Monday, November 25, 2002

There is Joy in Mudville

The tzoris that has befallen the National Jewish Population Survey should evoke sorrow, if only because this long-awaited study can provide important information about American Jewish life. We will have to wait longer because the firm that conducted the telephone polling lost some early data and United Jewish Communities, NJPS’ sponsor, has suspended further release of the findings until it determines whether what is missing makes a difference.

While UJC, the umbrella agency for the Federation network, is in mourning, there is celebrating among those demographers who have been eager for the opportunity to pounce on NJPS. Several went on the attack weeks ago, the aim being to discredit NJPS before the rest of us could learn what is being discredited. These nasty folks now have an embarrassment of riches, thanks to UJC’s missteps. Doubtlessly, down the road we will get a bunch of statistics and their interpretation, but it is hard to see how the damage can be repaired. There is joy in Mudville, it being the natural habitat of the demography clan.

Some of what has gone wrong was inevitable. The notion of a Jewish population study sounds like a great idea, made more attractive by the year 2000 mystique. The U.S. extends across nearly four million square miles and, as has happened often in our history, we are dispersed within this diaspora. To make the task harder, there are the controversial “who is a Jew?” issues. To reach American Jews, however they may be defined, NJPS utilized a random digital dialing technique that required more than three million calls being placed in order to reach the 4,500 households that could somehow be identified as Jewish and which would respond to the survey.
In its vital methodological underpinnings, NJPS was the victim of the expanding reluctance of people to answer the phone or to respond to telemarketers. At the moment when organized American Jewry believes that it is more necessary than ever to get a profile and count of its members, it has become much more difficult to locate these Jews and to get them to tell us what we want to know.

NJPS critics underscore that there have been recent useful Jewish population surveys that were far less expensive and time-consuming. They have a point, though the other studies ask few questions and essentially have been piggybacked onto ongoing research, a method that raises the strong possibility of survey bias because the respondents are not representative.

NJPS’ wounds are also self-inflicted. Mirroring the over-organization of our community, its questionnaire is a behemoth encompassing 300 items, some of them complicated and more than a few that are intrusive or irrelevant or foolish. Too many cooks were involved in the making of the brew and now a price is being paid.

All contemporary demography, specifically including the U.S. census, requires the weighting of raw statistics to ensure that discrete and hard to reach population groups are adequately represented. Each NJPS respondent will not count equally in the final published data. It’s necessary to determine the right geographic distribution and also how to count singles, Orthodox Jews and others who may be underrepresented in the telephone polling. NJPS enlisted a considerable number of experts to help achieve these goals and this added to the project’s cost and complexity.

Weighting inevitably raises as many questions as it answers. The assignment of weights entails a measure of subjectivity, so that the data presented to us and the accompanying interpretations may be challenged, even by those who are not residents of Mudville.

As American Jewry has become less Jewish and, to an extent that is astounding, not Jewish as all, NJPS and other Jewish population studies are increasingly on shaky ground. There has been a steady enlargement of the boundaries of Jewish identity to include persons of dubious status. It’s impossible to arrive at any consensus as to whom to include or how to count, so that apart from any methodological difficulties, the findings are open to question by those who want to add the numbers differently.

We are now beset by the question of whether to include non-Jews living in what may be loosely called a Jewish household and who identify themselves as Jewish and also whether to include persons who were born Jewish who say emphatically that they practice another religion or no religion and no longer regard themselves as Jewish. Children in intermarried families raise a host of related issues.

It’s become a mess. Demographers have abandoned a halachic or religious definition of Jewishness, substituting a sociological approach that unfortunately for them opens up new cans of conceptual worms. NJPS could do everything right and still be in trouble.

As necessary as it may be to collect data about American Jews, the exercise has become problematic. We need to rely more on qualitative studies and less on quantitative approaches. As for the numbers, NJPS and others should present us with a smorgasbord, giving us the numbers according to different categories of Jewishness and other identifying characteristics and then allow those who want to partake of what is being offered to pick and choose and to come up with their own conclusions.
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I am nearing my thirtieth year as president on a voluntary basis of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, which is in its 103rd year. We have four schools in an unprecedented arrangement and other distinctive projects. We also face severe financial difficulties. This year is the hardest that we have encountered in a long while, undoubtedly because of the economic downturn. As Chanukah arrives, I hope that I can ask readers to provide a measure of support to an institution that for more than a century has been a treasure of American Jewish life. We need help.

Contributions can be sent to Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. 350 Broadway – Room 300, New York, NY 10013.