How the Newest New York Jewish Community Study has Changed How We Study Jews

New York b'ivritOn the most basic and pragmatic level, area-level data is absolutely invaluable for local Jewish agencies, organizations, and synagogues which require better demographic information.

by Haviv Rettig Gur

One of the most surprising challenges faced by American Jewry, at least from the perspective of a visitor from Israel, is the basic difficulty of actually finding American Jews.

It is a point so obvious it is scarcely mentioned, and too little noticed. Unlike in Israel, the United States has no national registry, no official ethnic majorities or minorities – and no formal list of Jews.

Some Jewish families belong to synagogues, contribute to federations, attend Jewish schools or camps. Their participation makes them easy to find. But what about the millions of American Jews who do not belong to mainstream Jewish institutions? How do we find them? And more importantly, how do we find out their needs and desires, and what might motivate them to join the Jewish community in an active way?

That question lies at the heart of what makes the latest Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011 an important document for the future of the American Jewish community.

Studies of Jewish communities are being undertaken all the time in an effort to answer precisely such questions. Throughout the dozens of Jewish communities in the United States that boast tens of thousands of Jews or more, community studies, in the form of sophisticated telephone surveys, are a major source of knowledge about each community and about the trends affecting American Jewry more broadly.

But previous studies have often been limited in what they can tell us about a community. They point to certain trends: synagogue affiliation, intermarriage, attachment to Israel, and the like. But they stop short of offering a more detailed and nuanced picture of Jewish life that could help tell us about Jews’ behavior, or how one area’s Jews differ from those of another area – precisely the sort of information that could help us to dramatically move the needle when it comes to the trends affecting the future of American Jewry.

In its latest community study of New York Jewry, UJA-Federation of New York has broken new ground in the complicated art of studying American Jews.

By sampling an unprecedented 6,000 households, asking new kinds of questions about religious practice, and focusing on areas with low rates of affiliation alongside the more concentrated Jewish communities, the study has for the first time offered local Jewish organizations and community planners new tools for tackling questions of identity, engagement, poverty and education.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this larger scale and higher resolution. In mid-January, the team carrying out the study, which was funded by UJA-Federation of New York, released an information-rich geography report that offers a snapshot of Jewish life in each region of the five boroughs of New York City, Long Island and Westchester County.

What the report showed: “There is no typical Jewish community,” according to Dr. Pearl Beck, who led the geography portion of the study. Instead, each area in New York City boasts a very different Jewish community, often with very different needs.

“In New York, with its size and geographic spread, there’s simply no way to follow trends” without such a study, according to UJA’s Executive Vice President and CEO John Ruskay. By offering a better picture of the community’s strengths and weaknesses, the report helps to answer what Ruskay sees as a key question for Jewish institutions: “The information we pick up here is grist for the mill. This will point you in certain directions and away from others” as institutions seek to build what he calls “inspired, caring community.”

“There is a story at the level of the whole metropolitan area, which is [New York Jewry’s] 9% overall growth [since 2002],” explains Dr. Jack Ukeles, one of the researchers in the study. “A lot of people thought it declined; it didn’t. But there’s also a story at the level of the county. For example, Brooklyn is the most Jewish county in both percentage and number of households, and it has a lot of Orthodox Jews. But when you go down another level, you see there are many Brooklyns. Brownstone Brooklyn with lots of young people, not a lot of kids, Borough Park is very haredi. In the middle of Brooklyn, there’s a strong modern Orthodox community.”

Similarly, “there’s a lot of talk about decrease of people who identify with a specific Jewish denomination,” says Beck. “We found that to be the case, and that was reported in [the] June [report about broad demographic trends found in the study].”

But, she notes, the city-wide figures are only part of the story. Looked at through a more local lens, the study reveals significant areas where the religious streams are quite strong, with “large concentrations of Conservative Jews in Nassau County and Queens, and people who identify with Reform movement in all the suburbs,” she explained.

In addition to the larger sample that allowed for more detailed study of the geographic distribution, the researchers used a more sophisticated sampling design, called a “stratified random sample,” that enabled them to focus in on populations the community is interested in understanding but where more conventional methods would have a difficult time offering insight.

“We did 6,000 interviews with Jewish households. As near as we can tell, that’s the largest survey of Jews outside Israel,” begins Ukeles. “But we could have done 30,000 and it wouldn’t have been as good as the 6,000 if the sampling was not representative.” If they study had only looked at households already involved in Jewish life, it would not have been able to offer a broader picture of the community as it is.

Instead, the researchers identified areas more likely to have less affiliated Jews and made sure samples from those areas were interviewed in great enough numbers to offer statistically significant insights into the habits and affiliations of less engaged Jews – the very ones that many Jewish groups, including UJA-Federation, want to understand and reach.

These techniques allowed the new study, whose findings will continue to be published into the spring, to reveal some profoundly important traits and trends in the New York community.

So why does this matter? Is the larger sample size really so important? In practical terms, what do we gain from this expanded study?

In a word: Everything.

Take the Orthodox community as an example. The last New York community study, like many studies of American Jewry before it, examined the many different kinds of Orthodox Jews as a single group. The current study was large enough to begin to sort out different branches of Orthodox Jewry from each other.

Thus, we discover that modern Orthodox Jews live throughout the New York area, while haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jews are highly concentrated in just three areas. When it comes to poverty, philanthropy, even religious observance, the two communities differ greatly.

What geography did for our understanding of New York’s Orthodox, more nuanced questions about observance and identity did for the less affiliated.

“We made sure to ask about ways in which people are Jewish which frankly have not been asked very often before,” explained Dr. Steven Cohen, director of the research team. “Like, ‘do you talk about being Jewish?’ ‘Do you use the internet for Jewish purposes?’ ‘Do you have a special meal on Shabbat?’ All these are ways in which people express Jewishness informally and non-institutionally which represent an evolving way of being Jewish.”

