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Jewish Population Undercounted, Jewish Experts Say of British Census

February 25, 2003
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There may be far more Jews in Great Britain than previously believed, experts say following the release of 2001 census data this month.

The census found just under 267,000 Jews in England, Scotland and Wales, making them slightly less than 0.5 percent of the British population.

But the religion question was voluntary and nearly a quarter of the population did not answer it.

Further, areas that are known to have substantial Jewish populations tended to have higher than average “no response” or “no religion” answers to the religion question, said Stanley Waterman of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a London think tank.

“Everything points to an undercount by the census,”Waterman told JTA.

Conservative calculations by the institute suggest there may be as many as 310,000 Jews in Britain — almost 10 percent more than the 285,000 estimate by the Board of Deputies, British Jewry’s umbrella organization.

Waterman said the fervently Orthodox community in particular had been undercounted.

The census found slightly fewer than 11,000 Jews in the London borough of Hackney, home of the country’s largest fervently Orthodox population.

Research by the Jewish community recently suggested there were between 17,000 and 22,000 Jews in the borough.

Rabbi Avraham Pinter, the principal of an Orthodox girls school and a former city council member from Hackney, said many fervently Orthodox Jews had not answered the religion question.

“I would have thought the vast majority didn’t fill it out,” he told JTA.

Many members of the community are second-generation Holocaust survivors, he explained, and they were concerned about telling the government their religion on a form that had their name and address.

Also, he said, one of the two newspapers serving the community discouraged fervently Orthodox Jews from answering the religion question.

“The Jewish Tribune had a negative attitude. They suggested there was a danger in the authorities having this information,” he said. “My own daughter didn’t fill out the religion question.”

He estimated the fervently Orthodox population at 17,000 to 18,000 — and said it was growing at between 5 percent and 8 percent a year.

“All the schools are bursting at the seams. New schools are opening all the time, and they fill up immediately,” he said.

The Institute for Jewish Policy Research has done research that may help calculate the size of the undercount.

Institute surveys conducted since the census found that only 84 percent of non-fervently Orthodox Jews in London and 89 percent of Jews in the northern city of Leeds said they were Jewish on the census form.

Barry Kosmin, director of the institute, said there was also an undercount among the elderly and the foreign-born — and perhaps among students, where there was a popular movement to answer the religion question “Jedi,” based on the Star Wars movies.

“No matter what way you look at it, I guess you have to add at least another quarter — 50,000 to 70,000 more Jews,” Waterman said.

That would put the number at between 317,000 and 337,000.

Kosmin said the census found another surprising result: the presence of at least three Jews in every one of the country’s 367 local authorities, except the remote Scilly Isles off England’s southwestern tip.

While the census turned up a startling number of rural Jews, it found fewer than expected in urban areas.

“The major finding is that Jews aren’t where you expect them to be,” he said.

“The most Jewish Jews, the Chasidim, didn’t show up on the survey, but the Jews of the shires revealed themselves,” he told JTA, referring to rural parts of the country.

“The Board of Deputies estimated that there were 8,000 Jews outside of the 20 main centers — and the census showed 25,000,” he said.

Kosmin said it was not clear who the Jews in the countryside were.

They could be retired people or professionals who can work from home, he said.

“The Jewish population, like the white middle class, is moving out to the countryside — these stories you hear about accountants and artists leaving the city and converting a barn into a home, there are a lot of Jews doing it,” he said.

But he said the high number of rural Jews could not all be people who had given up city life.

He suggested that some rural Jews might be intermarried or people who considered themselves ethnically but not religiously Jewish.

“The data needs a great deal of analysis,” he said.

Kosmin also said the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey in the United States — of which he was director — found a surprising geographic distribution.

“We were accused of finding Jews in out-of-the-way places like Utah and Arizona and not enough in Brooklyn,” he said.

He said the 2001 census raised important policy questions.

“There are areas where there are hundreds of Jews with no synagogue. There are amazing opportunities there,” he said.

“These are places where there is nothing Jewish. If these places were in Russia or Poland, people would be rushing to service them,” he said.

But he added the census seemed to support findings from a major study of the Jews of London published by the institute at the end of last year.

The survey, “A Portrait of Jews in London and the South-East,” found the community to be generally more interested in Jewish culture than religion.

The survey found Jews to be predominantly secular, middle-class and settled.

It found high degrees of Internet use — even among the elderly — and interest in Jewish culture, from movies and art exhibits to radio programs and books.

“Jewishness has been privatized,” Kosmin said.

“People are doing their Jewish stuff over the Internet or going to a concert or a film festival,” he said. “It is logical that these people can live in small groups.”

The 2001 census was the first since 1851 that attempted to survey religion in Britain — but the 1851 census counted houses of worship, rather than asking people their religion.

Though there was dissent, Jews largely supported the inclusion of a voluntary religion question on the 2001 census – – and the Board of Deputies urged Jews to answer it.

The institute criticized the way the question was formulated on the England and Wales census. It asked only about religion, not ethnicity, and asked people to check a box rather than writing in their religion.

Waterman said results from Canada and Scotland showed that more people described themselves as Jewish if there is an ethnic question as well as a religion one.

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