Friday, December 26, 2008

They’re At It Again

They weren’t off our communal agenda for too long or particularly missed, yet it is good to have back the battling demographers who confidently announce how many Jews there are and whose statistics are sharply challenged by other equally confident demographers.

This renewal of interest is linked to 2010 being around the corner and that should be the time for another National Jewish Population Study, following up on previous NJPS research conducted every ten years or so. But NJPS 2000 (actually 2001) was off the charts in cost and beset by an excess of mistakes, including lost data. Besides, the reliance on conventional telephone calls that is the staple of population surveys has been greatly undermined by the escalating use of cell phones, as well as other social changes that make it harder to track respondents and collect reliable data.

To fill the void, Len Saxe and colleagues at Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Research Institute have been gearing up for a different kind of population study referred to as a meta-analysis. For all of the fancy footwork and the certainty that the Brandeis team is top-notch, their approach is already being challenged. Gary Rosenblatt told the story in a terrific article several weeks ago.

Although the last NJPS is an object of derision, its estimate of the number of Jews may well be reliable. I believe that the project was the victim of its own hyper-earnestness, the determination to touch too many bases and to get everything exactly right. Its principal finding or estimate of 5.2 million core Jews, they being persons who identify as being Jewish according to defined sociological and not halachic criteria, appears to have been verified last year with the publication of research done by the Pew Charitable Trust on religious affiliation in the U.S.

To replace NJPS, the folks at Brandeis are promising a far less expensive project that they say will be more accurate. They also insist that NJPS undercounted American Jews and by a significant number. Their so-called meta-analysis relies primarily on local Jewish population surveys and other bits of research and information and not on their conducting interviews in the field. In a letter published last week in this newspaper, Len Saxe referred to this approach as “hybrid” and claimed that it would be “cutting-edge” and rely on “gold standard” research.

For all of this self-congratulatory language, I regard this revisionist approach as some kind of cholent and like all cholents the results are likely to be uneven. Apart from the not inconsequential fact that there are American Jews not covered by local demographic surveys, those that have been conducted are uneven in quality, vary in the questions that have been asked and all local surveys extrapolate data, meaning that the numbers that are provided are not actual but based on assumptions that may not be accurate.

In turn, the forthcoming Brandeis hybrid will add another layer of extrapolations, the aim being to support the claim that there are more core Jews than have been reported. Put otherwise, this team of researchers knows in advance how many Jews they expect to find. The justification for this approach is the notion, as reported by Rosenblatt, that “highly educated, wealthy, mobile Jews are far more difficult to reach at home in the early evening than older, less affluent Jews” and that this tended “to skew past surveys.” The convenient solution is to come up with a much higher Jewish population estimate.

I would argue that older, poorer, less educated and Orthodox Jews are less likely to respond to population surveys than highly educated and affluent Jews. The Brandeis revisionists know for sure that this isn’t the case, although I can’t figure out how they reached this conclusion, and they also know for sure that there are more than six million core Jews and that with fine-tuning the figure can be above seven million. As a by-product of this strange methodology, they are certain to conclude that the Orthodox proportion of American Jewry is actually below the already low figure that has been reported.

To accept such conclusions, it is necessary to disregard NJPS and other research and also to be in denial about the impact of intermarriage – NJPS was right about the 50%+ rate – and also the consequences of low Jewish fertility, the singles phenomenon and the inordinately high proportion of American Jews who are elderly. It is necessary, as well, to redesignate the status of one million or more persons who were born Jewish and who say that they no longer identify as Jews. All of this is a tall order. It is not scholarly cricket to employ sociological criteria when determining who is Jewish and then turn around and negate the sociological construct mandating that a person who does not self-identify as a Jew can yet be included in our population statistics.

Two decades ago, I suggested in a series of newspaper columns that American Jewry was evolving into a membership arrangement, with people free to join or leave, a theme that I have further developed over the years. The notion of membership fits in well with the approach taken by certain demographers. Because the forces that impel the legitimacy of a membership arrangement are dynamic, both in the experience of American Jews and in the conceptualization of demographers, it is inevitable that the membership concept that emerged in our mindset twenty years ago would undergo further evolution. What is being advanced by demographers and others who regard advanced assimilation and intermarriage as actually adding to our numbers can be referred to as an associational arrangement where any familial connection to Jews qualifies for inclusion in our statistics.

Soon enough, there will be claims that there are ten million or more of us, claims that even six degrees of separation qualify one as Jewish.