“We survived slavery; but can we handle freedom? We have eaten the bread of affliction; but can we handle affluence?”
So said Rabbi Sacks on his installation as Chief Rabbi in 1991. I thought of it today when I was sent an article commenting on the fact that youth in the United Kingdom are among the least religious in post-Christian Europe, with some 70 percent self-identifying as having “no religion”, according to a new report.
The article was quoting from a new report titled: ‘Europe’s Young Adults and Religion’.
The report analysed data from the latest European social survey of 16 to 29-year-olds across 21 nations in Europe, plus Israel.
Stephen Bullivant, Professor of Theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University in London and the author of the report said, “With some notable exceptions, young adults increasingly are not identifying with or practising religion. The new default setting is ‘no religion’, and the few who are religious see themselves as swimming against the tide. Cultural religious identities just aren’t being passed on from parents to children, it just washes straight off them.”
However according to Bullivant, while churches like the Church of England are losing members among the less actively religious, they are holding on to a fervent core of believers. “In 20 or 30 years’ time, mainstream churches will be smaller, but the few people left will be highly committed”, he said.
Analysing recent scholarship, Glenn T. Stanton observed that while moderate religion is slipping in the United States, intense religious belief and practice, especially among Christians, is holding strong and even increasing.
This seems to mirror what is happening in our community, a huge growth in the Charedi community, and lack of assimilation amongst Orthodoxy both Charedi and Modern both here and in the USA seem to reflect the same statistics.
However, there is hope, and that hope comes from the same report which uncovered a remarkable statistic.
You see this report was a European survey, but it surveyed ‘21 nations in Europe, plus Israel’.
I downloaded the report after reading the article and first came the key findings – which said the following. ‘The proportion of young adults (16-29) with no religious affiliation (‘nones’) is as high as 91% in the Czech Republic, 80% in Estonia, and 75% in Sweden. These compare to only 1% in Israel, 17% in Poland, and 25% in Lithuania. In the UK and France, the proportions are 70% and 64% respectively’.
I read it again, looked at the graphs and then read it again. 70% of youths in UK have no religion, 64% in France and 1% in Israel. The report doesn’t really examine this incredible outlier, but it does point out ‘While Jewish young adults do not account for even 1% in any of our other twenty-one countries, in Israel they account for 78%’.
This is a Christian report but maybe they should try and understand the outlier! And what an outlier it is! All the other 21 countries – no religion 55%, Israel 1%. The reason is obvious and it links to next Friday night.
Seder night is still widely observed across the Jewish world. Even in America where the non-Orthodox are seeing intermarriage soar to nearly 80%, still 78% of Conservative and Reform Jews have a Seder – but unfortunately that too is falling.
In Israel it is even higher – close to 90% have a Seder. The reason for most people is because Seder night is seen as a tradition of our people, not simply a religious act. We see ourselves as a people not as a religion. So, when you ask a secular Israeli the question, as they did in the report, ‘Do you consider yourself as belonging to any particular religion or denomination?’ They will answer – yes, I am Jewish. They feel part of the nation, part of our people and therefore part of the religion. We are all part of Am Yisrael and on Pesach we realise that more than ever.
However, this does not solve the great challenge of our era, which Rabbi Sacks spoke about in 1991. Can we make sure that this sense of peoplehood and connection passes on to the next generation? The signs are not good. Similarly, to the non-Jewish world, we are seeing an increase in assimilation from those not religiously connected to Judaism. It seems that the only way we can keep our people intact in the diaspora is for a return to observance and a deeper understanding of the ideology of Orthodox Judaism.
So, as we sit around our Seder tables next Shabbat we must recognise the remarkable nation that is the Jewish people and be amazed and thankful how millions still feel this connection to Judaism even if they do not practice. However, at the same time we must also recognise that unless we can find a way to inspire and motivate the younger element in our community with Judaism, we will see that connection continue to weaken.
We celebrate next week our ability to have survived slavery, yet us also use next week to remind ourselves that we can handle freedom as well, with a renewed commitment to Torah and to our people.
Rabbi Andrew Shaw