Report on NJPS Finds Limitations As Debate over Numbers Continues
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Report on NJPS Finds Limitations As Debate over Numbers Continues

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A major study of American Jewry may undercount the number of Jews and overestimate their Jewish activity.

Those are among the leading conclusions of an independent review of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000- 01, which was published two weeks ago by the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group.

While the NJPS said the U.S. Jewish population declined 5 percent to 5.2 million since the last NJPS in 1990 — a period when the overall U.S. population swelled 11 percent — that number is "slightly lower" than those found in similar studies, says Mark Schulman, founding partner of Schulman, Ronca & Bucuvalas, a prominent polling firm.

Schulman’s assessment seemed likely to fuel what has become a highly public debate over the validity of the NJPS, a $6 million, five-year project that UJC billed as the most comprehensive study of American Jewry to date but has been beset by controversy.

The latest NJPS battlefront erupted last week when J.J. Goldberg, editor of the weekly Forward, wrote an editorial blasting as a "fraud" the 1990 report’s intermarriage statistics, then attacked the population figures in an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times.

Goldberg’s allegations provoked anger at UJC and stoked debate among Jewish social scientists.

Most demographers say there is little dispute over the fact that the U.S. Jewish population — depending on how you define a Jew — has remained relatively stable.

Egon Mayer, who co-authored a 2001 study called the American Jewish Identity Survey, found 5.3 million people born or raised Jewish, down 200,000 from 1990.

If you add their non-Jewish spouses or family members, that totals 10 million people, he found.

"Depending how you want to define the population, you’ll get a higher or lower number."

The real problem is not strictly numerical, said Steven Bayme, national director of the American Jewish Committee’s contemporary Jewish life department.

For half a century, Bayme said, most social scientists have agreed that the Jewish population has been relative stable, between 5 and 5.5 million.

The problem, he said, is that the majority of Jews have "no connection" to actual Judaism.

While Jewish numbers won’t likely drop sharply for 15 to 20 years, he said, Jewish ignorance "heralds a serious long-term erosion in the future."

Problems began dogging the NJPS one year ago, when its New York-based sponsors, the UJC, released initial population figures but quickly pulled the full report from publication after discovering that the polling firm that conducted the survey between August 2000 and 2001, RoperASW, had lost some of the data.

At first, the UJC appointed an internal audit of the NJPS. That led to the independent review that has just been released.

In the latest outside review, Schulman concluded that the NJPS "questionnaire and study design raise many issues and questions that cannot be fully resolved."

He alludes often in his report to the study’s "limitations" but also said that the lessons learned from those problems will prove invaluable for similar studies in the future.

Schulman added that these issues likely will have little impact on the analysis of the "relationships between variables" — such as whether more Jewish education produces greater Jewish communal ties.

Indeed, he said, such analysis will provide valuable insight into those issues.

Despite the less-than-glowing review, the UJC’s chief executive officer and president, Stephen Hoffman, said he was confident the survey will yield important information about American Jewry.

"I don’t need a ringing endorsement. All I need is that we’re in the ballpark, and we are," Hoffman told JTA.

"There’s a lot of criticizing going on about this number and that number. I’m not into the last 5,000 to 10,000 people, I’m into the overall direction, the overall trends."

Hoffman said, "The academicians will battle this out and decide whether the numbers are valid and what should be taken with a grain of salt. I believe over time the study will prove to be a valuable tool."

Steven Cohen, a Hebrew University sociologist and chief consultant to NJPS, said his gut feeling is that the U.S. Jewish population ranges between 5.5 million and 5.7 million — higher than the UJC’s 5.2 million finding for 2000 and about the same as the figure cited in the 1990 survey.

Several demographers said the discrepancies fall within the statistical margin of error of such studies.

In its efforts to go beyond simple population data to glean a sharper, more inclusive portrait of American Jewish life, NJPS used multiple standards to define who is a Jew.

Such multiple categorizations added to the complexity of NJPS and its population numbers, Schulman said.

He also said the screening method of determining the respondents could have skewed the results. Schulman cited the lack of "rapport-building" questions to make a potential interviewee comfortable, which was done as a cost-saving measure, and the "open-end" question — "What is your religion, if any" — rather than a direct question about religious preference, which is done in more general surveys.

Once NJPS identified Jews, it went on to identified 4.3 million as more actively Jewish — from holiday observance to keeping kosher to belonging to Jewish institutions.

But Schulman warned the study could also "skew toward Jews who are more religiously identified," because those Jews are the ones who would more likely agree to a longer questionnaire.

Schulman was not available to discuss his findings.

Even before the NJPS was delayed last year, disagreement surfaced over the population counts.

Among the study’s chief critics was Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research in San Francisco, who issued his own report counting 6.7 million U.S. Jews, tied to a wider circle of 13.3 million Americans with at least some Jewish ties.

Besides the population problem, Tobin said, synagogue membership figures in the NJPS were inflated. The NJPS found that 46 percent of the 4.3 million connected Jews belong to a house of worship.

That figure was based on a single question, and "studies of religion have shown that people don’t report accurately," he said. "People give the answer they think you want to hear."

He estimated the synagogue rolls at half that rate, based on figures from local Jewish community studies.

For their part, UJC officials dismissed the criticism.

"There are all kinds of numbers thrown around," said the project director of NJPS, Lorraine Blass.

Of Tobin’s study, she said, "The methodology was never made public."

Tobin responded by saying he was readying a full report on his study, which he first made public shortly before the initial NJPS rollout last year.

Debate over the population figure broke out into full public view last week, after Goldberg, the Forward’s editor, wrote an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times called "A Jewish Recount."

Goldberg criticized the much-reported NJPS population drop and the previous, much-maligned intermarriage rate of 52 percent — recalculated for the latest survey at 43 percent — as "flawed figures" that the UJC promoted as a way to foment worry and enhance fund-raising.

A week earlier, Goldberg wrote in a Forward editorial that the UJC "sexed up" the intermarriage rate last time around in a lie meant to foment worry. The latest NJPS found a 47 percent intermarriage rate for the past five years – – or what would be 54 percent if figured the same way as in 1990.

Goldberg’s New York Times column "stuck in my throat," Hoffman wrote in his weekly e-mail to UJC members last Friday.

Hoffman told JTA that while he believed the NJPS will ultimately prove worthy, Goldberg’s "grandstanding and slander will hurt not the study itself, but the UJC" in the short term.

"If we undercounted, everyone is telling us we undercounted the less affiliated and the intermarried and the more marginal, so it’s a Pyrrhic victory for him."

Goldberg said the UJC was "vilifying the messenger when they don’t like the message."

The population figure "is supposed to be a statistic," Goldberg said in an interview."A statistic that is off by a couple of hundred thousands is not a statistic. That’s ridiculous."

Goldberg said he believes the UJC suffers from"bizarre psychology" that finds bad news so that Jews will act to beef up Jewish identity and stem intermarriage.

"The numbers are wrong, and therefore they have created a false impression," he said. "They’ve created headlines across the country, and they don’t take any responsibility for them."

In the Jewish social science community, there was an outcry at Goldberg’s assertions that the social scientists and UJC had engaged in fraud.

Cohen, who said he was a longtime friend of Goldberg’s, called it "inappropriate and wrong to describe anyone’s actions as a case of fraud."

Beyond the community of demographers involved with the study, Rela Mintz Gefen, president of Baltimore Hebrew University, says she has seen an impassioned, healthy discussion in the Jewish social science community as a result of the controversy.

She said there is a "consensus among social scientists that there was no fraud, no conspiracy, but an honest disagreement among scholars over who should be included" in defining a Jew.

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