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New Institute Aims to Move Jewish Demographics Way Ahead

April 14, 2005
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How many Jewish children are enrolled in Jewish preschools? How many Jewish preschools are there in America? How many Jewish families include newborns? Surprisingly, according to Rabbi David Gedzelman, executive director of the Jewish Life Network in New York, there are no accurate numbers that measure these demographic trends.

For philanthropists, federations and Jewish communal organizations, quantifying these trends is not just an academic exercise. The ability to reverse the decline in the American Jewish population, many community leaders believe, may hinge in large part on the success of Jewish education programs targeted at young children.

But which programs work? Which reach their audience? And why?

To remedy what he sees as a lack of good data, philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and his Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation have joined forces with Brandeis University to create the Steinhardt Social Research Institute.

Under the direction of Leonard Saxe, head of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis and backed by Steinhardt’s initial $12 million gift, organizers hope that the institute, which will open officially in September, will become the premier site for collection and analysis of statistical date about American Jews, cornering the market on the country’s Jewish demographics.

“The amount of data that doesn’t exist is astounding,” Steinhardt told JTA in an interview. “The Jewish community is in the 19th century in terms of data, and the quality of the data that does exist is poor.”

When the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey was released more than a year late in September 2003, it was dogged by controversy over both methodology and lost data. The actual data sample was based on telephone interviews with 4,523 people, representing a 28 percent response rate. According to the study’s findings, during the previous decade Jewish population had declined from 5.5 million to 5.2 million; intermarriage was on the rise, with 47 percent of Jews choosing a non-Jewish partner since 1996; and about 4.3 million Jews were active “Jewishly.”

But some researchers questioned both the numbers’ reliability and the assumptions made about those numbers. Further, the methodology used for the 2000-2001 study was different than the methodology used for the 1990 study, creating problems in data comparisons.

In response to questions on the issue, Glenn Rosenkrantz, UJC’s director of media affairs, gave the following statement: “United Jewish Communities commends Michael Steinhardt for his generous support of so many causes and initiatives designed to benefit the Jewish community. If this new effort helps all of us in the communal world better understand the challenges we face in building Jewish community and continuity, then we will all benefit.”

Saxe, the institute’s director, who began his career as a scientist with the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, told JTA that all the data will be accessible and all the methodologies transparent.

At first the focus will be on gathering basic data about the size and characteristics of the American Jewish community, but Saxe emphasized that the new Steinhardt Institute at Brandeis will be more than just a repository for information.

“We will be out there, asking questions, and developing new methodologies,” he said. “We’re going to have the opportunity to synthesize, analyze and collect our own data, to try to understand better the American Jewish community.”

Saxe also firmly believes that the methodologies must change. In the past, he said, many studies often collected dozens and dozens of lists of people who had some contact with Jewish philanthropic and cultural organizations. “What happens,” he asked again, “if you add lists from organizations, say, that promote Jewish dating?”

The result, he said, is that you might reach many more Jews. The people answering the survey vehicle from, say, JDate, may not be people who donate to the local federation.

Saxe is working with Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies in its 10-year study mapping the local Jewish community. He has incorporated many of his improvements in methodology in that study. He also has developed what he calls a new “response vehicle” that he hopes will become the model for other community studies around the country.

No firm date has been set for the release, but it is expected to be completed in the fall.

Saxe acknowledged that the world of social research in the Jewish community is a “dance between scholars, researchers, policy-makers and the people making decisions.”

It’s also about creating context, not just numbers, he said. “The pattern of education associated with different levels of engagement is one of the most important questions about the American Jewish community we don’t know. We’re going to help find the answers.”

The connection between Brandeis and the Jewish Life Network — and between Steinhardt and Saxe — grew in part out of a research project Saxe conducted for birthright israel, the program that sends young Jews on a free 10-day trip to Israel, according to Gedzelman of the Jewish Life Network.

Waxing philosophical, Gedzelman spoke of figuring out the “calculus” between the revival and decline of the American Jewish community. “There’s a race between the various interventions that have brought about the renewal in the Jewish community, and the macro decline in the numbers of overall Jews,” he said.

The new institute, he continued, can help the Jewish community make wiser investments with its resources so “the renaissance overtakes the decline.”

On a practical level, the value of demographic and market research is underscored by the work of Yosef Abramowitz and his Jewish Family & Life’s launch of a new magazine, JVibe, targeted at Jewish teens. The new publication has a circulation of 15,000 and another 30,000 teens use the Web site.

Before JVibe was launched, market research determined how many Jewish 12- to 16-year-olds there are, and mapped their geographic distribution. Abramowitz then conducted focus groups with teens who had had a bar or bat mitzvah and then “disappeared” from engagement with the Jewish community.

Only then, Abramowitz said, “did we build our marketing and rollout plans, knowing how much money we needed to raise and how to use it in the most effective ways.”

Abramowitz welcomed the new research institute as a valuable tool in helping to revitalize Jewish life. “If the Jewish community and Jewish philanthropists are serious about revitalizing Jewish life, that means our best endeavors have to be built to scale up to reach the critical mass in each demographic segment,” he said.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” the CEO of Jewish Family & Life continued. “We need detailed information, not just absolute numbers, on geography, social habits, spending habits and identity.”

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