The Community Vitality Project seeks to delineate and richly describe areas of unusual vitality and dynamism in Jewish communal life. Having scanned the full spectrum of Jewish life in the UK, we decided to devote the first phase of our work to congregations. Future iterations of the project may move on to the educational system (both schools and informal education), the legacy organizations (major national institutions and the like), and the innovative sector. But, for now, given their centrality and drawing upon the considerable body of work on religious congregations – Jewish and not – we’re devoting our attention to synagogues.
2. What motivates you to focus your professional work on Jewish communities and in particular, the UK Jewish community?
I have been conducting social research on Jews ever since I was an undergraduate at Columbia University over 40 years ago. My research is an expression of my commitment to serving the Jewish People which is the driving force in my life. UK Jewry offers the larger Jewish world several important lessons, in particular in its unusual cohesiveness.
3. How has the community changed since you were last involved in the UK Jewish community in 2004?
On the one hand, demographic losses to the less traditional population have proceeded apace. On the other, I observe a healthy diminution in inter-denominational rivalries, the ascendance of the innovative sector, new philanthropists on the scene, the emergence of bodies that are pro-Israel yet critical of Israeli government policies, and — most critically for this project — a growing number of congregations marked by unusual signs of, well, vitality. Possibly the biggest change is the growth of enrolment in Jewish schools, a development that may well set the stage for an even brighter future in the coming decades.
4. After spending a considerable amount of time in the UK, what are your reflections on UK Jewry?
UK Jewry takes modesty a bit too far. In comparison with other Jewries, UK Jewry is unusually cohesive as evidenced, in part, by its enormous residential concentration, high rates of congregational affiliation, and (now) high rates of Jewish school enrolment. On all these measures, UK Jewry surpasses its counterparts in Canada and the US (although Toronto Jewry and London Jewry bear many positive features in common).
I say all this with a degree of caution as, truthfully, I am “blessed” with the ignorance of the outsider. I, of course, remain open to correction and to learning more over the coming months.
5. How do you see the JLC added valuing value to the UK Jewish community?
The emergence of the JLC is consistent with a culture of independence and innovation deeply embedded in the Jewish psyche and culture. We are a non-hierarchical people who prize fealty to Jewish purpose alongside a tolerance for Jewish difference. The JLC provides a distinctive attempt at exercising Jewish initiative, in concert with all the other distinctive attempts – past, present, and future – to make Jewish life more productive and significant.