Experts call for major new study of American Jewry

Experts call for major new study of American Jewry

'How do young Jews develop Jewishly? What’s the extent of poverty? What’s the impact of intermarriage? We don’t have up-to-date answers,' experts say

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Illustrative photo of young American Jews participating in a Birthright event in Jerusalem. (Dudi Vaknin/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of young American Jews participating in a Birthright event in Jerusalem. (Dudi Vaknin/Flash90)

BALTIMORE — Experts in the American Jewish community are calling on the federations to fund a new study of the American Jewish population.

“We need a Jewish population survey to provide policy-relevant information,” explained Prof. Steven M. Cohen, a noted demographer of the Jewish community and the director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

The last study, in 2000, drew criticism from some experts and organizational leaders for its conclusions and methodology, and some executives in the federation world are wary of undertaking another similar project, which is expected to cost some $3 million.

But nationwide Jewish population surveys have also provided focus for the education and welfare programs of thousands of Jewish groups. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey famously discovered an intermarriage rate of 50 percent among American Jews, driving many Jewish communities to reexamine and prioritize programs that strengthen Jewish identification and participation.

Many Jewish organizations, which collectively spend billions of dollars on Jewish communal and educational work each year, are working without a clear sense of nationwide trends, Cohen believes.

“How do young Jews develop Jewishly? What’s the baseline against which we can judge that? What’s the extent of poverty in the American Jewish community? What’s the impact of intermarriage on the community? Think about Birthright Israel, Masa, PJ Library, Jewish camps, Hillel, Jewish studies [programs], youth groups, preschools – all represent a massive investment of Jewish resources, and we have no idea how well they work, for whom they work,” Cohen told the Times of Israel in an interview at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Baltimore on Tuesday.

Beyond that, the Jewish community lacks systematic data about changes in ways Jews are affiliating and defining their connection to the Jewish community and their Jewish identities. For example, Cohen says, in a recent study of the New York Jewish community, researchers found “what we call ‘borderland Jews,’ Jews with non-conventional identity patterns. [These include] people with Jewish parents who say they are Jewish but identify religiously as Christian, or people with no Jewish parents who identify completely as Jewish but did not convert.”

The only way to understand the scope and significance of these and other trends is to invest in a serious, widespread study of the roughly 6-million-strong American Jewish community, Cohen added.

Dr. Ira Sheskin, a demographer at the University of Miami who has conducted several dozen local Jewish community surveys, agrees with Cohen about the urgent need for such a study.

“We don’t know whether the number of Jews is decreasing, increasing or remaining the same, whether the geographic distribution is changing,” he told the Times of Israel.

Precursors to JFNA, the federation umbrella body, funded the 1970, 1990 and 2000 surveys, and researchers hope the organization will agree to fund a new one as well.

To encourage it to take up the mantle, the Mandell and Madeleine Berman Foundation this week took a first step toward a new study, offering a $1 million “challenge grant” to the Berman Archive at NYU. If the Archive, headed by Cohen, is able to raise the remaining $2 million for the project by September 2013, the last million will be donated by the foundation.

“Every year, our national federation system, our foundations, our public affairs organizations, our national religious and educational organizations influence the spending of billions of dollars in communities across America,” Bill Berman, chairman of the Berman Foundation, said this week in a statement. “Yet, as we haven’t had a
national study since 2000-1, we know little or nothing about the people we seek to serve at the national level.”

With increasing diversity and “new challenges” to the American Jewish community, “and with great ambiguity about our effectiveness in many areas of Jewish life, we absolutely need the information, analysis and discourse that only a National Jewish Population Study can provide.”

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