The Sisyphean Task Of Counting Jews
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The Sisyphean Task Of Counting Jews

While UJA-Federation of New York launches $1.8 million population study, some mourn the loss of the national Jewish survey.

Twenty years ago, an alarming statistic in a landmark survey of American Jews helped galvanize a generation of Jewish community professionals and philanthropists to change the way they think about Jewish identity programming and double their efforts at Jewish outreach.

With time, however, that statistic from the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey — that American Jews were marrying out of the faith at a rate of 52 percent — was clouded by skepticism because of various methodological critiques.

A decade later, data was lost, results were severely delayed and true comparisons with 1990 were impossible, many scholars said, because the methodology used was inconsistent with the earlier survey. On top of everything, the 2000 study cost a cool $6 million.

So perhaps it wasn’t terribly surprising that as the date approached for the next decennial survey, which would have come out about now, the federation umbrella organization that had sponsored the previous ones balked.

"We decided not to be the lead agency on a new study, but we haven’t ruled out partnering or sitting at the table with others who are leading a study under the right circumstances," Joe Berkofsky, a spokesman for the New York-based Jewish Federations of North America, told JTA.

For the time being, there is no collaborative national study to take its place. That has dismayed many scholars of American Jewry, including vocal critics of the last study and those who helped carry it out.

"We really can’t get a national portrait from one decade to another and get real insight on regional differences," said sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who was a paid research consultant for the 2000-01 NJPS and is now a professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

UJA-Federation of New York is currently carrying out a $1.8 million study it is billing as the single-largest survey of Jews outside Israel. Other federations are also commissioning their own local studies.

But without a national study that asks everybody the same questions and surveys all kinds of Jews — from urban to rural, affiliated to assimilated, young to old — it’s not really possible to establish a national picture. Nor is it possible to come up with the holy grail that everyone from political strategists to community professionals want from a national survey: a reliable estimate of the number of Jews in America.

Some scholars say that elusive number — current estimates range from about five million to seven million — can never reliably be established, even if everyone could agree on what makes someone a Jew.

A few problems make surveying American Jews so difficult.

First, the U.S. Census is prohibited from asking about religion, so there is no easy shortcut. Second, because Jews are thought to make up only about 2 percent of the U.S. population of 310 million, they are nearly impossible to find using the gold standard for polling: random digit dialing.

Even if labor and cost were not an issue, the method of random digit dialing is becoming less reliable in the age of cell phones. Individuals who don’t have landline telephones tend to be underrepresented because they have fewer opportunities to be reached and are less likely to agree to be interviewed on their cell phones, skewing the sample size away from poorer and younger people who eschew land lines.

For demographers seeking other ways to find Jews, focusing on areas where Jews are known to live risks undercounting those who are harder to find. By the same token, relying on membership lists maintained by federations, schools, JCCs or synagogues to conduct interviews risks undercounting the unaffiliated.

Some of these problems also plague local community studies. But because the sample sizes are smaller and the goals are different, many community surveyors don’t care or are able to find other ways to get the data they require.

Leonard Saxe, director of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, says he has found a way around these problems for national data and, using complicated mathematical modeling, offers an estimate of self-identified Jews in the United States: 6.5 million. Of course, other academics have questions about Saxe’s conclusions.

"The fact that UJC isn’t sponsoring a study doesn’t mean that the community won’t have data," Saxe said, using the former name of the Jewish Federations of North America (once known as the United Jewish Communities). "My goal is to provide better data and more accurate data. The methodology that was used in 2000 provided inaccurate and, we believe, misleading results."

Cohen says that while he understands that cost and controversy kept the Jewish Federations of North America from doing another national study, the absence of any national study is a great loss for the Jewish community and one that local studies — as helpful as they are — cannot fill.

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