Success stories are not the whole story

Nahamu welcomes the announcement of the Board of Deputies of British Jews that it is opening a public dialogue on the relationship between the mainstream Jewish communities and the haredi communities. The Board of Deputies exists, in its own words, to “promote and defend the religious and civil liberties of British Jews”. That duty includes the civil liberties of all members of the Jewish community, extending to all members of the haredi communities. The webinar event “Not Just Black & White”, therefore, was a fascinating insight into a number of perspectives shared by representatives of these communities. However, it is important to understand that the representatives taking part were not the rabbis who hold the power in those communities but were rather a group of people who have assumed the role of what one might term “external relations” in the wake of the recent loss of the dearly-loved Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, z”l.

Publicity for the “Not All Black and White” event

Data on levels of poverty and of educational provision are not easy to ascertain, because research must be conducted through a series of “gatekeepers”, who restrict the information provided to researchers. Our key focus, therefore, is on the need for openness and engagement to facilitate comprehensive research that is capable of providing policymakers with a true picture of the nature of the challenges that haredi communities face.

The panel were passionate and vocal about their various positions as educators, managers and organisers in the community. A number of themes emerged, of which the most salient was their sincere desire for greater engagement with the wider community, in particular to provide insight into what is a multifarious and complex world.

According to the panel, the community has a wide variety of urgent needs. It was clear from the contribution from Michelle Ciffer, for example, that in many cases, these needs are not being met. It is clear that there is widespread poverty and deprivation. There are many Jewish families who do not have enough to eat and who rely on food banks and other forms of charity. These people need community champions to step out and make the case with the appropriate authorities.

Questions should be asked about why this deprivation exists and why it appears to be systemic in nature. Covid-19 did not create that scarcity; it merely revealed existing fragility in our social structures. If these families are vulnerable, they were surely vulnerable before the pandemic: but the important question is how did they come to be so?

The answer is hard to determine. One reason for this outcome is that more and better data is needed. Families are less likely to have enough to eat if, as one panellist put it, the household food budget has to be split within a larger number of children. If, as appears to be the case, families of more than ten children are not unusual, as opposed to the average of 6-7 stated by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) in 2015, then household expenses will increase, too. To give one example: it will be necessary to hire a 12 seater MPV on holiday to transport the family, instead of a cheaper saloon car. If data showing the true extent of need is not collected, or under-reporting is taking place, then it is likely that the result will be a significant under-provision of support for this community.

The panellist Shmuel Yosef Davidsohn also highlighted the particular need to address the two-child cap on benefits, which has been speedily followed up with a Board-facilitated meeting with the Welfare Minister, Will Quince. But although more appropriate benefits would undoubtedly assist those struggling with the cost of living, large households and poor educational outcomes, it is at least equally important for haredim to foster better education and wider enterprise. The progress made by Work Avenue with programmes developing entrepreneurial skills and employability amongst haredim are worth mentioning. But if the problem is systemic, the solution must necessarily also be more comprehensive and data-driven.

Another key aspect of this challenge was evident from the interventions from Eli Spitzer. We strongly recommend the sharply worded critiques to be found in his blogs about the educational situation in the community he serves, which make a strong case for the radical improvement of standards of secular education. He criticises poor behaviours that result from ignorance about the skills needed to make a living. We disagree, however, with his heated, though unconvincing defence of the benefits of ignorance in the area of SRE. The best expertise indicates that ignorance neither protects children nor deters sexual offenders. Efforts to investigate systemic harms of the type that Eli Spitzer condemns should not be regarded as evidence of a malign external agenda.

The widespread portrayal of the authorities’ quest to ensure an adequate secular education for all as a bias against faith schools and hence a war on the haredi world is not supported by evidence. The recent Ofsted consultation, in fact, revealed that, rather than a bias against faith schools, these schools are inspected fairly and reasonably, with faith schools actually gaining a slightly higher percentage of “Good” ratings than non-faith schools. Spitzer’s own school, in fact, is rated “Good” by Ofsted. Very few haredi schools are rated “good” but this is a product of systemic failures specific to haredi schools, rather than bias in inspection. However, it is evidently possible for a faith school to be successful, as many such schools are and as the Ofsted report indicates. Spitzer’s school is a good example of such a success.

