Paying for programs — and the studies that love them


Last week I filed a story on the new Birthright study, and noted that the findings were serving as key plank in the organization’s fund-raising push:

Birthright Israel is hinging a major fund-raising push on a new study that says the program, which sends young Jews on free 10-day trips to Israel, has a major impact on Jewish continuity.

The study, released Monday by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, found that those who participated on Birthright trips are more likely to have stronger connections to Israel, raise their children as Jews and belong to a synagogue than their peers who have not made a Birthright trip.

Titled "Generation Birthright Israel: The Impact of an Israel Experience on Jewish Identity and Choices," the study is based on interviews with some 1,200 young people who applied for Birthright trips between 2001 and 2004 — two-thirds of whom went on the trips, the rest whose applications were denied. The survey compared the answers of the two groups.

Of the 500 or so interviewed who are now married, 72 percent who made the trip married Jews, while 46 percent of those who did not married Jews. This means that Birthright participants were 57 percent more likely to marry within the faith, according to Len Saxe, the head of the Cohen Center and the researcher who oversaw the survey.

A few more thoughts (that you could have read last week, if you were subscribed to The Fundermentalist’s weekly newsletter) … Birthright’s most vocal philanthropic boosters — Charles Bronfman, Lynn Schusterman and Michael Steinhardt — all were at the news conference last week to make fund-raising pitches (as was Michael Bohnen, who runs Sheldon Adelson’s foundation). And some of them also have been hammering home the message in well-timed opinion pieces citing the new study.

Does such a coordinated campaign, with the same funders backing the project and the research, risk undermining the credibility of the final study?

Even Saxe acknowledged to The Fundermentalist that he wishes the funders had waited a couple of weeks before using the study in their pitches.

The goal here isn’t to pick on Birthright, because every Jewish survey is used ultimately by some organization to push policy and raise money. And as some researchers have whispered to me even before the new Birthright campaign, in general the lines between the funding and the research seem to have become increasingly blurred.

It’s an issue that we will be looking into in the coming weeks.

As for Saxe and Birthright officials, they have gone out of their way to address any questions about the credibility of their study. At JTA’s offices Tuesday, Saxe said that as a tenured professor at Brandeis, he felt absolutely no pressure to find certain results to placate his funders. The report lists half a dozen noted independent sociologists and researchers who also reviewed the methodology and findings of the study.

"My concern is how people will use the report," Saxe said, though he did acknowledge that "I wish that people hadn’t started talking about funding for two weeks. I wish they had talked about education."

Besides, he said, pressure from philanthropists is no big deal. As a Congressional Science Fellow, Saxe conducted research in 1983 that he says helped prove the invalidity of lie detector tests.

"When the CIA doesn’t like the results of your research," he said, "that is pressure."

The Birthright Foundation pulled off another nifty move in vouching for the validity of the survey: It had Steven M. Cohen — a Jewish sociologist and researcher at New York University who has clashed with Saxe frequently and loudly — to weigh in on the report. Despite their previous debates, Cohen was at the Oct. 26 news conference to vouch for Saxe’s research.

Given the chance to respond to the report officially just after the Brandeis man presented his findings, Cohen said that he had interrogated Saxe’s findings and, "from what little one can tell, they check out and make sense."

While Cohen and Saxe have butted heads often over how to respond to intermarriage, the report confirms that there is a "race between intermarriage and Birthright," Cohen said in front of about 100 reporters and philanthropy officials gathered at the Brandeis House in Manhattan. "I said I agree."

After the event, Cohen told me that he also supported the way the research was being used in a direct effort to promote a specific policy (higher funding for Birthright).

"Should social science be used for policy purposes? Yes. I’m an engaged intellectual," Cohen told JTA.

While Cohen said that researchers must do their work in a vacuum and be honest about their results, they can use the results to push an agenda.

"I have no objections," he said. "Intermarriage is a problem. Israel needs support. Why shouldn’t I lend my voice to it?"

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