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Population study facing hurdles

NEW YORK, Dec. 18 (JTA) – A large-scale national study of American Jewry is expected to take longer and cost more than had originally been anticipated, according to the organization sponsoring the study.

The organization, the United Jewish Communities, is also making two key changes: offering financial incentives to encourage people to participate and hiring a consultant, Steven Cohen, who has long been critical of the project.

The National Jewish Population Survey 2000 is an effort to get a broad snapshot of American Jews, seeking information ranging from economic status to intermarriage rates to religious attitudes and observances.

The study, under the auspices of the federation umbrella organization, is expected to influence funding and policy decisions of Jewish organizations for the next decade.

With its goal of reaching 4,500 Jews, the study is far more ambitious than its predecessor, a 1990 survey that reached less than half that number of people.

But since beginning phone calls in August, researchers have faced an uphill battle to identify willing participants, said Louise Stoll, the UJC’s chief operating officer.

That difficulty is triggering delays and higher costs, she said.

“The slamdown rate was higher than anticipated,” Stoll said, noting that NJPS callers have been competing with a large number of political pollsters and telemarketers.

Another difficulty, she said, is that American Jews are moving out of traditionally Jewish neighborhoods and into areas with lower Jewish populations.

That means there are fewer zip codes where researchers can count on finding large numbers of Jewish households, so that one must make significantly more phone calls before reaching a Jew, Stoll said.

Initially scheduled to complete data-gathering by the end of December, the survey is now not expected to be completed until late spring 2001. Some 1,400 people have been interviewed so far.

A preliminary report on the findings is tentatively expected next summer.

Stoll said it is not yet clear how much more expensive the study, initially budgeted at approximately $5 million, will be.

To increase the odds of finding survey subjects who are Jewish and willing to answer roughly 40 minutes of questions, the UJC has added a financial incentive – a check for $25.

Financial incentives had been considered earlier, and many researchers say they save money in the long term.

In August, Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami professor and member of the committee of researchers overseeing the study, told JTA that “if a person hangs up and refuses to participate, it might take another $10 to $15 to find another cooperative Jew.”

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

The finding also provoked controversy among some sociologists and journalists who asserted that the intermarriage rate reported was misleadingly high, with the real number closer to 40 percent.

One of those sociologists, Steven Cohen, has now been invited to assist with interpreting the current study.

Cohen, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and director of the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America’s research center, has been highly critical of the 2000 study in the past.

In 1999, he and four other professors sent UJC officials a memo that expressed concern that the study might be conducted “improperly.”

Much of the project has been planned by a volunteer group of academics, called the National Technical Advisory Committee, which Cohen was not invited to join.

Asked about his current appointment, Cohen said he will be working to ensure that the data on intermarriage is accurate. He will also be assisting various Jewish policy-makers to interpret the findings.

Regardless of the precise rates, there is no question that intermarriage is prevalent among American Jews and that, in all but the most traditional circles, it is no longer a taboo.

According to a recent survey by the American Jewish Committee, 50 percent of U.S. Jews believe it is “racist” to oppose a marriage between a Jew and gentile and 78 percent favor rabbinic officiation at Jewish-gentile marriages.

Such findings have led to widespread concern that the American Jewish population will dramatically decrease in size in the coming decades, since children of intermarried parents are far less likely to identify as Jewish than are children with two Jewish parents.

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