Monday, September 22, 2003

A Guide to the Perplexed About Jewish Demography

Now that the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey has been released, let us at long last discard the fanciful notion that it’s possible to figure out how many Jews there are in the U.S. Any field of study that produces estimates as divergent as we have gotten from our population mavens can scarcely be regarded as reliable. We have been sold an expensive bill of goods.

It’s unlikely that the NJPS mess and the incessant in-fighting among our demographers will put a damper on our yen for population surveys. We have been obsessed for two decades and we remain in the grip of a mindset that cannot be easily changed. There are too many funders who are too eager to endow those who speak of factor analysis, standard deviations, regressions and other arcanum. They are now our intelligentsia, our great scholars. Once we were the people of the book. Now we are the people of the numbers.

Since we’re stuck with the numbers game, here is a brief guide for those who may be perplexed by the confusing claims and in-fighting.

There is no reliable way to count us – This is a huge country and we are dispersed throughout it. Our surveymeisters are not the U.S. Census Bureau which attempts to reach all Americans and has the resources and legal backing to do so. Our surveys rely on voluntary responses elicited through Random Digit Dialing, a technique that depends on making a huge number of calls in the hope of ferreting out a small number of Jews who will answer a set of questions. RDD, a dubious device to begin with, has been fatally undermined by growing resistance to telemarketing, so that in recent surveys the response rate has been significantly below the minimum level for reliability. Furthermore, RDD is based on pre-estimates of how many Jews there are in particular localities, extrapolations and other stratagems that reduce even more the reliability of the data that is produced.

We can’t agree on who is Jewish – Not long ago, it was relatively easy to figure out who is a Jew, whether as defined by religious law or sociological categories. This is no longer the case. If we cannot agree on who is Jewish, how can we count Jews? Many who were born Jewish say they no longer are, while many others acknowledge Jewish identity but are not at all connected to the community. There are children of the intermarried who are not being raised as Jews in any sense but live in what might be called a Jewish household. There are also a couple million or so Americans who aren’t Jewish by any standard but who live in what is referred to as a Jewish household because at least one person living there is somehow Jewish. How many we are depends decisively on who we include and who we do not.

Our numbers are fewer and also greater than the announced figures – Some say that we are being undercounted, while others argue that we are being overcounted. In the mad world of demography, both claims are probably correct. NJPS was under pressure not to show a sharp decline in the number of core Jews and so it inflated that figure. But it also undercounted the far greater number of somehow-Jewish persons who have moved away from Jewish life.

We’re in for more inflation – No group wants to say that its membership is declining. Given Jewish political involvement and the erroneous notion that U.S. support for Israel depends on our clout, we have additional incentives to inflate our figures. Then there is the growing influence of secularism which casts its net quite widely, reaching Jews that are excluded in most surveys.

The Reform numbers are a fantasy – Don’t believe the wildly exaggerated figures that say that 40% of core Jews are affiliated with Reform. Look at the endless rows of empty seats in Reform congregations and it’s easy to figure out that there’s something fishy. Reform statistics are puffed up by a) people who aren’t Jewish, b) many who are but do not go to synagogue and c) the understandable tendency of persons who are remote from Judaism to respond to survey questions about affiliation by selecting Reform because that’s the planet closest to them.

Conservatives are in a bind – A shrinking number of Conservative Jews are ex-Orthodox and a growing number are at odds with the movement’s ideology. The inevitable result is steady attrition. Younger Conservative rabbis and seminary students are pushing for further liberalization – gay rights, for example – but experience has shown that this will contribute to and not staunch further losses.

The Orthodox aren’t growing as fast as they think – NJPS data suggests that there are 415,000 Orthodox, an unexpectedly low figure in view of their extremely high fertility rate. It could be that as with its predecessor, the latest survey underestimates Orthodox family size. It’s certain that Orthodox outreach has not resulted in the gains claimed by exuberant kiruv workers, while defections away from Orthodoxy have continued at an alarming pace. One factor that has not gotten attention is the impact of aliya on Orthodox numbers. While aliya may not be significant in the overall data of American Jewish life, it is critical for the Orthodox in view of their low numbers and the high percentage of olim who came from this sector.

We are going to have more population studies and some good may come from this activity, particularly if the claims are not overstated – admittedly that is a tall order – and if the focus will be on what Jewish life is about and not on producing numbers. If there is to be a new NJPS in the next decade, it is obligatory that those who conduct it avoid the blockbuster project and questionnaire that the Federation world cleaves to.