Give a Boy a Hammer

give a boy a hammerAsking a researcher to list philanthropic priorities in light of Pew is like giving a small boy a hammer. The boy sees that everything needs hammering and the researcher understands that more research and research education is needed.

[This essay is from “Philanthropic Priorities in Light of Pew,” reprinted with permission from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.]

by Amy L. Sales

The public reaction to the Pew report has been extraordinary. There has been a sustained, high level of communal conversation that far exceeds anything we’ve experienced in the past. Results have been discussed not only on academic list serves but also in Jewish sanctuaries and boardrooms, and in gatherings hosted by every type of local and national Jewish organization and movement. Meetings that would usually attract 50 people bring in 150 when “Pew” is included in the title. The phenomenon appears to have extended to Canada and other Jewish communities as well. Perhaps they are concerned that the Pew study reveals something about their own future. Or perhaps, like everyone else, they do not want to be excluded from the big conversation.

The National Jewish Population Survey, by contrast, was an insiders’ game. After the release of the 1990 NJPS, the research community gathered at Brandeis University to discuss how Jews are counted and to debate who is a Jew. The Federation world galvanized around the 52 percent intermarriage figure. It adopted the language of “Jewish continuity” and quickly followed with multi-million dollar investments in Jewish continuity initiatives. These methodological and policy conversations were largely limited to scholars and to volunteer and professional leadership in the Federation system. NJPS 2000 also had a limited audience. It was undermined by methodological controversy (a specialty of researchers) and failed to generate a compelling narrative (the driving force of policy). With Pew, however, every-one is in the loop. Even the Pew researchers have expressed amazement at the involvement of the Jewish community writ large, which they say has been unparalleled compared to their other studies of religious groups in America.

Why is this? One explanation is the Pew Research Center’s orientation. It aims to inject timely, reliable information into the public discourse, and it explicitly welcomes debate. Although it assumes that debate will lead to better policy, it defers to others on policy analysis and on all other matters related to the application of the data.

In addition, Pew was not interested in conducting the new NJPS, but rather it was pursuing the next frame for its ongoing research into religion in America. The Jewish community was not its primary audience and the Jewish press was not its first line of dissemination. Its audience was an informed American public and its target was The New York Times.

As a result of this stance, the findings were cast in terms of religion in America. In most regards, the Pew data are not comparable to NJPS numbers. To the extent knowledge advances by comparison, the comparison in this case will be to other religious groups in the United States and not to previous studies of Jews. The head-line has thus been the secularization of American Jewry. The evidence has been the number and percentage of those who are Jewish but not by religion.

This narrative has captured the attention of the Jewish public and provoked and dominated public discourse. It is clear that people, Jews included, do care about research. It provokes their thinking and reflection. It can ignite a conversation in which they have a stake and on which they have opinions. They want to be informed and believe that having the data makes them so. They want to be part of the broader conversation – not the contentious one about Israel but the one about who they are, what they care about and what is happening to the American Jewish community. This is very good news for the research community and a game-changer for Jewish social science.

Asking a researcher to list philanthropic priorities in light of Pew is like giving a small boy a hammer. The boy sees that everything needs hammering and the researcher understands that more research and research education is needed.

Pew has given us descriptive data. The study was not designed with an eye toward the needs of Jews, the capacity of the community to respond to those needs, or potential interventions that might strengthen Jewish life and community. Large swaths of Jewish life are not included in the study (e.g., volunteerism, cultural arts, social networks) and there are no data from potentially important subgroups (e.g., Jews with mixed religious identities or Jews who have found a home in Chabad or with other Orthodox outreach groups).

The Pew data are best seen as a starting point for future research, as they raise a host of interesting questions. Answering these questions could help determine priorities for philanthropic investment. For example, when Jewish parents say they are not raising their children as Jews, what do they mean? Is this a comment on Jewish education, home life or something else? How do their children see themselves? And what implications do the answers to these questions have for families? Are those who consider themselves Jews Not By Religion (JNBR) similar to teens who refer to themselves as “just Jewish” as a way of eschewing denominational identification? How did the JNBR come to identify in this way? And what does it mean to them? Note that these questions cannot be answered with a socio-demographic survey. Rather, they need a qualitative approach that invites people to express personal meaning.

Another valuable form of research is the systematic testing of different policy options. Suggested interventions and policy prescriptions should be implemented as social experiments with built-in research components. This approach, known as action research, is based on the premise that the best way to understand a system is to try to change it. Results from these studies will deepen our understanding of the varieties of ways that Jews experience their Jewishness, the reactions they have to Jewish-related opportunities and the relative strengths (and weaknesses) of different interventions.

The investment in research should also include support for public education on how to assess, analyze, interpret and apply data responsibly. The level of engagement, conversation, debate and concern raised by the Pew research makes this a particularly propitious time to create a more data savvy Jewish polity.

Amy L. Sales, Ph.D., is Associate Director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.