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Population Survey Delayed Again As Ujc Appoints New Review Panel

April 9, 2003
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The release of the latest national Jewish population study, already beset by technical woes and delays, will be postponed once again pending an independent review, according to its sponsors.

The United Jewish Communities, which is bankrolling the $6 million study of American Jewry that has been billed as the most comprehensive ever, said it has appointed an independent panel to review the study.

The National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001, which was originally scheduled for release last November, is now not expected to be made public for at least another four to six weeks — and possibly longer, according to those involved.

“We wanted to make sure the data [were] in good shape and that we do whatever we could” to ensure its validity, said Bernard Shapiro, who led an earlier internal UJC inquiry into problems plaguing the study.

Heading the new review will be Mark Schulman, president of the polling and research firm Schulman, Ronca &

Bucuvalas Inc.

Shapiro and UJC officials said such independent reviews were “not uncommon” in major demographic studies such as the U.S. Census.

The decision to appoint another review was criticized by some of the original experts involved with the study, one of whom called it a “strange” move.

Anticipation has built around the NJPS ever since the previous study in 1990 found that 52 percent of Jews married in the previous five years had married non-Jews. Many observers were waiting to see how the intermarriage numbers changed.

In the years since, many Jewish institutions have launched efforts to reach out to the intermarried, while others focused on strengthening the identity of affiliated Jews.

The new survey included many questions related to identity and affiliation.

Last October, the central federation body released some population statistics from the latest NJPS, then pulled the full study from its annual General Assembly in November amid reports of technical problems that may have affected the population figures.

According to the initial findings, there were 5.2 million Jews in the United States, down 5 percent from the 1990 NJPS, due largely to a rising median age and falling birth rates.

Between the release of those findings and the scheduled release of the full report, the UJC revealed that the firm Roper Audits & Surveys Worldwide, which conducted the study’s field research, lost codes used to screen many of the 175,000 people telephoned for the survey to determine if they qualified to be the 4,500 Jews ultimately surveyed.

That and other glitches meant the overall population was likely undercounted by 1 percent, while several subgroups such as non-Jews living with Jews were overestimated, those involved with the study said.

After these problems surfaced, the UJC named Shapiro, vice chancellor of McGill University in Montreal, to lead an internal inquiry into what went wrong.

In January, Shapiro and a six-member investigative panel issued its findings, castigating Roper ASW for the technical problems and citing “a range of serious issues of conception, of data collection and of analysis” in the project.

At the time, Shapiro said none of the problems appeared serious enough to block the study and that it would likely be made public around Passover. But this week, Shapiro said he and UJC decided to appoint a new committee of demographic experts to conduct an independent review of “the technical aspects of the project, the execution of the project, what was actually done and how.”

The review, which Shapiro said was to “give the NJPS one more look,”

will include examining the study’s statistical sample, the weights used to calibrate the results and a comparison of the data with similar studies.

Shapiro said he was never brought on to the project to conduct such technical work.

Shapiro said the technical advisers originally involved with the study were “not appropriate” choices to conduct a final, independent review because they were already involved with NJPS.

Ironically, Schulman, who will lead the new review, heads the firm that was among the losing bidders to conduct the latest NJPS.

Other members of the panel include Stanley Presser of the University of Maryland, Eugene Ericksen of Temple University and Tom Smith of the National Opinion Research Center.

For his part, Schulman said his objective is “not to point fingers” but to determine if “the estimates are as good as they can be. Our committee is just a fresh pair of eyes.”

The review will also explore the “strengths and limitations” of the NJPS data and make recommendations about the methods used to gather the data for future studies, said Schulman, who is president of the American Association of Public Opinion Research.

Schulman said he was not sure how long the review would last, but said, “It’s not weeks, it’s months, but no more than that. I do think we can bring this process to a closure.”

But some members of the National Technical Advisory Committee, a volunteer panel of experts the UJC had appointed to consult on the decennial Jewish study and other federation research, questioned why the organization was bringing in yet another committee.

One such member, Egon Mayer, who was one of several who opposed delaying the study in the first place, said his panel had already analyzed the NJPS data, making yet another review superfluous and “strange.”

By redoing the technical advisory committee’s work, the review panel “will undermine the credibility of the people who did this work and of the data itself,” said Mayer, who is also director of the North American Jewish Data Bank at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Vivien Klaff, who co-chairs the NJPS advisory panel and who participated in the internal inquiry, also criticized the decision to delay the project again.

While the decision to bring in an outside review panel was not inappropriate, Klaff said, NJPS has already “gone through a number of validity checks” and “very little has been found which was out of the ordinary.”

The longer wait “just adds another level of aggravation and tension,” he said.

But Lorraine Blass, a senior planner for UJC who has worked on the population study, said the independent review was necessary in order to clear up any questions lingering about NJPS.

“We are fully committed to having a fully transparent report that will address all of these issues that have come up in the last couple of months, including missing data,” Blass said.

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