December 13, 2002

NJPS 2000-01: A Lost Cause?

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

When the president of North American Jewry's largest communal organization announced last month that the release of crucial information in a $6 million study of American Jews was being delayed due to flawed data, many members of the influential group of policy-makers and researchers involved with the survey became gravely concerned.

The long-anticipated study, the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, holds great significance for these social scientists and Jewish community professionals. Designed to provide data on intermarriage rates, religious observance, Jewish identity, population, and philanthropic predilections among American Jews, the survey has the power to realign the priorities of Jewish communal organizations and research scholars for years to come. So when the president of United Jewish Communities, Stephen J. Hoffman, announced that there were problems with the data, the value of the entire project was suddenly thrown into question.

"Until they publish the data, who the heck knows anything?" said sociologist Egon Mayer, a professor at the City University of New York's Brooklyn College and a member of the survey's advisory board, the National Technical Advisory Committee (NTAC). "Most of my colleagues inside NTAC are puzzled as to why this happened," he said. "It may be that there is a kind of inherent tension between the independence of social scientists and an organization that wants to use their work but at the same time control it."

Intense debate about the survey's methodology and process among experts and observers long presaged the storm that erupted upon the UJC's announcement. The debate about the study's value is as much about the methodology of this particular survey as it is about how American Jews ought to be thinking about their identity, their community, and their future. The differences among the sociologists, demographers, economists, social psychologists, and policy-makers involved with the survey highlight the fault lines dividing American Jewry. Understanding their concerns and interests both illuminates the issues at the forefront of American Jewish life and clarifies some of the difficulties in trying to get an accurate assessment about American Jewry.

"The major fault line is the line between detached academic inquiry on the one side and engaged policy-oriented research on the other," said Steven M. Cohen, professor at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at The Hebrew University and a paid research consultant for the UJC's study. "Who is the main audience, and who are the main clients of the research? Is it the academic community or is it the policy-making community?" he said. "I think that most of the personal backgrounds or ideological dispositions of researchers or sponsors tends to affect the agenda of questions that are asked, and don't strongly affect the results that are produced."

Not only did the organizers behind the NJPS have to contend with a multiplicity of academic interests-the demographers wanted to satisfy their research interests, the philanthropists wanted to ask their set of questions, the sociologists wanted to learn more about their specialized fields-but religious movements, federations and private researchers sought their own data, too.

"The challenges were really the challenges of a really complex product in which many of the communities have a major stake and are awaiting the findings and the data to be used for all sorts of different purposes," said Lorraine Blass, a senior planner with the UJC and the project manager for the 2000-01 NJPS. "You can't do it all in one survey."

Depending on their presuppositions and motivations, researches sought to ask different questions-and in so doing bolster disparate arguments. For example, those working for American Jewish communal institutions or in Jewish education might have sought data to lend credence to the notion that Jewish institutions in America require more significant investment to perpetuate the survival of Jewish life. Likewise, others might use the same data-information showing dwindling religious affiliation among American Jewry, for example-to bolster the argument that Zionist institutions and Israel travel programs ought to be supported over American ones.

Even the data purporting to show a decline in the number of American Jews-preliminary figures released by the UJC showed a drop to 5.2 million American Jews from a count of 5.5 million in 1990-is a matter of debate, depending on one's view of who is a Jew. Those defining who is a Jew according to the strictures of halakha might end up with a significantly lower number than those who count as Jews anybody who identifies themselves as Jewish. And how the researchers define who is a Jew is part and parcel of how they believe Americans ought to be engaged with Judaism.

"Right now and for some time, the organized Jewish community has been obsessed with bloodline and genes, and I think that's not the wave the future," said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, in San Francisco. "In the marketplace of religions in America, that's a huge mistake. I don't want to think of the Jewish population as a function of accident of birth, but those who are spiritually and communally committed to being part of the Jewish community."

Cohen said there was a strong preference among those preparing the NJPS to examine the performance of conventional Jewish behaviors and Jewish social networks, not blood lines.

Tobin released his own national survey in October that counted 6.7 million American Jews, 1.5 million more than the number calculated by the NJPS. The California researcher said the numerical discrepancy had to do with the NJPS undercounting Jews living on the West Coast, Israeli expatriates, and Russian-speaking Jews, rather than differences over who is a Jew.

Most demographers and sociologists of American Jewry dismiss Tobin's findings out of hand, with some maintaining that Tobin's primary interest is in wresting control of the multi-million dollar survey from the UJC and winning the lucrative survey job for his own organization. The $6 million NJPS survey was paid for by the UJC, local federations (of which the UJC is the national umbrella organization), foundations, and individual philanthropists.

Ideological differences like those between Tobin and the UJC affect not only what questions are asked in a survey, but where community funds are spent. Tobin and others in his small camp, including Mayer and Calvin Goldscheider of Brown University, believe more money should be invested in reaching out to those who want to be part of the Jewish community, regardless of Jewish parentage. That's the business in which Tobin's institute is involved. For its part, the UJC spends millions of outreach dollars on Jews who might have limited demonstrated interest in Jewish life but in whom the UJC hopes to kindle Jewish interest.

Some critics suggested that the UJC's conflicts of interest hampered its ability to administer the survey. "The real issue in my mind isn't so much the lack of expertise, but that that expertise is controlled by an administrative or bureaucratic structure that distorts what should be technical professional decisions," NTAC member Mayer said. "That is much more of a problem: How much autonomy you have? It's like any scientist working in a non-scientific organization. If the science doesn't jive with those agendas, what happens?"

Other scholars argue that the UJC is the only organization with enough money and credibility to conduct a serious survey of American Jewry. Compared with private foundations, they say, the UJC has relatively little conflict of interest.

"A national group like the UJC is the only group that has the resources to conduct a study like this," said Sherry Israel, an NTAC member and a professor at Brandeis University's Hornstein Program in Jewish Communal Service. "I think applied social research is not inappropriate. It's done by people who have applied interest. So what? That doesn't taint the research and that doesn't taint the methodology."

One of NTAC's co-chairmen, Vivian Klaff, said the NJPS survey was shielded from any possible ideological bias. "The beauty of this survey is that we have not introduced an ideological bent into the data collection," said Klaff, a sociologist and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Delaware. Researchers using the same survey could end up with different figures for the number of American Jews depending on their own criteria for counting Jews, he said.

Not everyone agreed that the survey was ideologically impartial. Goldscheider, the Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies at Brown, said he refused to join a committee involved with the survey because the NJPS was "ideologically driven rather than social-science driven." He said, "I see intermarriage as an indicator of distinctiveness, not assimilation. We have to ask what makes ethnic groups distinctive. To get at that you'd really have to ask a different set of questions."

Goldscheider's perspective on intermarriage is a minority one among policymakers and social scientists, and his assertion that the UJC's survey was driven by a quest to sustain UJC institutions around the United States does not represent the consensus view.

"The UJC considers research that can be helpful to the federations in doing their work as an appropriate role for the national entity," said the UJC's Blass.

Israel said that regardless of the special interests of those behind the study, the survey was designed in such a way as to render those biases meaningless. "Whatever motivated people, whatever people think they want to get when they do a study, if you design a study that's methodologically sound, you get what's out there," she said. "The community and its facts will speak for themselves."