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Are you Jewish? Census could be calling you

ATLANTA, Nov. 23 (JTA) — A 24-year-old woman moves back to her parents’ home while between jobs. Raised as a Jew, she now practices Buddhism, or maybe “messianic Judaism.” The telephone rings. “Were you or anyone else in the house raised Jewish?” she is asked. “I’m Jewish,” she says, which clues the questioner to launch into a string of other questions.

Should her responses help shape critical data from which community planners could spend hundreds of millions of dollars to shape American Jewish life?

Such myriad nuances of modern American Jewish identity await a team of demographers and their staffs.

Within six months, they are to begin the process of finding 5,000 Jews to answer an elaborately designed questionnaire.

The resulting data will become the 2000 National Jewish Population Study, a blueprint that shapes the common notions of American Jewish identity. —Baltimore Jewish Times

The struggles involved with preparing for the effort were on display in Atlanta last week during a workshop at the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities.

Sample questionnaires have floated through organized Jewry in recent months, resulting in a litany of feedback. The final questions are being completed now.

Jim Schwartz, research director for UJC, would only say that the telephone polls will begin “within the first half of next year.”

The studies can have an enormous impact on American Jewish psyche, said Dr. Conrad Giles.

In 1991, the UJC board member chaired the initial presentation of the 1990 NJPS. Among its stunning findings: 52 percent of Jewish marriages in recent years were to non-Jews.

“Few planners could really understand the impact that study was going to have,” Giles said, alluding to the push for “Jewish continuity” that it initiated.

The new study will correspond to the 2000 U.S. census, meaning that the NJPS data can be cross-referenced to the population as a whole, Schwartz said.

One clear struggle: Who is a Jew?

Ira Sheskin, a professor at the University of Miami and a NJPS team member, said that in identifying Jews, people might need to be broken into subsets: those who were born Jewish and those who were not.

“The general rule in all surveys like this,” he said, “is we use people if they say they are Jewish.”

But he said that while they don’t include people who identify as Jews for Jesus in the total number of Jews in a specific community, surveyors will interview such people because “I want to know how many people they are.”

Simply getting people to talk will be a major task.

“If we call you up and say, ‘We have some questions to ask you,’ you say, ‘How long is that going to take?’ and I said, ‘About one and a quarter hours,’ what would you say?” asked Schwartz.

The average interview of a Jewish respondent, he said, is likely to be about half an hour. Depending on levels of Jewish activity, it could range from five to 45 minutes.

To alleviate monopolizing someone’s time, people have the option of a telephone number to call back later, or setting a telephone appointment for the questioner to call them back. If someone questions the veracity of the effort — hopefully, organizers said, minimized through an upcoming advertising campaign and Web site — they will be given the name of a local university professor or the Jewish federation to vouch for the study.

Respondents will remain anonymous, eliminating fears that the questionnaire is a federation fund-raising effort, Schwartz said.

Sheskin noted the potential importance of such studies when describing how in West Palm Beach, Fla., the federation had allocated about $75,000 to deal with single parents. Shortly after they did a local demographic survey and learned that only two respondents were single working mothers, representing a tiny percent of the population.

The study will be conducted through the random digit dialing technique. In such an effort, every telephone number in the country is analyzed, taking out office and other commercial exchanges. To reach 5,000 households with Jews — double the number of the 1990 study — about 90,000 homes are expected to be called.

Staffers fluent in Russian and Yiddish will be available when needed.

Despite such effort, the data is sure to disappoint some, said Donald Kent, vice president for development and marketing for UJC.

“For any individual community there’s unlikely to be enough data,” he said. “People want to know exactly what it means to me and my community. This will not replace the local studies, but it certainly provides a backdrop.”

There’s also the issue of honesty in answering. Sheskin noted that in 1990, the team asked if anyone in the home had a gambling problem.

“No one did, not one,” he said. “So can we ask about domestic abuse and get an honest answer? No. So there are things that you are just not going to get from this because it is imperfect.”

There can be some humorous results as well, he added. During a study for the St. Petersburg, Fla., Jewish community, he asked “Is anyone in the household married to a Jew?” The answer: “Fifty people here are all married to a Jew. It’s a convent.”

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