More synagogues, fewer members: new report finds that synagogue membership has declined by 20 per cent in a generation

There is a record number of synagogues in the United Kingdom today, according to a newly published survey, but synagogue membership numbers have continued to decline.

A new report, Synagogue membership in the United Kingdom in 2016, has found that despite the fact that there are now 454 synagogues in the UK – the largest number ever recorded, synagogue membership numbers have dropped below 80,000 households for the first time since records began.

These are some of the key findings in the report produced by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research on behalf of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Synagogue membership figures have been analysed consistently over several decades, and constitute the best measure of Jewish communal affiliation in the UK that exists. They provide the only consistent indicator of patterns of Jewish affiliation and belonging over time, and are thus of particular interest to community leaders and planners.

The new report reveals that 79,597 Jewish households across the United Kingdom held synagogue membership in 2016, down from 99,763 in 1990, the equivalent of a 20% decline over a quarter of a century. The rate of decline has fluctuated over time, but membership has dropped by 4% since the last synagogue membership report was published in 2010, the equivalent of 3,366 households across the country.

The authors of the report maintain that the reasons for the decline are only partially related to assimilation, and can be explained primarily by demographic forces – a general decline in the number of Jewish households that exist in the UK. The largest denominational group remains ‘Central Orthodox’ – an amalgamation of synagogues affiliated to the United Synagogue, the Federation of Synagogues and other independent Modern Orthodox synagogues around the country – yet their share of total membership has dropped to 53%, down from 66% in 1990.

By comparison, the Reform and Liberal shares, at 19% and 8% in 2016, have slightly increased over that period. Page 2 of 3 The fastest growing group is the strictly Orthodox, which has grown by 139% since 1990, and today constitutes 13.5% of all synagogue membership households, compared to just 4.5% a generation ago. Masorti is also growing fast, albeit from a much lower base, more than doubling its membership since 1990, and now representing over 3% of the total, compared to 1% in 1990.

Three-quarters of all synagogues in the UK are situated in Greater London and the adjacent areas of South Hertfordshire and South-West Essex, and a further 11% are located in Greater Manchester. Half of all synagogue members in the UK belong to synagogues that are situated in just five areas: Barnet, Westminster, Hertsmere, Redbridge and Stamford Hill.

Executive Director of JPR, Dr Jonathan Boyd, said: “The affiliated British Jewish community is changing. The mainstream Orthodox centre is in numerical decline, whilst stricter forms of Orthodoxy are in the ascendancy. Because the more progressive wing is largely stable, representing just under a third of the total, the trends point to a future in which stricter forms of Orthodoxy will hold an increasingly prominent position, not only in synagogue membership, but in how Judaism is practised and how Judaism is seen and understood by others.”

Chief Executive of the Board of Deputies, Gillian Merron, remarked: “This new report provides a fascinating analysis of synagogue membership in the UK and a great insight into the anatomy of our community. The collaboration between the Board of Deputies and the JPR continues to produce excellent work and ensures we will all have access to critical data for the community.”

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