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December 01, 2011 - Image 78

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2011-12-01

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

oints of view


Who Cares How Many U.S. Jews?

Demographers seek to fill void of no national survey.

Waltham, Mass.


Weighing in

Sidney Goldstein, the acknowledged
he last national Jewish popu-
pioneer and dean in the field of
lation study, done in 2000-
Jewish demography, said recently that
2001, was pretty much a
it was "irresponsible" for JFNA not to
undertake a national Jewish popula-
Sponsored by the North American
tion study.
federation movement - then
Goldstein, of Brown
known as United Jewish
University in Providence,
Communities and now Jewish
R.I., and now retired,
Federations of North America
made his remarks at
i an October conference
(JFNA) - the extensive $6
million survey was plagued
hosted by the Steinhardt
by cost over-runs, lost data
Social Research Institute
and disagreements among
and Cohen Center for
various experts in the field
Modern Jewish Studies
over its methodology and the
at Brandeis University
validity of its conclusions,
in Waltham. It brought
including the number of Jews
together for the first time
in America. Partly as a result
several dozen of the lead-
of that experience, for the
ing demographers and
first time since the Jewish community
sociologists in the Jewish field, as
started these approximately once-a-
well as others interested more gener-
decade national reports in the mid-
ally in religion and culture, to discuss
1950s, there is no plan for another
at length the implications of not hav-
National Jewish Population Study
ing an accurate gauge on whether
American Jews are continuing to iden-
The leading researchers in this
tify religiously and/or ethnically with
specialized field are perceived as
the faith.
a contentious bunch who often cri-
tique each other's work publicly. But
JFNA Response
they seem to agree that the decision
In an interview, Jerry Silverman, the
by JFNA not to commission a new
CEO of JFNA, who was not at the con-
national survey is a shame, and a set-
ference, said much of the blame for the
back to those planning communal poll- lack of another national Jewish study
cy or engaged in academic research.
belongs to the Jewish demographers
whose public sniping about
the methodology of past
studies undermined the
work. "Debate is healthy"
up to a point, Silverman
said, but when it is driven
by "egos" and "inhibits"
communal action, it goes
too far.
Silverman asked, "If
there was to be another
NJPS, mah nishtana?" -
why would this study be
different from previous
ones publicly criticized by
the Jewish social scien-
He intimated that if and
when JFNA undertakes
another national study,
it might go outside the
Jewish community to hire
those who would direct it.

Dry Bones


Mixed Outcome

In tracing the impact of
past national studies, the


December 1 . 2011

conference participants agreed that the
1990 study - for all its controversy over
whether the intermarriage rate was
indeed as high as 52 percent, as cited
- led to a communal emphasis on conti-
nuity programs, outreach, day schools,
camping and other forms of Jewish
education to offset assimilation.
But the experts in the room were
hard-pressed to come up with any prac-
tical outcome from the beleaguered
2000 study, which found that the com-
munity declined to 5.2 million Jews -
from 5.5 million in 1990 - and that the
intermarriage rate had risen slightly.
Leonard Saxe, a leading social
psychologist at Brandeis who orga-
nized and hosted the October confer-
ence, noted that one of the reasons
the 2000 study lacked impact was
because experts weren't comfortable
with the findings. He cited, for exam-
ple, its statistic that 29 percent of
American Jewish youngsters attended
day schools, which he said was much
too high. "Anomalies like that left us
scratching our heads."
Joining the chorus of
those bemoaning the
lack of plans for a new
national study, Alan
Cooperman, associate
director of research
for the Pew Forum on
Religion and Public
Life, used the Yiddish
word for scandal, say-
ing "it's a shandeh
we don't have good
trend data on Jews in
He noted that Pew
has conducted studies
of other small religious
groups in the U.S.,
Leonard Saxe
including Muslims.
"There's no reason we
shouldn't be able to do it," he said.

The Obstacles

There is the matter of determining
what is most important to ask and
interpreting data when the very defi-
nition of who is a Jew is a source of
"One person's Jew is another's
gentile," observed Barry Kosmin, a
veteran demographer who teaches at
Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
A number of federations are spon-
soring studies of their own Jewish
communities. New York, for example,
plans to release its findings of an

extensive survey, the first of its kind
in a decade, next spring. [Last year,
the Detroit Federation updated its
extensive 2005 population survey.]
Saxe has come up with and employs
a different approach to the national
survey, eschewing costly phone calling
(only about one in 50 who answer are
Jewish) and focusing on synthesiz-
ing data from more than 150 exist-
ing nationwide studies conducted by
the government, other agencies and
national polling organizations.
According to his research, there are
about 6.4 million Jews in the U.S., far
more than the NJPS 2000 number and
an increase of almost 20 percent since
1990. But he says he is less interested
in hard numbers than with "the demo-
graphic characteristics of Jews," how
they act as Jews, or not, and why.
Some of his colleagues say they
would like to see more details of the
work and methodology before draw-
ing conclusions.

'High Quality Research┬░


Saxe hailed the two-day conference
as a success and predicted that the
leaders in the field will be able to put
aside their differences and come up
with new forms of collaboration. He
said he believes they will reach "a
consensus about size and population
[of the American Jewish community]
and the qualities of what it means to
call yourself Jewish."
Silverman said JFNA is examining
closely the methods and results of
the various local community surveys.
"The biggest question [for a
national study] is where the Jews
are" in terms of "migration and
influx," as well as "where they are
Jewishly or not Jewishly," Silverman
said, adding: "We need to look at
other alternative routes," including
possibly engaging demographers out-
side the small and specialized Jewish
field who have "incredible credibility,
and who the community may have a
hard time challenging."
So the challenge goes both ways,
with the Jewish demography experts
calling for a national study with excel-
lent research, and the top Jewish
communal official suggesting his
group may need to go outside the
Jewish field to find it.
In the meantime, American Jewry
continues to change dramatically, and
the existing data, a decade old and
inconclusive, becomes more irrelevant
with each passing day.


Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher

of the Jewish Week in New York.

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