Or in other words, just how committed and identifying are those Jews who previous studies might have written off as detached? If you represent a JCC in a particular neighborhood, or serve as a rabbi or outreach director, you now have access to scientific data that did not exist before about what sorts of Jews live in your area, and how they express their Jewish affiliation.

The study explored more deeply the phenomenon of “partial” or “borderland” Jews, such as Jews who identify as Jewish but say at the same time that they’re religiously something else. It mapped out concentrations of LGBT Jews, Russian-speakers and other subgroups.

It is a study that tried to meet the shocking diversity of New York’s Jewish community on its own terms.

Scott Shay, chair of UJA-Federation of New York’s New York Jewish Community Study: 2011 Committee, praised this aspect of the study in the introduction to the geography report.

“Whether you hail from Williamsburg or the Upper West Side,” he wrote, “you know New York is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own character and needs. One subway stop can be the difference between prosperity and poverty. If you are settled in Port Washington or one of the River Towns, you know the same is true of Long Island and Westchester – each town has its own unique personality.”

And understanding that makes a difference.

“On the most basic and pragmatic level, area-level data is absolutely invaluable for local Jewish agencies, organizations, and synagogues which require better demographic information – [for example,] age distributions, poverty levels, social service utilization – to better serve their various constituencies,” said Beck.

“On a marketing and outreach level, it’s all about segmentation. Without local data, how will we know where there are pockets of young Russian speaking Jews, LGBT Jews, Israeli Jews, children who do not receive Jewish education? Geographic data will help potential funders better target their programs to meet the specific needs and interests of these micro- populations,” she explained.

In the end, it’s all about building and sustaining a community.

“I believe that an area-level analysis contributes a critical perspective because of the centrality of ‘community’ to Jewish life across the religious-secular spectrum,” according to Beck.

“Extensive research indicates that even for those who do not identify as ‘religious’ Jews, getting together with other Jews remains important whether or not they get together to engage in Jewish activities. And in fact, our geographic data, such as Jewish population size and Jewish density (e.g., the number of people in Jewish households in an area as a proportion of all people in the area) are often correlated with Jewish community life ranging from the more traditional (e.g., joining synagogues, participating in JCC’s, attending Jewish schools, marrying other Jews, etc.) to the more experiential (e.g., the proportion of respondents who say that ‘being Jewish is very important to them’ or that they feel ‘a lot connected to a Jewish community’).”

According to Beck, “For the first time, we found powerful evidence for the inverse: that people with weaker Jewish identities often reside in areas with a sparse and dispersed Jewish population. Such is particularly the case with the growing number of Jews who consider themselves ‘partially Jewish’ and who live outside our ‘primary’ Jewish areas. Finding these individuals and attempting to connect them with Jewish life and community will be particularly challenging given their [Jewish] geographic isolation.”

The richer, more localized study tells us how Jewish communities are actually arranging themselves in real life. Once you gain that deeper insight, you won’t want to go back to umbrella statistics about intermarriage or schooling.

The community responds

The study was commissioned by UJA-Federation of New York. But this is no mere internal planning document, least of all in UJA’s view.

Rather, explains Ruskay, the study is more akin to a library.

Its data and reports are being made available online “for the whole community. It is meant to be a resource to the community,” says Ruskay.

“It’s not a report. It’s a study,” agrees Ukeles. “In other words, we leave a data file. The communities have questions we have not yet answered, and we say to that: ‘Go back and look at the data. Those are great questions.’ It’s a living, breathing thing.”

It’s not hard to see how vastly more accurate, nuanced and higher-resolution knowledge about a community will improve planning and allocations, and help the community better tackle its challenges. But how easy is it to translate the gain in knowledge to on-the-ground behavior and policy?

A community study does not immediately solve a community’s challenges, says Ruskay, but it is indispensable in pointing the way.

“We believe the data is starting point for planning. There’s just no substitute,” he insists. “So it’s going to inform our planning. But data is a point of departure for planning. Then you need to figure out laser-like interventions that can have impact. Data points you in the direction” of challenges, but doesn’t necessarily offer up clear, immediate solutions to those problems.

One example: poverty, which will be the subject of the third report to be produced from the study’s data, expected to be released later this year.

“We learned 11 years ago [in the previous community study] about the growth of poverty” in the New York Jewish community. “Well, that’s continued between 2002 and 2011,” Ruskay noted. But actually dealing with poverty in the community “may be beyond what a community can do. Poverty is increasingly the work of government.”

So how does detailed knowledge about the subgroups and geographic distribution of the Jewish poor nevertheless offer substantive benefit to the community? “It means we can do everything we can to maximize access to government, to work on access for elderly,” immigrants and the like.

The new study marks “the first time we have a sense of the growth of this subgroup and in which geographic areas. I think that’s going to lead us to think about it. What programs would be responsive? Which agencies are better positioned to do it? Which less?”

Surprises, Ruskay concluded, “don’t lead immediately to programs. They lead to planning.”

The promise of better information has meant that New York Jewish communities are paying attention, according to Cohen.

“I spoke at a synagogue last night,” he told eJewish Philanthropy in a conversation last week about the study. “The questions were along the lines of, ‘Are we stuck in terms of membership not because of what we are and what we do, but because market forces are moving against us?’”

That interest is a hopeful sign, Cohen believes. “I would hope synagogues would adjust in the short term to declined demography [in certain communities and areas]. I would hope American Jewry would adjust to the challenge of [fewer] engaged non-Orthodox Jews. The Orthodox population continues to grow, but the non-Orthodox population is in decline. I would hope it would lead to invest in more effective policies to engage more Jews in Jewish life.”