Friday, February 04, 2000

Population Crisis

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

If all had gone according to plan, phones would be ringing in homes across the U.S. to select 5,000 presumed Jewish households for the year 2000 National Jewish Population Survey. For these chosen people, hopefully representative of the other six million or so American Jews, there would be an intensive follow-up barrage of questions about Jewish involvement and other matters of interest to demographers.

As we know, NJPS 2000 has been delayed, in part because it is the victim of a nasty fight within the small unfriendly fraternity of statisticians who fancy themselves experts on Jewish communal life. Although vast resources of time and money have already been expended, critics have at least temporarily undermined a much-heralded project that promised to reveal the state of American Jewry at the dawn of the new century and millennium. We will have to wait a bit longer to learn whether the doleful news conveyed by NJPS 1990 has been confirmed a decade later.

Despite heady and inaccurate assertions to the contrary, the 1990 findings were questioned early on, including by this writer. The central claim that the intermarriage rate had risen to 52 percent was challenged by Steve Cohen, primarily on the ground that second marriages and other sociological factors that tipped the data in the direction of a higher intermarriage rate should not have been included in the calculation. Now at Hebrew University, he continues to be a tough critic of NJPS, although when it suits his purposes he relies on the 1990 data.

In a Jan. 10 communication to an overseas foundation, Cohen conveyed statistics derived from NJPS 1990 that purport to show a remarkable rate of abandonment of Orthodoxy. One of the widely acknowledged flaws of the 1990 study is its significant undercounting of the Orthodox. Perhaps more to the point, the 1990 data did not distinguish — perhaps it could not — between persons who were raised in homes that were Orthodox only by affiliation and homes where halacha was the norm.

The over-reliance by NJPS on persons whose expertise is factor analysis, probabilities and other statistical arcana has limited the reliability of the project. There are scholars whose forte is understanding the social forces that impel contemporary Jewish life and who are not immersed in numbers games. They have been essentially excluded from the technical committee that has a key role in developing and interpreting NJPS. Apparently, in Jewish circles, thinkers do not count.

Still, a sincere effort has been made by Jim Schwartz, NJPS 2000 director, to solicit suggestions from many sources regarding the questions to be included in this year’s survey. Attention is also being paid to a comprehensive follow-up analysis of the data. In both respects, these are improvements over NJPS 1990, when there was a rush to publish and publicize a highlights document that, with great fanfare, announced the 50-plus percent intermarriage rate. The bulk of the 1990s findings have been the victim of benign neglect.

Even with the best people and the best intentions, NJPS cannot escape methodological pitfalls that undermine its reliability. American Jews are dispersed in hundreds of communities across nearly four million square miles. The survey is intended to determine, among much else, how many Jews there are in these many places. But in order to determine the distribution of telephone calls — how many in Brooklyn or Orange County, Calif., or Broward County, Fla., etc. — it is necessary to know with some precision in advance of the survey how American Jewry is distributed geographically. The upshot is that NJPS consists of much guesswork and extrapolations.

For all of the hoopla accompanying NJPS, it is, at best, an approximation of the contemporary Jewish reality.

What emerges from the survey has some reliability, although the product is compromised by the necessary use of the telephone as the means for collecting data. At bottom, NJPS is a form of telemarketing, a species of social interaction that is widely regarded as repugnant and shunned in many homes. While a relatively short list of questions has been prepared for the tens of thousands of households, 99 percent of them not Jewish, which will be called initially, it will be followed by a large questionnaire directed at the 5,000 households that presumably contain at least one Jew.

The hope is that the second round of questions can be completed in about 30 minutes. This would require that the draft questionnaire be reduced considerably and even then it would be a stretch to get the job done in a half-hour.

It’s even a greater stretch to believe that there will be many respondents willing to undergo this kind of intrusive telephone interrogation.

On the substantive side, there is the inescapable issue of whom to count as Jewish. Putting aside patrilineality, non-halachic conversions and other contentious issues that frame the “Who is a Jew?” debate, it remains that a large and constantly growing number of persons in what is loosely termed a Jewish household are not Jewish by anyone’s definition. These include non-Jewish spouses in mixed marriages and most of the children of such marriages who are not being raised as Jews. When the intermarriage rate is calculated by including persons in a Jewish household who do not regard themselves as Jewish, it obviously is significantly higher than it would be if the rate were based only on the behavior of core Jews.

This point is critical to the conflict over NJPS 2000 and it forms the basis for the argument that the true intermarriage rate is probably 35-40 percent.

There is much that is murky about our population statistics, a situation that will worsen as Judaic abandonment takes an escalating toll on Jewish identity. We ought to recognize that no matter how careful and objective NJPS may be, the notion of a fully accurate demographic picture is a pipe dream. NJPS is at most a partially reliable profile and exaggerated claims on its behalf are just that.

Rather than trying to resolve the irresolvable, NJPS should proceed. Its data should be made immediately available to diverse camps who can then interpret the numbers as they see fit. We should eschew any single approach. Ultimately, the story will be sorted out and we will learn what happened to American Jewry as the 20th century was winding down. In the meantime, let our community go about the far more important business of salvaging what we can.