Is it any wonder that the initials for Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute are SSRI?

Like the popular and groundbreaking “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor” class of antidepressants (think Prozac and Zoloft), the six-year-old institute, part of the university’s Cohen Center for Jewish Studies, has brought a certain amount of optimism to American Jewish sociology, a field long known for its gloom-and-doom tales of assimilation and decline.

A recent SSRI report challenged the notion that the American Jewish population is shrinking.. Last week, the institute, which has long studied the impact of the Birthright Israel program, released its second installment of a longitudinal study comparing alumni of the free 10-day Israel trip to peers who applied for the program but were unable to participate.

The survey of 1,677 individuals found that Birthright alumni are 51 percent more likely than their peers to marry Jews — and to marry Birthright alumni (over 25 percent of married participants and 8 percent of married non-participants were married to Birthright alumni). It also found that alumni are not only 46 percent more likely to “feel very much connected” to Israel, but are 28 percent more likely to feel confident explaining Israel’s current situation, even as their opinions span the political spectrum.

The Jewish Week spoke by phone this week with professor Leonard Saxe, the social psychologist/methodologist who directs SSRI and the Cohen Center, along with chairing Brandeis’ Hornstein Program in Jewish Professional Leadership.

Q: How does this study differ from the one two years ago?

A: We have a much larger sample now, because we’ve added people who applied for Birthright in 2005 [the earlier study only included people who had applied in 2001]. And most importantly, we now have many more people who are married, and the effect [the difference in behavior between alumni and their peers] is getting stronger, not weaker. … Also, for the first time we have evidence that Birthright has effects that go beyond the 200,000 North Americans who participated: Participants are coming back and affecting other people.

Your research indicates that they’re actually getting people to convert to Judaism.

Yes, they’re encouraging [non-Jewish partners] to convert. Many are asking the question of mates or are only dating people who are willing to consider converting … We also have a significant group of people we interviewed who are intermarried, but their wedding was presided over by a rabbi…. The interesting question is what will these families look like. There are all kinds of conjectures, and one of the advantages of the kind of longitudinal study we’re doing is we get to see how this stuff unfolds.

Hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt is a major funder of SSRI and also a major contributor to (and co-founder of) Birthright. Is there a conflict of interest?

Michael Steinhardt gave a gift to Brandeis to establish the institute, but once he gave the gift that was the end of his control. It’s set up as an endowment, and I work off the interest. I wouldn’t have accepted a gift as large as we got if it came with any strings — and it didn’t. This work has been submitted to peer review, the study design was reviewed by an international panel and we have published the results in journals … While Birthright has paid for some of the Birthright-specific analyses, this study [a larger version that looks at issues not related to Birthright will be released this spring] is funded by a consortium of foundations, and the lead funder is the Kraft Foundation.

So you’re not simply a shill for Birthright?

I spent most of my career studying other problems, national problems of mental health, and I was known for being a critic and negative about everything. At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, they used to call me Dr. No! For me to study a program like Birthright and actually come up with positive results, this is against my culture. I’ve spent so much of my career demonstrating how we were wrong about what we thought. But we’ve applied the same methods to the Birthright research; we’re modeling our work on the best research in other fields, and if we do this right it should help us control our biases.

One interesting finding in the study is that, among those who have children, Birthright alumni and their peers don’t seem to differ much in whether they are having Jewish naming ceremonies or choosing Jewish nursery schools.

It’s really too early to tell. We don’t have enough data, because not enough of the people we are interviewing have had children yet … Part of the context is that whereas the average age of marriage now is 28-29, for our sample it is even higher. That’s not surprising: this is a very highly educated subgroup of the American population and they are not marrying until their early 30s and are having children even later. ie