, to the US is people who weren't very familiar with Judaism (to put it mildly.)

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From: [personal profile] lethargic_man - Date: 2013-05-11 10:32 pm (UTC) - Expand

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From: [personal profile] lethargic_man - Date: 2013-05-13 12:39 pm (UTC) - Expand

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Date: 2013-05-11 12:30 am (UTC)
kass: glass of wine (wine)
From: [personal profile] kass
Okay, holy wow, this is totally fascinating; there are things here which I knew, and things here which I did not; and I want to have all kinds of thinky conversations about it, except right now I have had a damn long week and I have enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine and I'm not sure how coherent I can be. So I will just say: wow, this is cool, I will attempt to respond to it in the morning when I am more awake! Shabbat shalom!

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Date: 2013-05-11 10:19 am (UTC)
wychwood: chess queen against a runestone (Default)
From: [personal profile] wychwood
This is fascinating! I'd not been aware of how deeply the Israel thing affected religious policies. Yet another example of the ways that explicitly tying politics to religion leads to bad-times (see also: practically every time anyone in the Catholic church has opened their mouths lately...) I hadn't realised that "non-Jewish partner" was such a problem for rabbis, particularly. It's interesting to see how this does and doesn't look like the situation in Christian communities, too - particularly the Catholic church, because there are some extra similarities there, large immigrant base, non-UK central (or influential) authority, etc.

Anyway! Thank you. I had many thinky thoughts.

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Date: 2013-05-11 02:37 pm (UTC)
forestofglory: E. H. Shepard drawing of Christopher Robin reading a book to Pooh (Default)
From: [personal profile] forestofglory
Thanks for writing this, it was a really interesting read.

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Date: 2013-05-11 03:53 pm (UTC)
lovingboth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] lovingboth
"More than 4 out of 5..."

Gosh.

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Look back in Ongar

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Date: 2013-05-11 08:21 pm (UTC)
shreena: (Default)
From: [personal profile] shreena
Agreed with everyone else that this was fascinating. I had two thoughts/questions: firstly, while I do understand the lingering fear of persecution ( quite a number of east African Asians have it too), I would have thought it overwhelmingly likely that Israel's policies would not be unaffected by persecution of Jews so am surprised that it would have this much impact; secondly, are there efforts made to change Israeli immigration policies and, if not, do you have any thoughts in why not?

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Date: 2013-05-11 10:18 pm (UTC)
lavendersparkle: Jewish rat (Rat)
From: [personal profile] lavendersparkle
Non-Orthodox converts do have the right of return. I know someone who is making aliyah later this year on the back of his Masorti conversion. It's a bit rubbish when you get there because there are difficulties marrying or finding a suitable burial site if you're not Jewish by Orthodox standards. Similarly, as the right of return only requires one Jewish grandparent, there's not much reason to be concerned about Liberal intermarried families not being able to make use of it. So, I don't think the anxiety about status issues can be to do with losing the option to move to Israel.

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Date: 2013-05-11 10:25 pm (UTC)
lethargic_man: (reflect)
From: [personal profile] lethargic_man
The major Anglo-Jewish families kept a fairly strong insistence on marrying within the faith, meaning that everybody ended up multiply connected by marriage – this historical group is sometimes referred to as The Cousinhood.

I'd not come across that before; that's interesting.

These people mostly gravitated towards the major port cities, where there was a high demand for labour and housing was relatively cheap, so the East End of London, also Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and so on.

I don't think it was so much that people gravitated there, as that they entered the country there and never got any further. (Consider, for instance, the relative size and importance of Greenock as a general community, and as a Jewish community one hundred years ago.)

Religiously these Europeans were often entirely secular, though a high proportion were Reform, the Reform movement being very much established in Germany.

Hmmm. There were a substantial number of refugees from Nazi Germany in Newcastle when I was growing up (and still some now), who were members of the Orthodox shul. I'd always assumed they'd always been Orthodox, but I find myself wondering now to what extent that was because there was no Reform shul in Newcastle at the time. Nevertheless, I do not get the impression that the Orthodox community in Germany had become moribund following the rise of the Reform.

These factors mean that it's more and more difficult for Orthodox communities to continue to exist other than in areas with high concentrations of Jewish populations, and this is a positive feedback system, because more and more people leave the small Jewish communities and move to the Jewish suburbs of big cities, making it even harder for provincial synagogues to survive.

I don't think that's why the Orthodox communities are dying in the provinces. The death of the provinces started in the early 1970s, long before the shift of your average Anglo-Orthodox person to the right. Anglo-Orthodox Joe at the time was "traditional", i.e. not observant enough to be bothered by the lack of an eruv and so on, and indeed many members of that generation (such as my parents) still are. By the time people started taking these things into consideration as to where to live, the provincial communities had already got into an irreversible spiral of decline.

Therefore any non-Orthodox rabbi's legitimacy can be questioned because at some point in the "chain" some rabbi is likely to have been ordained by a female rabbi, and therefore their rabbinical authority is not valid, and therefore anyone ordained by them isn't a real rabbi either. And anyone whose conversion is accepted by a non-valid rabbi isn't a valid Jew according to irritating divisive definitions.

I don't think this is why non-Orthodox conversions are not accepted by the Orthodox, or older Reform conversions would be accepted, or those by the UK Masorti community, which currently has a moratorium in place on female rabbis in public roles (I suspect this won't last the next decade, though). I think it's more simply a matter of rejecting the authority of a beth din which is prepared to make decisions (any) which run counter to Orthodox halacha.

