Friday, January 05, 2007

Goodbye to Numbers

Numbers save space and make complicated issues easier to understand. Whether they are accurate is a separate matter, a conclusion based less on skepticism than on the procession of surveys that contradict previous quantitative wisdom. Inherently, statistical exercises cannot be the subject of the familiar joke about the Rabbi who said to each of the conflicting parties who asked him to resolve a dispute "You are right." At the same moment in time there cannot be no more than 5.2 million Jews, the figure reached by the National Jewish Population Survey, and also 6.4 million Jews, the number provided by two respected demographers. Yet, the just-released American Jewish Yearbook for 2006 has one long essay touting the higher number and another article insisting on the lower figure. Bring back the Rabbi.

For what seems like an eternity, American Jews have been bitten by the numbers bug. Likely, we have been surveyed more than all other U.S. ethnic and religious groups combined, the result being that we are more confused than ever about how many we are and who we are. The U.S. Census Bureau regularly reports on racial and religious groups, but not on religious identity. We have relied on our own devices and once we got into the survey business, we haven't been able to let go. In a sense, we count Jews because we want Jews to count. Jewish demography is an offshoot of our ethnocentrism.

In the end, our population surveys, including of local communities, are of questionable reliability because they are based on assumptions and extrapolations and not on actual counting. They are faith-based and their results cannot be proven. They are also compromised by issues that cannot be authoritatively resolved. Counting Jews is more intricate than counting Blacks or Latinos or even white ethnics. While the U.S. Census strives to reach everyone and is invested with the authority to compel cooperation, our surveys are samples of persons presumed to be Jewish, with the responses then subjected to weighing and other sophisticated and esoteric quantitative massaging. All of the numbers that are fed to us are extrapolations.

The process has become more unreliable because surveys are conducted over the phone and there is expanding resistance to anything that smacks of telemarketing. The response rate in our surveys has nosedived, yet this has not deterred our intrepid demographers. They have adapted to this reality by making ever-bolder assumptions and riskier extrapolations. As a result, the numbers we get are largely the outcome of what researchers expect to find in the first place.

These methodological shortcomings may be dwarfed by real-life developments that have wracked American Jewry with intensifying severity. From the demographic perspective - and from much else - Jewishness is no longer an halachic or religious status. We are an ethnic group, a designation that does not resolve issues arising from intermarriage and other powerful indicators of Judaic abandonment. As the household and not the individual is the key tracking unit, we have to grapple with how to reckon non-Jewish spouses and their offspring and what to do about two-religion families and also families with no religion. We cannot exactly figure out where to put persons who are Jewish from birth who have opted out of Jewish life. Given the sociological rather than halachic identification of Jewishness, Jews in hiding - those who though they are Jewish, deny it - are excluded. Also excluded are the indeterminate number who do not know they are Jewish.

The NJPS conducted early in this decade was a serious effort to tackle these issues. It got caught up in a complex methodological and definitional web of its own making and this, plus a multitude of mistakes, did it in. It has served as convenient target practice for the demographers who were not among the cooks who spoiled the broth. Now, Ira Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky have announced that there are 6.4 million of us. Sergio DellaPergola, of Israel, perhaps the most respected name in the field, insists on the lower NJPS estimate. The infighting among our demographers, which can be nasty, is a fascinating diversion.

The higher figure strikes me as the more likely, although it means that a smaller percentage of Jews participate in things Jewish. The higher estimate makes sense because of immigration from Israel and the Former Soviet Union, while emigration to Israel and elsewhere has been low. There is also the statistical impact of the extraordinary increase in life expectancy. Even with our fertility rate dipping below the replacement level, the extra ten to twenty years are consequential.

As the debate among our numbers mavens drags on, hopefully the rest of us will focus on other measures of American Jewish life and not put great faith in surveys that cannot accomplish what they claim.

There are reliable numbers that point in a direction that is far from rosy. Throughout American Jewish life, real numbers indicate diminished participation and interest. This is evident in synagogue attendance. Despite Reform statistics that include persons who are not Jewish even according to that movement's liberal definition, apart from the Orthodox, synagogues and temples on Saturday are more often than not rows of empty seats. Organizational membership is in the doldrums, while involvement in Federation is not what it once was. We know about campus Jewish life and the picture is painful, even though some of the most shocking statistics have been suppressed. The important efforts and achievements of Birthright Israel and other Israel experiences have not reversed the disinterest of the overwhelming number of American Jews in visiting Israel. These numbers cannot be explained away by survey data showing that there are more of us. More of us means that a smaller proportion cares.

Before we celebrate the news that we have one-million or more than we were previously told we have, we should play Taps for those whom we have lost and for those whom we continue to lose.