Is Big Data Good for the Jews? Could It Be?


Lost amidst the frenzy of media coverage over the past few months about government monitoring of personal data were revelations about the transformative effect of Big Data on the election of Barrack Obama in 2012.  A secret effort was established by the campaign involving dozens of young experts in analytics and behavioral science working up to 16 hours a day in a windowless room called “the cave” at the Obama headquarters in Chicago.

What exactly is Big Data? One definition casts it as a vast amount of data for which the challenge is our ability to analyze and utilize it. It relates to information about us and about the world around us. 

The Obama campaign gathered enough data to profile the 15 million Americans who were likely to swing the election one way or another – to understand their interests, to reach out to them and to engage them.  According to some, this effort single-handedly determined the direction of America for the next four years. 

Could we do the same thing for Jewish life?

We used to live in a world where anyone who wanted to reach people with a message had little choice but to launch their knowledge out to the world in as many ways as they could afford, in the hope that among those who would see or hear it would be those precious few for whom it was relevant. The Jewish world was no exception.

It is both costly and inefficient. 

But the way people communicate and receive information is changing.

In the time of the Bible, data about the Jews in the desert was gathered and analyzed by counting a half-shekel coin that each adult Jew (or at least each male one) contributed. In today’s world, the anonymous half shekel has been replaced with a wealth of information that is out there about our wants, needs and likes – including what it is that makes up our individual identity as participants, or potential participants, in Jewish life.  

Imagine a Jewish world where 20 brilliant Jewish quants in a basement are dedicated to nothing else but analyzing data on Jews and on using that data to connect the who and the what – quickly and efficiently. 

We used to have extensive debates about whether the priority was to put Jewish resources into in-reach (to those already connected) or outreach (to those not connected).  The affiliated versus the unaffiliated.  But perhaps those questions and categorizations are no longer relevant. Maybe the reality is that Jews are a very heterogeneous group with a tremendous diversity of interests and the challenge of our Jewish world these days is to find a way to connect those specific individuals and those specific interests one person at a time.  To move from wholesale to retail. 

We all have a multiplicity of personal interests for which expression could be found in many ways – some of which are inside and some of which are outside the Jewish world.  

And our Jewish world has created a diversity of educational, religious, cultural and social venues. They range from our traditional establishment bodies (synagogues, camps, schools) to new initiatives that have sprung up in the past decade (the environment, human rights, volunteerism). Time will tell whether many of these new initiatives are the way of the future and will flourish or whether they will wither away for lack of support. 

Ultimately, the future of our Jewish community lies in our ability not only to create venues for those many varied interests but also to ensuring that those venues that we create can reach the very people who have those interests. 

 And now Big Data gives us that opportunity.  Out there is the information that can enable that connection to be made.  

The new Jewish mother who loves guitar music might find a personalized ad popping up on a website inviting her to a tot Shabbat built around guitars.

The Jewish family that loves horse riding gets a message about a Jewish summer camp that specializes in horse riding.

The teenager who posts on blogs about the environment gets invited to a meeting of a local Jewish environmental group.

These Jews might indeed be delighted to explore that interest in a Jewish place rather than a non-Jewish one…. if only they knew about it. 

The data may exist in another Jewish organization; it may be in a commercial database or in social media sites. There are opportunities to gather that data using technology didn’t exist even a few years ago.

It needs a common vision and a pooling of large amounts of data. It demands intensive energy and substantial financial resources.  It needs a willingness of some to forgo what efforts they might individually make because, in such an approach, the whole is many many times greater than the sum of its parts.

But with a rapidly shrinking Jewish community, the stakes are high.  

We now live in a world, where, as a major survey just released by the Pew Research Center showed, 90 percent of people with a Jewish background do not live in a household where even one person is a member of a synagogue. Asked, whether anyone in the household was a member of any other Jewish organization, a resounding 91 per cent of individuals with a Jewish background replied ‘no’.

If the Jewish world is to compete with the many opportunities to join causes and participate in activities, it has to be smarter that the competition. 

We, as a community, can seize what technology has never before enabled us to do and use it to build and connect with the increasingly diverse Jews of America. 

Or we can simply let the opportunity pass by as our Jewish world, composed of disparate Jewish organizations, continues its multiple strategies at an increasingly greater cost and declining effectiveness.

Can we afford to invest? Can we afford not to?

Gideon Taylor is a former Jewish community professional. He now works in the private sector.