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After Fierce Debate, Scholars to Meet to Discuss Njps’ Value

October 17, 2003
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Spurred by fierce debate in the press, Jewish social scientists are organizing a conference on the controversial National Jewish Population Survey so they can study it for themselves.

In late October, dozens of scholars are set to gather in Boston with officials of the NJPS 2000-01, Jewish federations and community policy makers to scrutinize the $6 million study, which is the costliest and most extensive survey ever taken of American Jewry.

“The discussions that have been in the newspapers have been less than satisfying,” said Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, which is co-sponsoring the meeting.

“The hope is to get everybody together to see if we can come to some kind of agreement” about what the NJPS means, he said.

The answer to that question has been the focus of intense debate since NJPS’ release last month.

The debate was highlighted by an Op-Ed column in The New York Times by J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Forward, who accused the study’s sponsors of spinning a statistical “myth” of population decline.

In his own paper, Goldberg called the NJPS a “fraud” for allegedly skewing both the population and intermarriage rates so that the United Jewish Communities, which sponsored the study, could raise more money in fund-raising campaigns.

His broadsides spawned dueling commentaries in American Jewish newspapers and in Israeli media outlets such as Ha’aretz and the Jerusalem Post.

Stephen Hoffman, CEO and president of the UJC federation umbrella organization, denied that his group had manufactured fears of a population decline.

Goldberg’s criticism “stuck in my throat,” Hoffman told JTA. The Times Op-Ed was akin to “slander” against the UJC, he said.

How Jews count themselves, and what conclusions they draw from those numbers, has been a matter of debate since biblical times. The last NJPS, in 1990, made headlines with its finding that 52 percent of Jews who had married in the previous five years had married out of the faith.

That survey sparked more than 200 studies and at least 11 books, and steered a decade’s worth of communal spending on efforts to promote “continuity” among committed Jews and “outreach” to uninvolved Jews.

Billed as a “colloquium,” the conference on the current NJPS is set for Oct. 26-27 at Hebrew College in Boston and Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass.

But some who plan to attend said it still is too early for serious discussion about NJPS because few have pored over the details.

“People have started pontificating, when we don’t have the data to make judgements yet,” said Rela Mintz Geffen, president of Baltimore Hebrew University.

The NJPS is no stranger to controversy. After suddenly pulling the survey last fall because of lost data, the UJC launched an internal probe and an independent audit, both of which found methodological flaws and potential statistical problems. However, both reviews largely upheld the study’s value.

Since NJPS came out last month, discussions among Jewish social scientists and demographers have focused on the charges and countercharges surrounding the survey.

Much of the debate has been conducted via scholarly online listservs, and Geffen said some academics suggested a professional gathering was in order.

Another co-sponsor of the conference is the Wilstein Institute at Hebrew College. Rabbi David Gordis, director of the institute and president of Hebrew College, said the gathering intends to avoid media hype.

The goal is to study NJPS “in a quiet, reflective, analytical way” rather than “in a sensationalized way,” Gordis said, “because there has been so much attention to controversy — everything from the amount of money spent on it to the methodological issues.”

One of those who plans to attend is Steven Cohen, a professor of sociology at Hebrew University and chief consultant to the NJPS. Cohen sparked intense debate of the 1990 NJPS over intermarriage statistics he considered inflated.

“I think it’s good for there to be discussions,” said Cohen, who disagreed with Goldberg’s accusation that NJPS organizers purposely inflated intermarriage numbers and depressed population counts.

Lorraine Blass, NJPS’ project director, said UJC officials would attend this month’s conference in the hope of avoiding yet more fireworks.

“My starting point is that this is an extraordinarily complex project, a lot has been said about it over time from many quarters — not just in the press — and we feel discussion is healthy and will ultimately promote a better understanding of its findings and its broad use,” Blass said.

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