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Ujc to Release Long-awaited Survey of American Jewish Life

September 3, 2003
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After nearly a year of controversy and delay, the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey — billed as the most comprehensive study ever of U.S. Jewry — is due to be made public next week.

The release comes nearly 10 months after the study’s sponsors halted its initial publication amid questions over methodology and findings.

Those questions sparked first an internal audit by the sponsor, the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella, and then an independent review, which also is scheduled to be released next week.

Slated to be among the study’s key findings are the size of the U.S. Jewish population and its geographic spread, age and income, and birth and marriage rates.

The study also will reveal such identity-related issues as levels of Jewish education, philanthropy, movement and synagogue affiliation, and religious observance.

These findings could shape spending and programming policy for many Jewish federations and Jewish communal organizations in areas from Jewish camps to outreach to the intermarried.

The NJPS “will provide a picture of where we’re at,” said Paul Golin, spokesman for the Jewish Outreach Institute, which works on getting unaffiliated Jews more active.

Such large studies enable Jewish organizations to “step back and see whether what you’re doing is having an impact.”

Whether the extensive data the NJPS promises will help restore the study’s tarnished credibility or whether controversy will continue to overshadow the results remains to be seen.

Steven Cohen, a Hebrew University sociologist and research consultant to the NJPS for the UJC, says the rich trove of data in the NJPS ultimately will prove its worth.

“Overall, I am convinced the results of this methodologically difficult process are quite credible, believable and usable,” Cohen said.

Though the “NJPS’s credibility is now at its low point,” he said, “I expect it to recover.”

Stephen Hoffman, UJC’s president and chief executive officer, told JTA he was confident the study has “full value.”

“There have been some times, in the middle of the night, when I have thought about whether I took the correct course delaying release of the data last fall,” he said.”But after seeing the quality of the data and the high degree of confidence surrounding it, I know that the decision was correct.”

Egon Mayer, a City University of New York sociologist and member of the National Technical Advisory Committee, which consulted on the NJPS, agreed that researchers likely will mine a rich vein of data buried in the NJPS, but the typical Jew on the street may pay little attention to the results.

“Because there’s been so much controversy over the methodology itself, no finding is going to have the authority of a major headline,” Mayer said. “The major headline is that it’s coming out,”

The 1990 NJPS made headlines chiefly because it found that more than half of Jews who had married in the previous five years had wed non-Jews.

That finding fueled public policy debates that continue to this day over whether communal dollars should be spent on reinforcing Jewish identity among those already active or on reaching out to Jews on the fringes of the community.

Despite debate even over the validity of the 52 percent intermarriage conclusion, Mayer says, “there wasn’t a global questioning of the whole study, which may or may not be warranted” in this case.

Yet in the world of Jewish demographics, many predict that the study’s findings will emerge from the shadow of controversy.

Among them is another NJPS advisory committee member, Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami geography professor who has led dozens of studies of local Jewish communities.

“As people get into the data and see the wealth of data that’s there and see the data is reasonable, the criticism is going to melt away,” Sheskin said.

“Hopefully, a good picture of the Jewish community in the 21st century will emerge.”

According to Cohen, the study can be analyzed on three levels, the “least robust” of which is the population estimate, because it was based in part on what he called assumptions of who is a Jew and in part on who responded.

According to the study’s initial findings, which were released in October 2002, there were 5.2 million U.S. Jews, down about 5 percent from the 5.5 million found in 1990.

Others have challenged that number.

Gary Tobin, a vocal critic of the NJPS and president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, conducted a survey in September 2002 that found 6.7 million Jews, far higher than the NJPS or the 6.1 million that came from local studies for the 2001 American Jewish Year Book.

The NJPS population estimate arose from 4,500 interviews of Jewish households between August 2000 and 2001 out of 177,000 Americans randomly selected.

The survey’s response rate of about 28 percent has been criticized by some, including Calvin Goldscheider, a Brown University sociologist, who calls the rate “an amber light, not a red light,” for the study.

Some population studies with smaller samples can correct their findings with more massive external studies such as the U.S. Census, but the NJPS cannot do the same, he said.

“There is no external information” about U.S. Jewry, he said. “That’s why this study was done.”

But others defended the NJPS sample size as being in line with industry standards.

Mayer and Sheskin, for instance, said that response rates generally are down for studies that use similar methods, such as the Gallup Poll or other opinion surveys.

“The response rate in surveys in general has been declining for about a decade, and I don’t see any sector of the public opinion industry rolling over and playing dead,” Mayer said.

Cohen said the strongest part of the NJPS study concerns “the relationships between variables,” such as the question of whether greater Jewish education produces greater observance.

The parts of the study that deal with certain population sectors, such as denomination trends, are “a little shakier,” he said, but still “close enough” so that policy conclusions can be drawn from them.

Last April, the UJC issued the results of an internal review of such problems as missing data that cited “limitations and qualifications” with the NJPS.

That report prompted the UJC to launch an independent analysis of the methodology of the NJPS, led by Mark Schulman, of the leading polling firm Schulman, Ronca & Bucavalas, Inc.

That analysis is expected to be released some time next week as well. Schulman did not return calls seeking comment.

Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, where the National Jewish Data Bank that will store the NJPS has just moved, said the key issue is that all the NJPS data will be made public.

“If people want to reweight the data, if they want to challenge the conclusions, they will be able to do that.”

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