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Jewish population study put on hold

NEW YORK, Dec. 7 (JTA) — Just as the next major study of American Jewry was about to take off, the organization sponsoring the National Jewish Population Survey has put on the brakes.

Phones were set to start ringing in January to find 5,000 households where Jews would be queried on subjects such as religious affiliation, spirituality, dating patterns, volunteerism, fund-raising decision-making, summer camp experience and political orientation.

But last week, the heads of the United Jewish Communities decided to postpone the implementation of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000 “in order to ensure full consideration by its recently appointed top leadership,” a Dec. 7 statement from the group says..

Last month, the group of leaders recently appointed to help set the UJC’s programmatic agenda “expressed interest in examining the questionnaire to ensure that survey results provide the data needed to develop their strategies,” UJC President Stephen Solender says in the statement.

In response to that interest, the UJC has decided to put off the interviewing phase of the first major survey of American Jews in 10 years.

The root of the problem, it seems, is whether the 2000 survey will accurately count American Jews and whether it will sufficiently explore areas that the organized community has set as its priorities.

UJC officials told JTA they were not prepared to discuss the costs associated with delaying the survey, and they said a new timetable for the work has yet to be determined.

But a UJC spokesperson said it is “still NJPS 2000,” suggesting it would still go on next year.

The multimillion-dollar survey was meant to flesh out the portrait of U.S. Jewry beyond the results of the last survey in 1990, which is known primarily because of its finding that 52 percent of Jews being married in recent years were marrying non-Jews.

The accuracy of that figure and the 1990 survey’s methods have been criticized by some demographers of the American Jewish community, five of whom wrote a letter in July expressing their concerns to some of the people overseeing the study for UJC, including Solender.

The broad-based social service and fund-raising organization was then in the process of being formed through the legal union of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the United Israel Appeal. That merger was completed last month with the official creation of the UJC.

Under the new UJC, four areas of concentration — or pillars — have been established: Jewish Renaissance and Renewal, Israel and Overseas, Human Services and Public Policy, and Campaign/Financial Resource Development. A fifth department deals with providing services to the regions.

Last month, some of the chairs of the UJC’s pillar committees began to discuss the issues raised by the demographers and their own requirements that the survey help them understand the composition, needs and interests of the country’s Jewish population.

For example, several people involved with the pillar committees expressed a desire to learn from the survey detailed information about how American Jews define their Jewishness, beyond the traditional measures of ritual practice and years of religious schooling.

An accurate counting could also affect federal funding for social services through Jewish organizations.

A group of 18 sociologists, demographers and researchers had been working on a voluntary basis for four years to complete the survey questionnaire in time to begin next month and to release a summary report of basic findings by mid-2001.

Members of that group, the National Technical Advisory Committee, have been informed of the delay, the UJC’s research director, Jim Schwartz, said, but “we haven’t had an opportunity to brief them as a group.”

“A number of people will be disappointed when a change in schedule occurs,” Schwartz said, but he expects the group to maintain its level of support and commitment to the project.

In the past, committee members have said that in preparing the questionnaire they took into account the policy concerns and central issues expressed by leaders with the CJF.

But the new crop of committee chairs, it seems, wants to have a say in what is sure to be an influential and widely used research tool.

The chairs of the UJC’s pillar committees were announced only last month in Atlanta at the UJC founding General Assembly, and professional leaders have so far been appointed to only two of the four committees.

Part of the objective of the merger was to give the nearly 200 Jewish community federations in the CJF system more say in how the money they raise is used.

That philosophy of ownership is now being applied to the population survey.

The costs of the survey — over $4 million — are being covered by private donations of between $2.5 million and $3 million, and by the federations, which are footing $1.7 million of the bill.

UJC officials said that during the survey’s development, consultation and input came from local federation leaders and Jewish communal professionals, but the voice of the national umbrella organization was absent — as the CJF, which previously sponsored the survey, went out of existence in the formation of the UJC.

“This would never have happened had we had UJC up and running at a time when there was active formulation of the questionnaire,” said Dr. Conrad Giles of Detroit, the immediate past president of the CJF.

Giles is the chairman of the UJC’s task force on service delivery and federation relations and a former chair of the CJF’s research committee responsible for the survey.

“We are trying to bring a system that has been out of step” because of the timing of the UJC’s formation “into synchronicity” with plans for the survey, Giles said.

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