Jewish schools, argh. When I was a kid nobody went to a Jewish school except maybe the most strictly Orthodox families.

That's not the impression I get from Londoners when I was growing up. And even in the provinces, I went to a Jewish school as far as Jewish schooling went in Newcastle (i.e. to the age of eight), and I was raised traditional, not Modern Orthodox.

But it's also to do with this utterly awful status anxiety; parents are more and more desperate for their kids to marry other Jews, not just any Jews, but Jews with completely impeccable Jewish status, because otherwise there's the chance that their grandkids or descendants will not be recognized as Jewish by the Israeli rabbinate and if the next Hitler comes along they won't be able to escape Europe and move to Israel.

That's not it, and you know that! The Law of Return does not operate according to the same criteria as recognition of Jewishness; if it did, you wouldn't have several hundred thousand non-halachically Jewish Soviet olim in Israel today!

the Orthodox movement is so hardline against inter-marriage or even marriage to non-Orthodox raised Jews who might have non-Orthodox converts in their ancestry.

Matrilineal ancestry, which is far less stringent a criterion. (I know you know this, but your readers don't necessarily.)

So [Jacobs] went on to found the Masorti movement

I don't think he did, actually: The movement arose despite him, rather than because of him. The shul he founded was independent, and so was its daughter shul. It wasn't until decades later that they affiliated with Masorti Olami; and Louis Jacobs himself continued, I think, to identify as Orthodox all his life.

the massive death rate of the younger generation in WW1

You think? Certainly in my family, and I suspect this would go for most Jews whose ancestors came over before the government slammed the gates of immigration shut in 1905, my ancestors hadn't all yet got British citizenship by WW1. I suspect those who died in WW1 were either from the old established, pre-1880s Anglo-Jewry, or were fighting on the side of the Central Powers, but whose family subsequently moved to the UK.

Decline of the provinces

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Seaboard Communities

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Date: 2013-05-12 03:40 am (UTC)
wendylove: Wendy: I know such lots of stories (Default)
From: [personal profile] wendylove
As others have said, this is very interesting -- thank you for sharing it!

I am much more sympathetic to the people who don't need or want a rabbi; I imagine they are, as I am, reacting against a few generations of "our rabbi leads everything in the service and observes Judaism on our behalf while we sit back and watch," and so they embrace DIY Judaism. But I agree that the *community* needs a rabbi if possible, mostly -- as you say -- for counseling and pastoral reasons, and in part because it makes a lot of life-cycle things easier to have someone who's registered already with the civil authorities. I mostly pay synagogue dues for that reason, but I'm in favor of a lot of synagogue and other Jewish institutional mergers because you only need so many rabbis, cantors, giant buildings, etc. in a given area. And of course the one absolutely indispensable Jewish professional is a mohel!

(no subject)

Date: 2013-05-12 07:36 pm (UTC)
kerrypolka: Contemporary Lois Lane with cellphone (Default)
From: [personal profile] kerrypolka
This is exactly what I was wishing and hoping for, thank you very much for writing and posting it!

it's pretty grim trying to scrabble together a living by acting as quarter-time rabbi for two or three different small communities, plus free-lance funerals and the odd paid radio or TV gig.

This is really interesting, because it's a basically identical trend to that in a lot of 'creative' occupations (it might also be true in non-creative ones, but I don't have as much exposure to them!) - design, writing, that sort of thing have all been moving from salaried positions to freelancing, with the same effect of low security and wages. The specific demographic issue of small-and-shrinking provincial communities is not the same, of course, but I wonder if this is part of a much broader trend in the way people think about employment generally.

I didn't realise that so many kids going to Jewish schools was a relatively recent thing! I can never make up my mind about religious schools - like you, I am a firm multiculturalist but I feel British schools are pretty default-Christian (when term breaks are, that sort of thing), although that's based on vague impressions talking to my friends who are parents, and could be wrong.

Re: conversions and Israel, I knew about the Orthodox status issues around who-gets-to-be-Jewish were affecting marriages, but I didn't realise how much that was feeding how much young Jewish people are encouraged to socialise with each other/not assimilate - that's quite interesting!

I mean, if communities throw out their members for marrying a non-Jew, it's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy that any offspring the couple have are not going to feel engaged in the Jewish community! But the fact of having a non-Jewish spouse is blamed instead of the actual problem, namely the community's rejection of them and their kids.

Well, quite. This is one thing that has always genuinely puzzled me, as with most Orthodox-y issues I'm not fussed about I can see *why* they're doing what they're doing (alienating women with a giant fuck-off mechitza is great if your goal is to have fewer women involved in public life in your community!), but with this one they're going "we'll solve the demographics problem by driving people out of the community!" Um, good luck with that?

I have lots of thoughts on many other parts of this but it's dinnertime - thank you again for putting this up!

(no subject)

Date: 2013-05-12 10:13 pm (UTC)
khalinche: (Default)
From: [personal profile] khalinche
As others have said, this is a fascinating read and a wonderful introduction to the different Jewish communities in the UK. Thank you for laying it all out. I am so impressed by what you've been writing lately. I mean, I'm always impressed by what you write but lately your posts have been particularly good.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-05-13 12:59 pm (UTC)
damerell: (religion)
From: [personal profile] damerell
I'd forgotten that about Cromwell.

Soundbite

Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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