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Focus on Issues: New Population Study Prepares to Take Pulse of American Jewry

Nearly a decade ago, the news rocked the Jewish world: Slightly more than half of recently married Jews had wedded non-Jews.

That finding from the first comprehensive study of American Jewry in two decades singlehandedly prompted a sea change in the course the Jewish community had long charted.

The Jewish establishment began to focus more on the internal needs of the community than on overseas concerns, and a new term, now entrenched in the communal lexicon, was coined: continuity.

The 1990 National Jewish Population Study painted a portrait of a community that was rapidly assimilating and losing the particularistic sense of what it means to be Jewish.

Now preparations for a new survey, the National Jewish Population Study 2000, are under way to provide a deeper understanding of how the American Jewish population is continuing to change.

“What we have from 1990 is a snapshot. What we will have with NJPS 2000 is a three-dimensional picture to give us a sense of the depth and variety” of Jewish experience in America today, said Jo Ann Abraham, spokeswoman for the Council of Jewish Federations, the organization undertaking the study.

The information gleaned from this study — at an estimated cost of $3.6 million, collected from Jewish federations across the country and raised from private donors — will likely be used in a variety of ways.

Among the issues to be studied are the geographic shifts in the Jewish population and the aging nature of the community — and the results will be compared to those found a decade ago.

Data from the last study have been used by advocates for a range of causes, from those fighting to make Jewish day schools more affordable to those with a pro-Orthodox stance in the debate over religious pluralism.

Jewish federations use information from both national and local population studies as they decide how to allocate the $1.6 billion they raise collectively each year.

The Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, for example, has done two local population studies in recent years — one in 1987 and one in 1996. Information from the national study has given the federation a basis for comparison to the larger Jewish population, said Ilene Gertman, the federation’s director of social planning and research.

Findings from the local study, for instance, helped shape the way the entire Cleveland community addresses Jewish education.

Equipped with the information that 91 percent of the Jewish children between the ages of 6 and 17 were attending Hebrew school, the community decided to pour educational resources into strengthening the quality of congregational schools, Gertman said.

One of the key findings of Cleveland’s 1996 study was that the Jewish population was 81,000, larger than the previous estimate of 60,000.

The study also showed that the Cleveland federation and synagogues weren’t reaching as many constituents as they thought.

“It’s already driving a re-examination of our marketing efforts, the media that we use. We realize we have to reach people better,” said Stephen Hoffman, the federation’s executive vice president.

The federation spent $200,000 on the study and for Hoffman, it was “worth every penny we paid just to change our attitude. It’s always good to be shaken out of any sense of complacency.”

Research is still being done to determine how the last national Jewish population study was utilized.

Some 130 in-depth articles based on the 1990 findings were published in academic and general Jewish journals, including three book-length monographs, according to Jim Schwartz, who as CJF’s director of research, is organizing the new study.

The monographs include “Jews on the Move: Implications for Jewish Identity”; “Gender Equality and American Jews”; and “Jewish Choices: American Jewish Denominationalism.”

Organizers point to two new communal policy areas that emerged as a result of the 1990 findings: a new emphasis on Jewish identity issues and encouraging teen travel to Israel.

“Every federation, every Jewish organization is talking about Jewish identity and Jewish continuity,” said Abraham. “That all came out of the study.”

But some feel the research was underutilized. Although 20 book-length monographs had been slated, only three were published. A lack of funds precluded further work.

Some critics say the research from 1990 has been underutilized. The analysis was “underfunded and the follow-up non-existent. The data has been just thrown out there,” said Gary Tobin, director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.

But Schwartz disagrees. “There has never been a study of this quality and output,” he said. “Could more have been done? Yes, with a better budget,” he said, adding that three more monographs are scheduled.

Next time around, he said, the budget includes money for research grants to encourage scholars to do the analysis.

To those who question the need for another study so soon, Schwartz said, “The community is changing too rapidly.

“We need hard data to address major issues like Jewish education, outreach to intermarried, the role of the synagogue, how we relate to Israel and human service priorities.

“We, the Jewish community, need a current, accurate portrait for policy and planning,” he said. “Decisions made without data are fraught with potential problems.”

Some of the community’s most influential demographers and sociologists are voicing concerns that given the outcome of the last survey, people will only be interested in the new intermarriage rate.

“My fear is that we’ll do `the intermarriage quiz show’ again and leave it at that,” said Tobin, who is not involved in the CJF study. “The focus on intermarriage has been really unfortunate. You can tell everyone is waiting to see what the new number is going to be.”

Sidney Goldstein, co-chair of the research advisory committee for the study, disagrees. “The intermarriage question will remain a strong one, though it’s not necessarily the most important.”

“Understanding more fully now what happens to the children of intermarriage, who intermarries, what factors explain intermarriage and conversion will be more important” for the upcoming survey, said Goldstein, a professor of population studies and sociology at Brown University.

The CJF committee is in the process of asking various constituencies — lay leaders, federation professionals, researchers and others — what questions they would like to see asked in the upcoming survey.

It is also convening subcommittees of experts in each of three key areas: Jewish identity and continuity; Jewish philanthropy and volunteerism; and Jewish professionals.

Although nothing is set in stone, some new areas likely to be explored, according to Egon Mayer, a member of the survey’s national technical advisory committee:

how many American Jews are gay or lesbian;

the number and location of Jews from the former Soviet Union, which will require using multilingual interviewers; and

young Jews’ feelings of connection to the Holocaust and to the State of Israel.

Goldstein believes that the new study should be “much more innovative in getting at the meaning of differences of Jewish identity.

“Should we continue to measure it in standard ways, like asking about lighting Shabbat candles and going to shul? Or are there other things, like interacting with other Jews, that better characterize people’s Jewish behavior today, and finding out if that’s really enough to really ensure continuity and survival?”

While some hope that the survey will explore new ground, many of the questions will be the same as a decade ago to ensure “research continuity,” the ability to establish trends and comparisons, say those involved.

Schwartz said every question that is asked — whether it is about one’s connection to Israel or family structure — will be useful to a broad spectrum of organizations and individuals.

For his part, Mayer believes that the 2000 survey will try “to satisfy every constituency that might have an interest in the information, which means that no constituency will get all the information it wants.

“That’s both the beauty and the beast of this,” he said.

NOTE TO EDITORS: This can be a sidebar to the larger population study story.

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