In an effort to keep demographic data on American Jewry relevant and identify trends in today’s fast-moving society, the head of Brandeis University’s new social research institute wants to radically alter the way that information is collected.
In the process Leonard Saxe, director of the $12 million Steinhardt Social Research Institute, is calling into question the need for a costly, once-a-decade national Jewish population survey that is seen by some experts as increasingly archaic given the speed at which information moves today.
In the first interview detailing his plans, Saxe said, “We want to create new methods to get the same kind of information as the NJPS,” referring to the National Jewish Population Survey conducted by United Jewish Communities.
“We don’t think the NJPS is particularly useful for some of the questions philanthropists and policy people have. We think there is room to collect much better information, which can be more easily compared over time to help us detect trends and other things,” he said.
The gift from financier-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt will establish the institute’s endowment, with its income funding primary research and the collection of research conducted by others. Saxe believes the institute will be hired to conduct studies for local Jewish communities and individual organizations.
A new approach to studying American Jews is needed, Saxe said, because technology has overtaken the community’s ability to measure itself.
Random-digit dial telephoning, used by the NJPS, “is increasingly problematic because people don’t like to answer the phone and talk to interviewers, particularly busy people,” he said. “Many people now have call blocking or no land line as the means to avoid doing this.”
The last NJPS, which cost $6 million, spent “most of the resources not in talking to members of the Jewish community but simply finding the Jews rather than studying them,” said Saxe, a longtime critic of the problem-plagued 2000-01 survey.
He said the pace of life today also makes the findings of a study every decade outdated before they are analyzed.
“If you wait 10 years, then you put all your resources into a single study [and] it’s very hard to detect trends,” Saxe said.
Instead, Saxe wants to mine data collected by the U.S. government. While the U.S. Census does not ask about religion, some other federally funded studies do, he said.
On an ongoing basis, “government collects information about everything from education to retirement plans to fertility, and they often ask religious identity questions in those studies,” said Saxe, who would like those questions asked even more directly.
At a 2003 meeting discussing the 2000-01 NJPS findings, he called for a question about religion to be added to the U.S. Census.
Government-funded studies of other issues could supply specialists in the Jewish community with basic demographic information, like where Jews are and in what numbers.
The emergence of the Brandeis center comes as plans for a 2010 NJPS are unclear. UJC, the umbrella group for Jewish federations which oversaw the 2000-01 NJPS, and whose predecessor body took charge of the 1990 survey, declined to comment about its plans.
UJC’s chief executive, Howard Rieger, has previously said, however, that he believes the NJPS should be done — but not necessarily by his organization. He has been focusing UJC on Jewish federation fundraising, and in the process laid off staff who dealt with the last NJPS.
But studies of Jewish behavior will still need to be done within the Jewish community itself, said Saxe, and that is also the kind of work he plans to oversee at the Steinhardt Institute. He expects to shift some of the work done under the aegis of Brandeis’ Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, like a Jewish community study commissioned by the Boston Jewish federation, into the Steinhardt Institute’s purview.
The institute’s other main thrust will be to collect studies performed by other organizations and communities and serve as a clearinghouse for them.
That, in part, is now the job of the North American Jewish Databank, which was housed briefly at Brandeis but almost a year ago moved to the University of Connecticut under the direction of Arnold Dashefsky.
The databank is the repository for all of the data from the 2000-01, 1990 and 1970 National Jewish Population Studies, and also contains the findings of 90 different local community studies, Dashefsky said.
The databank is funded largely by UJC, which is providing a $240,000 grant over three years.
“I don’t know if there will be an NJPS in 2010,” said Dashefsky, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and director of its Center for Judaic Studies.
“There haven’t been any formal discussions about the launching of a survey in 2010,” he said. “We’re still assimilating the data from 2000-01.”
Dashefsky said the databank’s immediate focus may instead be on persuading those in charge of local Jewish community studies to adopt standardization in their methodologies and the wording of their questions, which would then permit community comparisons.
One veteran of Jewish communal studies welcomed the establishment of the Steinhardt Institute.
“Any investment that furthers the social science study of Jews is worthwhile because there is not much financial support for research other than demographic studies at the local level, and the once in every 10 years NJPSes, which have proved not very successful,” said Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research.
“This would be the perfect place for the NJPS. If there’s going to be another national Jewish population study, it should not be done by UJC but by a reputable scholarly group, and if they’re establishing this institute, then this would be a logical place to do it,” he said.
Steinhardt’s large gift to Brandeis came after a few years of talks between Saxe and Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz, and Steinhardt and Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation.Steinhardt has been on the Brandeis board of trustees for the past few years and has frequent conversations with Reinharz.
Vacationing together, they were hiking in Aspen, Colo., when the subject of measuring Jews and Jewish communal programs came up.
“We talk about the Jewish world, I continue to crab about various aspects of the Jewish communal world, and one of the themes that continuously occurred was my sense of the need for better numbers,” said Steinhardt.
The issue of collecting reliable data about Jews and the programs that try to reach them has been on Steinhardt’s agenda, and by extension, on his foundation’s.
“For a long time I have felt that the quality of information and judgments throughout the Jewish communal world has been diminished and is nothing but poor-based upon the lack of metrics, the lack of accountability and the lack of any necessity of showing quantitative results,” said Steinhardt.
He wants the institute to explore such areas as the long-term effectiveness of Orthodox outreach programs and the number of Jewish college students.
“I hope over time we’ll be more demanding and require real results rather than anecdotes and well-conceived constructions that don’t really tell the true story” of various outreach and education efforts, Steinhardt said.
“The goal overall,” Rabbi Greenberg said, “is to establish a much higher level of accurate and dependable measurements, statistics which can become the foundation of community policy and judgment. Demography is a crucial area. The more accurate you are, the more you can make serious policy judgments.”
Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology at Queens College and a longtime analyst of American Jewry, said the only question about funding from a single source, like Steinhardt, is “how many strings are attached to that money.”
“Clearly Mr. Steinhardt has a lot of strong ideas and wants to shape the future of American Jewish life,” Heilman said. “But when it comes to research, it has to be hands off, and you have to trust the researchers to do it. That’s the real challenge with this kind of gift.”
Steinhardt asked, “Does anyone really think I would have strings attached?
“I really want truth, end of story,” he said. “Good truth, bad truth, happy truth, whatever it is. The one thing I don’t want truth about is my weight.”