How Pew and Other Studies Shape the Jewish Conversation


On Tuesday, the Pew Research Center will drop the results of its latest major survey of Jewish Americans, its biggest since 2013. If history is any guide, the results will launch a thousand internal Jewish debates about who is a Jew, who gets to decide, and what’s the future for a diverse, splintered, assimilated and persistent community of communities.

These may seem like arguments for insiders, but even if you have a casual connection to the Jewish community – through a synagogue, community center, or just, I don’t know, a habit of reading Jewish media — population surveys have an impact on your life. The “Jewish Philanthropic Complex” (to borrow Lila Corwin Berman’s phrase) sets funding and planning priorities for the organized Jewish community based in part on these surveys. The cost, quality and availability of Jewish education, social services, the arts and culture, anti-anti-Semitism, support for Israel — to name a few – are the result of decisions based on data.

To understand the history of these kinds of surveys and their impact on the Jewish community, I spoke to Andrés Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network. We talked about the 1990-91 National Jewish Population Survey by what was then known as the Council of Jewish Federations; the 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York; and the 2013 Pew study.

ASC: You work with foundations and philanthropists who are making major decisions about how to spend their money on Jewish causes. How does a major study like the 1990-91 NJPS, which found that 52 of American Jews had married non-Jews, move the dial?

ANDRÉS SPOKOINY: I was very young in 1991

Thank you. I wasn’t.

These reports do have an impact. The 1991 report was a watershed in terms of intermarriage and assimilation. Even living in Argentina I remember people talking about “Ohmigod, 52 percent!” It was a “gevalt” situation heard around the world, and it did indeed give rise to the continuity agenda.

I wrote about that last week: “Continuity” became the buzzword for slowing the rate of intermarriage and assimilation, and saw millions of dollars go toward Jewish day schools, education programs and even Birthright Israel.

But there is no trend without a countertrend. It also gave rise to a very slow movement towards realizing intermarriage was a reality and was not going to change. And some communities started to have a deliberate policy of welcoming and attracting intermarried families.

There was also a negative assumption that the solution was to lower entry barriers to Jewish life. And that resulted inadvertently in a dumbing down of Jewish communal life. We invested frameworks that were free — that people wouldn’t go without it being free. And it didn’t work.

What’s an example of a program that failed that way?

I’ll give you a positive example. Take a program like Moishe House [subsidized group housing for young Jews]. At the beginning it was content free—the kids were asked to do programming of their own choosing. Little by little they started adding a lot of content. It’s not mandatory, not coercive. But those who want to go deeper can do so. The funders are realizing that opening gateways is not enough.

On the negative side, the community investment in (older) adult Jewish education crashed. Everybody invested in young adults and disinvested in adult Jewish learning places. For a time there were dvrai Torah [brief Torah lessons] before Jewish board meetings but that was mostly performative.

When the 2013 Pew study came out, there was consternation about some of its findings, but it wasn’t exactly “gevalt!”

A couple of things changed. First, after the 1991 study, funders wanted to change reality. After the Pew report, the attitude was more, “This is the reality. Let’s try to work with it.” Funders realized that the face of the Jewish family has changed radically, that the community included racially diverse groups and the intermarried. Did everybody? Of course not.

What was the most significant finding of the 2013 Pew study from the funders’ perspective?

The realization that there were so many Jews of “no religion.” That was the shock. More than [one in five] Jews said they had no religion. That led to a renewed investment in, for example, Jewish arts and culture, like CANVAS, a partnership of foundations working with Jewish Funders Network. It’s not all we need, but it was a vector of communal participation and Jewish identity that we didn’t fully exploit.

I am also finding more open ears to instilling deeper and thicker Jewish content, and that dumbing down was not working.

Birthright had content – Israel — but it was a little like that. But even Birthright now is adding more content, with Birthright Excel (a 10-week follow up to the free week-long trip to Israel).

But the community is still nowhere near where it needs to be. There is no reason we can’t guarantee that anyone who wants to go to a Jewish day school can go. We have the money.

People blame the surveys and demographers for providing raw numbers that unfairly set the agenda. But my theory is that the surveys are influential only when they confirm what Jews are seeing and experiencing in their own lives. 

They do. That’s what happened with Pew in a way. It wasn’t new. True, there is confirmation bias, but when Pew came out almost 10 years ago, it crystallized and cemented what people were seeing.

For example?

Engagement with social justice as a key element of Jewish identity, which led to investment in groups like Repair the World. LGBTQ issues — people started seeing it in their own families. And intermarriage wasn’t an abstract thing, and maybe you can view it as a factor of growth, not decline.

Did people reach wrong conclusions after the 2013 Pew?

The conclusion that Orthodoxy is a guarantor of Jewish continuity. That’s not what the data says. It showed that 50 percent of people who grew up Orthodox are not Orthodox today.

People also conclude, and it is classic Jewish community thinking, that Judaism is different from other religions.

People also conclude, and it is classic Jewish community thinking, that Judaism is different from other religions. But Pew has a built-in capacity to compare us with other groups and to put the findings into a broader context of what’s happenings to Americans and religions. And other religions, like us, are very fluid.

You mentioned to me that the 2011 Jewish Community Study of New York had an important impact on you. How so?

Three things, two professional and one personal. It demonstrated the multiracial nature of the contemporary Jewish community, and how a significant proportion of Jew are multiracial or live in multiracial households. Second, the data on the extent of Jewish poverty. We now have a National Affinity Group on Jewish Poverty that directly stems from that.

And personally, it made me very committed to my own neighborhood in Brooklyn. It noted that 50,000 Jews had newly moved to Brownstone Brooklyn — Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Gowanus, Prospect Heights. It informed my own personal activities about getting our synagogue involved in finding these new residents.

What’s your advice to people when they read the results of the forthcoming Pew study?

Before saying what the study did or didn’t do right, the informed question also is, What can we learn? The way we use data in informed decisions, it was in and of itself a learning from all these population studies.