classroomBy Nathan J. Vaughan

Data is rapidly becoming a “term of the day.” Big data, constituent record data, donor data. Today Jewish organizations are gathering information more systematically and efficiently than ever before. Yet, the goals of data collection for many Jewish organizations remain unclear. What data should be collected, how regularly, and how can the data be harnessed to benefit the community?

The Jewish struggle with data hails from the Torah itself, when Moses is commanded by G-d to conduct a census of the Israelites. The appropriateness of counting Jews, either for a minyan or a census, is widely discussed in rabbinic literature. This debate continues today, just as spirited as it ever was. Communal conversation surrounding the 2013 Pew Center report on American Jews shows how divisive and confusing the mere process of counting Jews can be, and all that before we discuss what the data might even mean for our community.

Data is a fundamental tool for understanding large groups of people with diverse backgrounds, needs, and desires from their Jewish community. It’s no secret that many American Jewish institutions are struggling to remain relevant to modern American Jews. We see this struggle in declining school enrollment and membership dues revenue, even while summer camps and early childhood centers continue to grow. Data can provide Jewish leaders with a baseline understanding of this struggle.

Currently there is no comprehensive census of Jewish schools in North America, though many individual communities do collect information from schools in their area. A baseline census of Jewish schools would be an invaluable starting point for quantifying the struggle for relevancy that we know is taking place. By quantifying the struggle we can better begin to understand and address declining enrollment and decreasing membership rolls. Without an understanding of where we are today, we cannot measure the success of our efforts to improve Jewish education in North America.

This month, Navon is launching the first wave of a new Jewish School Census, focusing initially on part-time, supplemental Jewish schools. These schools remain the largest component of American Jewish education, yet we know very little about the scope of supplemental Jewish education in North America. An established baseline for enrollment at these schools would be an invaluable tool for professionals aiming to increase the relevancy and impact these schools have on their students. Updating that baseline every year can yield insight into how specific communities are able to “move the needle.”

Navon is seeking partners and collaborators of all kinds in this project. The 5-minute survey can be completed online, anonymously, or over the phone. We look forward to having dynamic conversations with professional and volunteer school leaders from across North America as all of us work to improve the quality, reach, and effectiveness of childhood Jewish education.

Nathan J. Vaughan is a Principal of Navon, a consulting firm for nonprofit organizations. He brings years of experience in research, policy analysis, and Jewish education to the Jewish School Census. He is an advocate for inclusion and financial accessibility across all forms of Jewish education.

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