Have Demographic Studies of the Jewish Community Outlived Their Usefulness?

demographic studiesBy Susan J. Levine

As long as there are Jewish communities, Jewish leaders will look for ways to better meet the needs of these communities. This drive to help and include as many people as possible is inherent in our Jewish values. Conducting a demographic study to determine population size is only one piece of the puzzle; in today’s complex world, understanding needs, attitudes and perceptions is the key to charting a course for Jewish communal institutions to better serve their communities, not only now but in the future.

Jewish community studies have traditionally been approached from a demographic perspective, with the primary goal being to estimate the current and projected size of the Jewish population as a basis for decision-making. Even as far back as 1925, when some of the earliest community studies were conducted, this goal was “front and center.” As noted by the author of one such study, “In view of the fact that census tabulations in the United States do not enumerate Jews, as such, it has always been one of the chief problems in Jewish demography to estimate the Jewish population.”

This interest in demographic studies survives today. Yet many communities that have undertaken such studies – under pressure from their Boards because it is “standard procedure,” among other reasons – have found the resulting data did not provide them with the actionable information they needed. These communities found that demographic studies…

  • Provide information about how many Jews are living where, but don’t provide answers to fundamental questions about how to better serve needs to ensure their community’s health and vitality for many years to come;
  • Give community leaders tens of thousands of data points (if not more), but no way to make sense of what they mean;
  • Have a limited shelf-life since they are typically conducted once every ten years (at best) due to cost considerations and can easily become obsolete during that time.

Over the past few years, however, a new approach to conducting Jewish community studies has emerged. Rooted in market research principles and methodologies (rather than the social sciences that underpin demographic studies), this new approach focuses on assessing Jewish community needs, attitudes and perceptions in order to provide actionable recommendations designed to create stronger, more vibrant, and enduring Jewish communities.

Among the advantages of this new approach to Jewish community studies are:

  • Use of state-of-the-art research techniques (e.g., web and telephone surveying, in-person and online focus groups, in-depth interviews, etc.) that enable researchers to hear from as many people as possible. This “open arms” sample of respondents is typically much larger than the sample developed for a demographic study, and ensures inclusion of the widest variety of opinions, views, and experiences from a pool of participants that is both diverse and robust, across all segments of the community (from the most engaged/involved to the least).
  • A survey vehicle that “brings to life” the feelings and emotions of community members by empowering survey participants to discuss their community in their own words – their hopes and dreams, their issues and concerns, their comments and suggestions.
  • Application of various statistical analyses to understand differences among the wide variety of segments within the community – from the most highly engaged to those with little/no interest or connection to the formal Jewish community – and what drives their behavior.
  • Lower costs (compared to demographic studies), enabling more frequent updates so that information remains fresh and actionable longer.

Arriving at viable, creative solutions that successfully address the critical issues facing Jewish communities today will take much more than knowing population “counts.” Rather, by understanding the character of the community – its needs, attitudes, and perceptions – in a way that leads to action, communities will better position themselves to ensure their long term futures.

Susan J. Levine is Vice President at The Melior Group, a research-based consulting firm serving clients in the nonprofit, education, healthcare, and financial services sectors. She specializes in working with Jewish communal organizations to deepen their understanding of their market environment, and determine actions to strengthen their efforts going forward. She can be reached at slevine@meliorgroup.com.