NEW YORK — Normally about now we would be hearing of preparations for the next National Jewish Population Study (NJPS), undertaken since 1970, at the beginning of each decade, by the Jewish federation movement to determine the size of the American Jewish community and to formulate strategic plans based on the results.
The 1990 study concluded, most famously, that the intermarriage rate had climbed to 52 percent.
Though that number was (and continues to be) debated, the statistic set off alarm bells in an organized Jewish community already concerned over losing Jews as a result of an aging population and low birthrates. “Fifty-two percent” became a buzzword and new rallying cry, prompting a flurry of programs designed to strengthen Jewish identity and education, and improve outreach to intermarried couples.
The counter-phrase heard repeatedly over the next decade was “Jewish renaissance,” and many positive projects came about, directly or indirectly, because of the NJPS results, including Birthright Israel, the most successful program to date in strengthening Jewish identity among young people.
The 2000 study, undertaken by the newly constituted United Jewish Communities, was plagued from the outset with problems, including lost data, expensive delays and sharp criticism over its methodology, which found that the “core Jewish population” had decreased to 5.2 million. Other demographers say the number is higher and that the NJPS polling methods dependent on reaching people by phone at home in an age of cell phones, and inconsistent questions about religious identity contributed to seriously underestimating the Jewish population.
Stung by the criticism and beset by financial and staffing problems, UJC is not planning to undertake a major national population study in 2010. But the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, formed in the last several years, hopes to come out in January 2010 with a reliable preliminary estimate of the American Jewish population and an analysis of significant trends.
What’s more, asserts Len Saxe, a Brandeis professor of Jewish community research who heads the institute, the study will not only be more accurate than the NJPS but more in-depth in terms of trend analysis — “looking ahead instead of backward,” he says — and far less expensive, revolutionizing the way future studies of this nature will be done.
Using a sophisticated set of techniques, called meta-analysis, which synthesizes dozens of existing studies on religion and ethnicity, including costly and highly reliable ones done by the government, the institute will be able to determine the Jewish population, including those who define themselves as Jewish by criteria other than religion, Saxe says.
That means counting secular Jews or children of intermarriage who lead Jewish lives but who would not describe their religious affiliation as Jewish. The institute believes the percentage of Jews who fit in this category, once thought to be about 6 percent, has doubled and is approaching 15 percent.
According to Saxe, the “core” American Jewish population is about 20 percent higher than the NJPS numbers, or between 6 million and 6.4 million. And when one adds those people who don’t define themselves as religiously Jewish but have Jewish parents and could be considered Jewish, the number would grow to between 7 million and 7.4 million.
This has profound implications. Rather than a community that is in decline, as widely believed, Saxe claims that American Jewry is larger and more diverse than had been thought. This information presents a challenge of its own because it suggests that the percentage of Jews being served by the community is even less than previously believed.
Saxe has not been shy about stating that the last NJPS survey was deeply flawed in underestimating the size of U.S. Jewry. Not surprisingly, those in the field tend to be critical of each other’s work and methodology. UJC’s research director, Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, acknowledges, that “people involved in this work have their well-defined positions.”
While he says he finds Saxe’s work “interesting,” he adds that it is “limited” in terms of new information because it will be dependent on the questions asked in these surveys which may reflect the size of the Jewish community and where Jews live, but will not shed new light on their Jewish lives.
Similarly, Jack Ukeles, president of Ukeles Associates and a veteran of Jewish population studies, maintains that Saxe’s approach “is not useful,” chiefly because it primarily identifies Jews by religion alone and because it has “no data about children.”
Bethamie Horowitz, an adjunct professor of education and Jewish studies at New York University who has done several major surveys of the Jewish community, is more enthusiastic about Saxe’s methodology, calling it “important, reliable and less expensive” than previous research in the field. But she, too, cited as a downside that “you can’t add your own questions [to surveys already done] and ask them the way you want. So you don’t get what you don’t ask.”
She added that what she will miss about not having an NJPS report is “the attention the communal world focused on learning about the Jewish population” in a dramatic, once-a-decade fashion.
But Saxe says that in addition to extrapolating information from the various studies — “piggybacking” on them, he calls it — the institute has commissioned several national polling organizations to include some specific questions that will focus on learning more about Jewish living patterns. And he is excited about the prospect of keeping track of the Jewish population on an ongoing basis rather than once every ten years, where the data is dated by the time it is gathered.
“We can estimate in a more reliable way,” he explained, “and the findings are not restricted by the methods of any one study and not limited by the lack of Jewish financial resources.”
Saxe asserted that the use of meta-analysis addresses several of the flaws in previous surveys resulting from the basic fact that, because of the separation of church and state, the U.S. government does not ask for religious affiliation in its census.
One problem in finding representative samplings of Jews has been the prohibitive cost of pollsters making at least 50 calls to find one Jewish person willing to respond to the phone survey. Some say 90 percent of the funds for previous studies has been spent on simply finding Jews. And highly educated, wealthy, mobile Jews are far more difficult to reach at home in the early evening than older, less affluent Jews, tending to skew past surveys.
The new method makes use of a number of high-quality national surveys that include information about the religious background of those interviewed, and is able to glean relevant Jewish information from them.
Saxe believes that “too much attention” in previous Jewish studies has been given to “the number of American Jews and not enough on the quality of their Jewish lives. And we’ve always been looking in the rear-view mirror.”
He believes it is more useful to explore at how children are being raised Jewishly, for instance, than in how many Jews keep kosher, adding that the new methodology “will help us better understand the dynamics of Jewish life.”
Christopher Winship, a professor of sociology at Harvard University and editor of Sociological Methods and Research, a professional journal, is familiar with “the ideological differences and commitments” among professionals studying the U.S. Jewish population.
He points out that “this is an extraordinarily anxious time in the research world” in general because traditional methods of polling no longer apply in an age of cell phones, screened and blocked calls, and widespread unwillingness to answer surveys.
Winship said Saxe is doing “very solid and important work, which is obviously provocative and very much needed.” And given the reliability and cost-saving of meta-analysis, “the question to pose to critics,” he said, “is ‘what are the alternatives?’”
In studying the American Jewish population, “the huge issue is who counts as a Jew, and how do you ask it,” Winship said, adding that Saxe is “pointing to the problem being in a different location” by focusing on people who do not characterize themselves as Jewish by religion.
Today, Horowitz said, most studies assessing various programs in the Jewish community are relatively narrow in scope, and are paid for by foundations determining if their money has been well spent in sponsoring these projects. That can lead to questions about objectivity in the evaluations.
“We haven’t had a dispassionate body that has a sense of stewardship, caring for the needs of the whole community,” she said.
Nor is that likely, given the competing ideologies and interests within that community, though Jack Ukeles believes that “just because the last NJPS study was not a success doesn’t mean it can’t be done well” with some group other than UJC as sponsor.
But if Saxe’s work provides the standard tracking for the American Jewish population, his institute and others may have the tools to make thoughtful, pro-active decisions.
After all, demography can only provide the numbers. It’s up to the leaders and planners to interpret them in ways that can educate, energize and focus the community toward the future.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in The Week.)