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Experts Find Holes in Survey, but Say NJPS Remains Useful

October 30, 2003
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It got prodded, lauded and derided, but the controversial National Jewish Population Survey has emerged more or less intact from a 48-hour bout with top experts.

The NJPS 2000-01, the costliest and most complex portrait ever of American Jewry, went 15 rounds with 40 heavyweight Jewish social scientists, demographers, scholars and communal leaders in a hastily arranged colloquium early this week in Boston.

Co-sponsored by Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and Hebrew College’s Wilstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies, the gathering pitted the NJPS and its supporters against some fierce critics in what organizers called an attempt to kick-start a substantive debate about the $6 million survey.

“I’m not so sure we can understand one another,” the Cohen Center’s director, Leonard Saxe, said after intensive discussions on the study.

Still, he added, “That’s not all bad. The goal was to air the issues about NJPS and look to see how we can use the study, including its methodological limitations.”

Ultimately, “the real question is, what’s in there that’s usable?” said Steven Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee.

At the same time, there was discussion about what information scientists and demographers most need about the community, with an eye toward crafting the next survey.

Some have debated the import of the recent NJPS, given the well-documented problems that have dogged the report’s findings.

A year ago, the study’s sponsors, the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella organization, postponed its release after announcing that the survey firm discarded some data used to screen out Jews and non-Jews, possibly affecting the overall population findings.

In the year since, the UJC commissioned an internal audit, which led to an independent probe of the study.

Mark Schulman, founding partner of Schulman, Ronca & Bucuvalas, a prominent polling firm that led the internal probe, concluded that NJPS likely undercounted American Jews and overestimated their Jewish ties. But it still was reliable overall, he said.

Most agreed with the assessment by the study’s senior consultant, Hebrew University sociologist Steven Cohen, who said its population figures remain less reliable while deeper data about Jewish identity patterns, such as religious observance and affiliation — and how those forces affect issues such as Jewish education, philanthropy and marriage — seem solid.

“I want to separate suspicions about the population numbers with faith in the relationship” data, Cohen said.

NJPS found there are 5.2 million U.S. Jews, down from 5.5 million in 1990, and that 47 percent of Jews who married in the past five years had wed non-Jews, up from a readjusted intermarriage figure of 43 percent a decade ago.

The first half of the Boston debate focused on the survey’s glitches.

Discussions ranged from a heated clash over how the study identified Jews to whether the survey actually had counted Jews or the households they live in.

Demographer Jack Ukeles — whose Ukeles Associates has conducted a dozen local community studies from New York to San Diego — called much of the debate over methods and statistics “inside-the-Beltway conversation” that is irrelevant to most American Jews.

Rela Mintz Geffen, president of Baltimore Hebrew University, added that the debate will be lost on most people.

“People will take all the numbers because they’re there,” she said.

Many at the forum seemed to agree that the Jewish population in the United States is somewhere between 4.8 million and 6.2 million. Some, however, called to reweight or recalculate the raw data, which could produce new population numbers and even reshape findings such as the proportion of Jews who affiliate with each of the major Jewish denominations.

Among those who want to see new calculations is Charles Kadushin, a scholar at Brandeis and director of the North American Jewish Data Bank, which houses all the data for the NJPS and earlier surveys at the Cohen Center.

In the end, however, the number will remain “an estimate,” as the NJPS long has billed itself, Kadushin said.

“How believable is it? Well, it’s better than going around and asking each rabbi how many people does he have in his congregation,” Kadushin said.

“But is it gold-plated?” he asked rhetorically. “Should I base social policy on it?”

Kadushin said the Cohen Center’s interest in co-hosting the conference was to help put the NJPS before experts and the public for further inquiry, hoping to save others the work of sifting through the complex data.

“It’s taken me six months to figure out what the devil is in the survey, and we’re still futzing around,” he said.

The debate eventually might produce an entirely new approach to counting and analyzing American Jews, with some calling for immediately delving into the next population study.

Jewish federations, foundations, lay leaders, policy researchers, social scientists and demographers should decide what information they need about the community and begin deciding immediately how to gather that data for the next Jewish survey, Ukeles said.

“The community needs a new strategy of policy research that will rise phoenix-like from the ashes of NJPS,” said Ukeles, who also called for the formation of a “commission of accountability” for NJPS “to hold responsible” those who made mistakes.

The NJPS project manager, Lorraine Blass, said the UJC already has examined NJPS in depth.

“It’s not that we don’t feel a sense of accountability; we do,” she said. “We have really tried to be as open as we can be.”

From this gathering of experts, “the frustration I’ve heard is, ‘We want more data, and when can we have it?’ ” she said.

Many at the meeting said as much. So far, few had logged onto the Jewish data bank’s Web site to download the full study; officials there counted only 137 downloads through the end of the conference, including some individuals who may have downloaded the files several times.

Meanwhile, others downplayed the clashes over the study.

“We are not really in an adversarial position, even though we might have differences,” said Rabbi David Gordis, president of Hebrew College.

In the end, Rabbi Zachary Heller, associate director of Hebrew College, likened the debate to the massive highway reconstruction in Boston known as the “Big Dig,” which began in 1991. That project is several years overdue and ran hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.

“The NJPS has in some ways been a Very Big Dig,” Heller said.

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