A step-by-step guide for reading the Pew survey

A step-by-step guide for reading the Pew survey

Unless you have been focused on more mundane issues over the past few weeks, such as the government shutdown, America’s fragile debt rating, Obamacare or the possible rapprochement with Iran, you may have been avidly worrying about the state of American Jewry in light of the recently published study done of us by the Pew Research Center.

If you somehow missed it, simply Google “Pew” and “Jew” and up will pop headlines like “Pew survey of U.S. Jews: soaring intermarriage, assimilation rates,” “Rise of ‘Jews of no religion’ most significant find of Pew study,” and my personal favorite, “American Jews: Laughing but Shrinking.”

These sirens of dire straits are also countered by the headlines decrying the inaccuracy of the study due to flaws and sloppy science such as “Pew Survey About Jewish America Got It All Wrong,”  “The Problem With the Pew Study” and “Pew’s Dishonest Comparison of Jews and Evangelical Christians on Israel.”

There are blogs, articles, videos, features, sermons and even symposia dissecting this study; it is being read and spun as diversely as the myriad of Jews that make up the North American Jewish community, with most pundits seeing it through a negative lens as proof of the disintegration of American Jewry.

All of this oysshrayen gevald (screaming in fear) and the study has only been with us less than one month! In that light, I cannot help but agree with the sociologist Bethamie Horowitz, who, when asked her opinion on the community’s reaction to the study, quoted the old joke about the definition of a Jewish telegram: “Trouble coming, details to follow.”  

My “view on Pew” as an educator and as a researcher is that the community needs to slow down and put this study in context before reading too much into it or taking any action because of it.

There are five contexts about research studies in general we need to consider before too many of us start reading this one as Torah m’Sinai:

• Don’t Jump to Conclusions about Pew’s Conclusions. Pew is a national research leader and highly respected for its work, but it’s not infallible.  I am a big believer in data, but most social scientists recognize that collecting and distilling it is an inexact science that can never be truly reflective of every member of a studied group no matter how well the research team plans the study.  Pew has not yet released the raw data they collected, the un-distilled source material that they drew their conclusions from, but they have promised they will soon. Other researchers who were not part of the study will then deep-dive into it and see if they agree with Pew’s findings.

They may find flaws in Pew’s collection or analysis as was found by independent researchers with the 2000 National Jewish Population Study commissioned by the Jewish Federations of North America. That study’s results were challenged to the point of being deemed unreliable by many (though not all) social scientists who study the Jewish community, and that unreliability was a major contributor to the decision to not conduct a similar 2010 National Jewish Population Study.

They may also agree with the findings and recommend it for its reliability such as was done after the 1990 National Jewish Population Study that indicated the extent of intermarriage in our community as well as that of Jewish illiteracy.

My suspicion is that the Pew study will be found to have some very reliable points and some notable flaws too, but we will have to wait for that analysis to be done to know which is which and we should not give this study too much weight until then.  • Read the study itself, not someone else’s reading of the study. Most people have read about the study in the media rather than read the study itself.  This is like trusting the declaration on the cookie box that they are “healthy” and not reading the ingredients labeling to be sure.  Reporters and bloggers have good intentions and sometimes even some expertise in a subject they write about, but they are rarely experts and when it comes to the sciences they often misconstrue the results of a study or only give partial information on the finding.  Add to that the need of editors to craft eye-catching, tweet-able headlines in order to generate circulation and hits and you often end up with titillating headlines that give the wrong impression about the conclusions.

I encourage anyone who is really interested to go to pewforum.org and read at least the overview section of the study.   That way you will know for yourself what the study actually says and you will be informed from the source and not through a questionable filter.  

• Remember that a single study is just that, a single study. We Jews are one of the most self-studied minority communities in history and new reports are coming out regularly on various aspects of our community and its growth, decline, strengths and weaknesses.  In fact, much of what the Pew study concludes has already been raised in other research. While studies cannot be compared as apples to apples, we can draw upon a preponderance of evidence from various sources to formulate conclusions.  We have some studies that seem to validate the Pew findings and some that seem to challenge them.  No matter how reliable the study or its author is, it is still just one data point among many and should be viewed in that context.  

• Take a deep breath and count to 10. It is hard to not personalize a study like this one but we need to try, especially those of us who are decision-makers in our community.

For example, the Pew study shows high intermarriage rates and low rates of raising children of intermarriages as Jews. It is hard not to read that finding and think of family members and friends who are intermarried. Suddenly there is a face next to those statistics in the mind of the reader and it becomes very individualized and emotional; depending on your personal opinion of that person’s Jewish life choices will amplify or temper your own emotional response to those statistics. A charged reaction either way on an issue as difficult as intermarriage is totally understandable but it is not a good or fair state to be in when deciding what should be done on a large scale in terms of funding, policy or programming for our community on that or any challenging issue. Decisions at that level must be made as objectively and even-keel as possible; we all must remember that we all are personally invested in all of the issues that arise in this study and each viewpoint is based on different experiences and different opinions.

Good people can and will disagree on a myriad of issues, and objectivity on data helps create consensus.   I heard a respected colleague remind a group of Jewish communal professionals to take the Pew findings “with a few grains of salt.”  I completely agree with him, but I know that is hard to do when your blood pressure is already dangerously high.  Nonetheless, we who are at those decision-making tables have to try.  

• Be careful not to automatically make national data a local assumption.  The Pew study uses a national sample of respondents for gleaning their data.  They then apply statistical analysis to the results to make national projections. Studies like Pew give us national sampling for comparison of local data, but it is risky to assume those national findings automatically apply to local communities.

Pittsburgh has not done a comprehensive study of our Jewish community since 2000 so we lack demographic and attitudinal data that is up to date, which might make it tempting to draw conclusions from the newer study.  If and how we can do a local study, and what kind of study that could be, is a separate topic, but we must not automatically project ourselves on to someone else’s national projection when a local study could provide us with more accurate data about our own community.  

It is important to reiterate that data collection, while not a flawless process, is a very important one for understanding our Jewish community as it changes and evolves.  The better we understand ourselves, especially as we continue in the unprecedented Jewish historical experience that is life in America, the better we can communally plan for our future.  But we need to make smart, analytical use of our data and remember it is but one tool for understanding ourselves and not the harbinger of our fate.

My “view on Pew” is that this is one important study about our people among many out there right now, and we can make the best use of it by keeping it in that context as but one tree in the informational forest and not the only tree that matters.  

(Rabbi Scott Aaron is the community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning.)