Finishing Touches Being Put on a Long-awaited Population Study

If you get a phone call in the next few months from a stranger with lots of questions, don’t assume it’s a telemarketer.

The person on the other end of the line may be more interested in hearing about your Jewish identity than telling you about the latest credit card deal.

Researchers for the long-awaited National Jewish Population Survey 2000 — the first large-scale national study of American Jews in 10 years — will start ringing phones in mid-May. If all goes according to schedule, the field work will be completed by November and findings released by mid-2001.

The 1990 population survey grabbed headlines primarily for its finding that 52 percent of respondents who wed between 1985 and 1990 had married non-Jews.

Although the statistic was subsequently critiqued by various sociologists who felt the study over-counted Jews on the fringes of communal life, “52 percent” became a battle cry in a decade of soul-searching and “Jewish continuity” initiatives.

Like its predecessor, this decade’s study is charged with providing data on everything from intermarriage rates to levels of Jewish identity to philanthropic habits, and it is expected to shape the priorities of Jewish organizations and scholars for the coming decade.

Sponsored by the newly formed national fund-raising and social service umbrella organization, the United Jewish Communities, the approximately $5 million study plans to survey 5,000 U.S. Jews, more than double the number reached in 1990.

Reflecting the changing priorities of the American Jewish community, the survey will focus more heavily on questions of Jewish education, identity formation and philanthropy and less extensively on questions concerning social service needs than the 1990 study did.

Originally scheduled to start interviewing in January, the study was postponed until May, ostensibly so that UJC’s newly appointed leaders could have time to review the process and add input.

Planning for the study had begun under the auspices of the now-defunct Council of Jewish Federations, one of the two organizations that merged to become the UJC.

According to Don Kent, UJC’s vice president of development and marketing, the input from UJC leaders about their priorities will ensure that the study is more relevant and useful than the 1990 one.

“One of the greatest failures of the vast majority of studies in the Jewish community is that research gets done and sits on the shelf,” he said. But because UJC leaders helped to prepare the survey, they will have a vested interest in seeing the results used in developing new programs, he added.

The survey has snagged its share of controversy, mostly stemming from dissatisfaction with what happened in 1990.

Several Orthodox leaders have claimed their community was undercounted in 1990 due to methodology that may have disproportionately emphasized Jews living in areas where Orthodox Jews are less likely to cluster.

Five Jewish social scientists — some of whom were involved in the 1990 study but not in the 2000 one — sent a memo last summer urging the UJC to, among other things, add focus group research, change the staffing and determine the intermarriage rate in a different way.

NJPS planners say they have made some modifications in response to those critics and have attempted to engage them in the process.

Steven Cohen, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and one of the people who drafted last summer’s memo, declined to say whether he thinks the study is still flawed, but noted that it has been “significantly improved” and praised its planners for seeking the input of UJC leadership and making it more “policy-oriented.”

In addition to the disputes over methodology, the logistics of devising a study that will pack a decade’s worth of information into only 30 minutes of questioning — the estimated attention-span time limit for phone interviews – - poses a challenge.

“How much can I ask about how many subjects before the person at the other end says ‘Dayeinu’ and hangs up?” said Egon Mayer, director of the Center for Jewish Studies of the Graduate School of the City University of New York and one of the volunteers serving on the study’s National Technical Advisory Committee.

The original draft questionnaire, said Mayer, was over 100 pages long, and his committee has spent a lot of time cutting.

Stephen Solender, UJC’s president and CEO, recently announced that, given the study’s limitations, it will be followed up with a series of smaller national surveys addressing specific issues. However, no budget or timetable for the future studies have been determined.

One factor that may affect the study’s effectiveness, however, may have little to do with budgets, research techniques or length of survey.

“There have been so many phone scams and so many people using the phone to try to sell things that lots of people are wary of answering questions on the telephone,” said Ira Sheskin, a geography professor at the University of Miami who is also a member of the advisory committee.

However, noted Sheskin, who has conducted 20 local Jewish community studies, Jewish surveys tend to fare better than commercial surveys.

“On my local studies we get between 80 to 95 percent of people to cooperate, even if it means calling them back after they hang up on you,” he said.

Jim Schwartz, UJC’s research director, said the study’s planners “know we won’t get 100 percent” but are “doing everything we can do to maximize the cooperation rate.”

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