The panellists were less clear as to the changes that should be made in order to address the systemic problems in the haredi communities. It is clear that  they want more generous benefits, better social provision and housing and better educational outcomes, which the Board of Deputies can facilitate by lobbying government. Moreover, the panellists themselves are happy to engage in “show-and-tell” activity conducted by their most articulate and impressive ambassadors as evidence of the attainment possible with a haredi lifestyle. But it is not sufficient  to rely on success stories of passion and commitment to illustrate the kind-heartedness and charitable work of the community, or to invite everyone to share the warmth of a Shabbat table, while asking for more financial assistance. The missing part of the equation is a clear explanation as to why that assistance is needed, how the need for it could be reduced, or what might have to change as a result.

To focus solely on the aspects of the community that are successful is to fail those for whom it has, for whatever reason, become a trap of poverty and despair. Those whose religious and civil liberties are not currently promoted and defended by the Board of Deputies, or do not receive rabbinic patronage or public funding also deserve support and care for their rights. It is also not good enough to gloss over the problems, or to dismiss the mounting weight of evidence and reporting as the words of malcontents, outsiders, victims of “bad apples” and those with “an agenda”. After a while, the sheer weight of dissenting opinion and counterfactuals demands a more open, two-way conversation; one which diagnoses and addresses the bad while supporting and praising the good.

It is clear that one of the elements of the greater engagement that is properly desired must be a higher quality, more granular and transparent set of qualitative data about all aspects of haredi life and the needs of haredi families of all types. This qualitative data is of critical importance for understanding current and future social, economic and educational needs of a group who, in the near future, are likely to form the majority of Anglo-Jewry. Even the quantitative data is lacking – despite the body of research building up in the European Jewish Research Archive and the work done by relevant local authorities. JPR, for instance, are often still forced to conduct research premised on estimates rather than being allowed to collect data freely, facilitated and assisted by the haredi community itself.

The outcome of the paucity of reliable data is an inability to measure the very real and serious deprivation indicated by the need for additional benefits. For instance, one of the reasons the quantitative data is not as strong as it could be is that JPR can only ask a limited direct question set that has been approved by rabbinic leadership. The national census on which JPR’s research is based also suffers from a number of specific issues. For instance, it only collects “Jewish” as a single category, without breaking it down into the various sub-communities which constitute British Jewish life. Furthermore, the number of boxes provided for children is limited. If you have more children than is expected, you have to complete a separate sheet and, naturally, most cannot be bothered to make the extra effort. It is also worth noting that there is a certain cultural resistance that some members of haredi communities may share to counting one’s own children.

Without freedom to collect and publicise a rich and representative data set, therefore, the wider community and society at large must necessarily find the real needs of UK haredim to be misaligned with what is mistakenly believed to be required. Government agencies will certainly need this data to drive their decision-making. Indeed, one of the questioners, Debbie Sheldon, the CEO of Work Avenue (who would have made a valuable addition to the panel) asked a pertinent question about the cultural importance of encouraging the men of the haredi communities to aspire to work as well as study.

Indeed, the combined qualitative and quantitative lenses raise some fundamental questions about the sustainability of the community’s social model and its possible relationship with systemic poverty and deprivation. How much money does a family need, at a minimum, to fund housing in Stamford Hill (or North Manchester, or even Canvey Island) to pay for private education for at least seven children and pay the premium for kosher food, even without new clothes for festivals?

It would be unsurprising If this financial obligation was not beyond the means of most families, given the salary needed to fund a large family house. Even basic private education costs £3k a year (£21k for seven children after tax). That financial burden is more difficult to meet if one parent is in full-time learning. It is far from clear how this model is affordable at scale or over time, let alone how it can be supported with government benefits at the level it would require, even if this were a feasible and acceptable model for an entire community which is growing at the rate of even seven children per generation. It is hard to know how these figures can be made to add up without far better and more transparent data.

Therefore, Nahamu wholeheartedly welcomes the call of the panellists for more openness and more engagement. But the conversation about this data and the systemic challenges of the community must also be opened up, at the same time. We applaud the prospect of this process taking place under the auspices of the Board of Deputies. We are ready to participate in it and to look forward to continuing to be part of this conversation.