Planning For The 21st Century


It may be the most comprehensive survey of the Jewish people since Moses counted the Jews as recorded in the Book of Numbers. Researchers this week said they sent out nearly 900 draft copies of the ambitious $4 million National Jewish Population Survey to an array of Jewish organizations for their input. Many believe the 250-question poll will set the agenda for the American Jewish community for the 21st century.

Sponsored by the United Jewish Communities, the new merged organization of the former United Jewish Appeal, United Israel Appeal and the Council of Jewish Federations, the survey will be the first national follow-up to the controversial 1990 population study. Its bombshell finding that American Jews were intermarrying at an alarming 52 percent rate, though contested, sent Jewish leaders into a panic from which they have not yet recovered.

But the current team of researchers insists that the 2000 study, in which random interviewing is expected to begin in January, is a much broader, more thorough examination of American Jewry and should not be overshadowed by the intermarriage issue.

"Our objective is to produce the most comprehensive, sociologically graphic portrait ever before of American Jewry," declared Jim Schwartz, director of UJC’s research department during a press conference Monday at the organization’s downtown Manhattan headquarters.

He said the survey will be used for communal planning, helping Jewish federations locate and develop new funding sources, and analyzing the needs of Jewish education, as well as for scholarly research on American Jews.

Schwartz is working with University of Delaware Professor Vivian Klaff and Ohio State University Professor Frank Mott, co-chairs of the National Technical Advisory Committee, a group of demographers, statisticians, Judaic studies experts and federation professionals who helped develop the draft questionnaire.

The Manhattan research firm Audits and Surveys Worldwide will conduct NJPS 2000, which is being held at the same time as the U.S. census.

The poll will survey 5,000 randomly selected Jews, twice as many as a decade ago. And it will be five times as persistent in tracking down the potential interviewee. In 1990, two phone calls were made to reach the candidate. This time there will be up to 10 callbacks, which researchers say should improve the reliability of the study. Each interview will probably take more than 30 minutes. A Jewish household is defined as containing one or more Jews.

For the first time, the survey will be conducted in Yiddish and Russian.Schwartz said much of the methods and data used in 1990 will remain the same. But unlike 1990, when Jewish groups largely footed the bill, a large portion of the 2000 funding (about $2.6 million) will come from private donors.

The first summary report is expected by mid-2001. Schwartz stressed that the current document is a draft and can be revised following input from any of the several dozen participating national and local Jewish organizations.

A look at the poll demonstrates a focus on the primary issues of Jewish identity and education. Schwartz said several questions are designed to show how Jews describe themselves in terms of religious affiliation. For instance, one question asks how a person was raised, with choices as Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, "just Jewish" or "something else."

Interviewees later are asked what they consider themselves today. Still later, they are quizzed on whether they affiliate with a synagogue.

"This will provide a wonderful portrait of denominational mobility," Schwartz said.

Reflecting a national trend, the questionnaire also asks about levels of spirituality. For instance, "Do you ever say any prayers using your own words," or "to what extent have you been able to find ways to strengthen the spiritual side of your life."

Participants will be asked if they date only Jews, ever had a Christmas tree and whether they believe the Torah is the actual word of God.

Other topics broached include adoption, fertility, camp experience, immigration to the U.S., and political orientation.

Schwartz said it was too early to say anything new about the intermarriage issue: where some demographers strongly debate the 52 percent rate from 1990, claiming the figure is closer to 40 percent.