Brandeis researchers here to gather information for new community study

Brandeis researchers here to gather information for new community study

Matt Boxer, assistant research professor at Brandeis University.                                                    Photo by Toby Tabachnick
Matt Boxer, assistant research professor at Brandeis University. Photo by Toby Tabachnick

The team of three Brandeis University researchers that will be conducting a new Pittsburgh Jewish community study were in town last week to gather information and get buy-in from stakeholders.

About 80 representatives from more than 40 local Jewish organizations assembled at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill on Nov. 30 to hear an overview of the researchers’ objectives and methodology in preparation for the launch of the study, which was commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. It is scheduled to begin in March 2017.

The last Pittsburgh Jewish community study was conducted in 2002. The new study, which will be run by the Marilyn and Maurice Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies (CMJS) at Brandeis’ Steinhardt Social Research Institute, will cost approximately $230,000 and will be funded by the Federation’s planned giving arm, the Jewish Community Foundation.

The purpose of the study is to estimate the number and geographic distribution of Jewish people and households in the area, and to collect data on community members’ behaviors and attitudes about Jewish practice and the Jewish community. It is an offshoot of the Federation’s 3-year-old Pittsburgh Jewish Community Scorecard project, an online tool that has allowed users to review data reflecting how well the community is doing in meeting the needs of its individual members and institutions.

While the 2002 community study showed about 42,000 Jews living in Greater Pittsburgh, the upcoming study may show that population has increased; a recent nationwide Jewish population study conducted by the CMJS estimates almost 45,000 Jewish residents in Allegheny County.

The CMJS researchers were “here to try to learn as much as we can about the community,” including the various institutions’ needs, interests and what they hope to learn from the study, said Matt Boxer, an assistant research professor at Brandeis.

“We also hope to get their buy-in,” Boxer said in an interview. “We hope to get them to contribute their membership lists, their mailing lists, and provide some additional information we might need. We like to use, for instance, enrollment figures for educational programs, membership figures for local congregations. These are things that we can use to verify the accuracy of the data that we get from the survey.”

Those organizations that were unable to participate in last week’s meeting can visit CMJS’s website to garner information about the study. Additionally, the researchers are available to speak by phone to organizational leaders absent from the gathering.

“We will continue to reach out to organizations to collect membership lists, then the primary task is putting all these lists together in one giant list, and from that we draw a random sample of households that will be selected to participate in this survey,” said Janet Aronson, the associate director of CMJS.

At the same time, CMSJ will be collecting the input of community institutions to determine their priorities in order to craft questions for the survey.

The researchers are looking to the community to guide them in what information to gather, said Leonard Saxe, director of the CMSJ. Questions could focus on particular subgroups of constituents, including interfaith families, young adults, members of the LGBTQ community, Israelis and Jews from the former Soviet Union.

“If we can find enough of them, we can find what they’re interested in,” Saxe said.

Survey topics typically include “the demographics, Jewish background, Jewish education, how children are being raised, involvement in synagogues, involvement in Jewish life and ritual life, involvement in organizations, all of those things,” Aronson explained.  “And then in addition, attitudes about being Jewish, attachment to Israel and how important it is, how many Jewish friends you have, or how connected you feel to the Jewish community — the whole range of behavior and attitude questions. And then there typically are questions about health and social service and income needs. So, those are the big bucket areas, but within those, there’s a lot of room for more detail.”

The researchers will ensure that each institution’s interests “are at least somewhat represented,” Boxer said. “Nobody is going to get everything that they want, but everyone will get something that they want, and hopefully what they need.”

The researchers have requested that community institutional leaders forward specific requests regarding study content to them by Dec. 16.

Saxe assured the community leaders at the meeting that CMJS would maintain the confidentiality of their members’ information, and in fact, that confidentiality was required by law.

The geographic areas that will be covered by the survey encompass five counties which are served by the Federation: Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Westmoreland and Washington.

CMJS will target 1,000 area Jews to respond to the survey, Saxe said.

The researchers will “be in the field” from March to July 1, and are planning to have the survey results compiled by January 2018.

“This process is only successful if we all participate,” said Evan Indianer, chair of the Federation committee that manages the Scorecard.

Many local leaders present at the meeting said they will be urging their constituents to participate in the study.

“We are fully supportive of the community survey and we are encouraging all of our people to participate in every way they can,” said Rabbi Jamie Gibson, senior rabbi of Temple Sinai. “We think it’s very important to have this information so we can plan not only for our community, which is a 70-year-old Reform synagogue, but to be able to help plan for a common Jewish future for everyone’s good.”

“It’s always good to do stuff like this to see where we’re at and what we’re doing,” said Todd Stufflebeam, executive director of Congregation Poale Zedeck. “We don’t know what we don’t know, and we will learn something from this. I’m cautiously optimistic that something will come about for somebody from this. It’s sort of like shaking the trees. I am going to ask people at Poale Zedeck if they’ll consider filling it out if they are chosen.”

Steve Hecht, executive director of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, is interested in seeing how Jewish Pittsburgh has changed since the last study.

“I was very pleased that we are embarking on another Jewish community survey,” Hecht said. “I’m sure much has changed in this last 14 years since the prior survey, and we need to adapt to those changes to remain relevant. We at Beth El will make our congregants aware they may be called upon and ask for their support if requested.”

The survey results will be helpful in directing future planning and programming, Cindy Shapira, chair of the Federation, said later that day at a town hall-style meeting for Jewish residents of the South Hills.

At that meeting, held at the South Hills Jewish Community Center, community members had an opportunity to express concerns and needs to Shapira and Jeff Finkelstein, the Federation’s president and CEO.

The meeting was organized by South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh, a community engagement initiative of the Federation. About 80 people were in attendance.

Issues raised by South Hills residents included a lack of programming for Jewish millennials and empty-nesters, and planning for Jewish senior citizens. A lack of facility space available for hosting Jewish programs in the South Hills was also raised as a concern.

The community study will help the Federation examine those needs and plan for the future, Shapira said. “In the meantime, we work all the time to bring programs in.”

“We need to know what we have before we know where we’re going,” added Finkelstein.

South Hills Jewish Pittsburgh is currently conducting its own survey online to assess the needs of its community members, according to Rob Goodman, director of SHJP.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at


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