Dialing for Answers: NJPS Launches Jewish Data Quest

The phones are ringing. But will anyone answer? A long-awaited comprehensive survey of American Jews began dialing up households around the country Sunday to find out such things as what percentage of Jews marry non-Jews, what childhood experiences foster Jewish identity and how Jews differ from other Americans.

The National Jewish Population Survey, sponsored by the national federation umbrella organization, the United Jewish Communities, is expected to influence funding and policy decisions of Jewish organizations for the next decade.

Its results, particularly concerning intermarriage, will be closely compared to the 1990 version of the study, which created much communal soul-searching when it reported that 52 percent of Jews who wed between 1985 and 1990 married non- Jews.

That finding, which has been disputed by many sociologists who assert the true rate is lower, prompted various “continuity” initiatives aimed at strengthening Jewish identify.

After years of planning – and an eight-month delay as the sponsoring agency’s new leadership added input and questions were field-tested – the 35-minute questionnaire is finalized. Researchers plan to interview some 4,500 Jews, almost double the number interviewed in 1990.

In addition, 500 non-Jews “associated” with Jews – people married to Jews or who have Jews in their families – will also be interviewed. Four thousand non- Jews will receive a shorter version of the survey, so that researchers can compare Jewish attitudes to those of the general public.

The survey’s questions are being kept out of public view so potential participants are not influenced, according to UJC officials.

The question among organizers now is whether enough people will participate to get the data the researchers are seeking.

Besieged by telemarketers and increasingly pressed for time, fewer Americans are responding to phone interviews, says researchers. This year’s U.S. Census, a written survey distributed to every household in the country, yielded lower response rates than in previous decades.

“People are bombarded particularly by phone with requests for surveys and so on, and many of them are not legitimate surveys but disguised advertising or promotional activities,” said Leonard Saxe, a sociologist and director of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.

In a recent study in Massachusetts, the Cohen Center offered Jewish teens $10 to complete a survey. Close to 85 percent of potential participants responded, far higher than the 60 to 70 percent rate most studies consider to be successful, said Saxe.

For the first time, the NJPS is also offering an incentive, although more modest than the teen survey. Each respondent will designate $2 in UJC funds as a contribution to the American Cancer Society, the March of Dimes or the American Heart Association.

As a nonprofit organization, the UJC feared it would appear unseemly to offer larger or noncharitable incentives to respondents, says officials.

However, some involved with the process say offering larger incentives would probably save the organization money in the long run, given the difficulty of locating Jewish households at random.

“If a person hangs up and refuses to participate, it might take another $10-15 to find another cooperative Jew,” said Ira Sheskin, a professor of geography at the University of Miami and a member of the population study’s Nation Technical Advisory Committee.

But “the P.R. of having to pay people didn’t go over well with a lot of people,” Sheskin said, explaining the UJC’s ultimate decision.

Budgeted at $5 million, the survey is expected to be completed by the end of December, with preliminary results available in the spring of 2001.

A full report of the study’s findings will be published in approximately a year, say UJC officials, along with shorter “highlight reports” analyzing how the finds might be used to shape policy for specific groups, such as synagogues, federations and Jewish community centers.

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