Jewish Community Studies Remain Vital for Planning and Policy-making

demographic studiesBy Ira M. Sheskin
and Steven M. Cohen

Have Demographic Studies of the Jewish Community Outlived Their Usefulness?” asks Susan J. Levine. Ms. Levine, whose website describes her as a “recognized expert in the financial services industry, focusing on research for the institutional, wealth management, and insurance sectors,” pretty much argues for the end of Jewish community studies as we have known them.

Along the way she presents a number of clearly mistaken characterizations of classic Jewish community studies. Among the most egregious:

  • Their “primary goal being to estimate the current and projected size of the Jewish population as a basis for decision-making.”
  • They “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.”
  • They “give community leaders tens of thousands of data points (if not more), but no way to make sense of what they mean.”

Over the past three decades and more, the authors have conducted dozens of Jewish community studies of the type that Levine declares useless. Obviously, we take issue with her characterizations, to say the least.

First, while the number of Jews in a community is certainly important, as is learning whether the population has been expanding or contracting, Jewish community studies go well beyond – and behind – the overall population figure. Typically, they provide rich information about such issues as aging, poverty, social welfare needs, patterns of Jewish engagement, Jewish education, intermarriage, charitable giving, geographic distribution, migration patterns, and basic population characteristics (e.g., age, marital status, and income). They may also delve into specific populations; in New York, for example, the research produced focused results on Russian-speaking Jews, various Orthodox populations, Israeli-American families, LGBT Jews, non-white Jews, and produced a massive report on the Jewish poor and near-poor. In Miami, important information was discerned about the influx of Jews from Latin America. And they also collect information about attitudes, perceptions, and other “subjective” matters.

Second, we cannot fathom what Ms. Levine is referring to when she states that the resulting data do not provide community leaders with the actionable information they need. The so-called “demographic studies” are specifically designed to address policy issues. In designing the studies, community lay and professional leaders articulate the most pressing policy needs of their communities and are intimately involved in shaping and designing the tailor-made questionnaires for their communities. To take a few examples from recently completed Jewish community studies:

  1. The Jewish Community Study of New York 2011 uncovered more than half a million Jews living in poverty or near-poverty, a sharp increase from 2002 and the cause for a new focus on providing social services, advocacy, and other attention to the massive number of poverty-stricken Jewish households.
  2. A Jewish nursing home became the only nursing home in the State of Florida in about two decades to obtain a Certificate of Need (CON) for more beds from the State based upon the documented number of Jewish elderly in its service area.
  3. Social service agencies repeatedly cite local Jewish community studies so as to successfully compete for major grants from state, municipal, or United Way sources.
  4. One community learned of the low rate of Jewish pre-school enrollment compared to high rates for non-sectarian pre-schools by Jewish families, in particular by the intermarried. The finding provoked a focus upon expanding Jewish-sponsored childcare, especially in those areas with large numbers of intermarried parents.
  5. A Midwest community learned that the Jewish population was declining and would likely do so in the future, a finding that suggested using caution in planning, particularly concerning investments in capital facilities.
  6. In identifying population movements between geographic areas, numerous communities have altered plans for where to build new facilities and invest in community services.
  7. Several communities have come to grips with the coming explosion in the number of well-elderly and not-so-well elderly owing to the advance of the Baby Boom generation. It’s one thing to read about general patterns in the US Census; it’s another to learn of the impending changes in one’s local Jewish population.
  8. With the survey questions on income and cost obstacles found in almost all studies, communities learn in a powerful way how cost barriers prevent families from joining synagogues and JCCs and from sending their children to Jewish day schools, Jewish summer camps, and Israel. Such information can be used effectively to convince donors to donate for these purposes and/or to direct resources toward expanding subsidies.
  9. One community found that the Federation Jewish newspaper, on which they were spending a significant percentage of their small budget, was not being read, leading to the closure of the paper and the shifting of resources to alternative methods of keeping the community informed.
  10. Synagogues have changed expansion plans or made locational decisions on the basis of geographic movements in the Jewish population.
  11. Conducting a traditional Jewish community study allows each community to compare itself on hundreds of measures to other Jewish communities. As an example, suppose a community study indicates that 13% of intermarried couples are synagogue members. Out of context, one might ask if that is an indication that the community is doing well, or not, in involving this group in synagogue life. Now, imagine, because you used the standard survey methodology and your results can be compared to other Jewish communities, you are told that the 13% is among the lowest percentages in the country. This now becomes an actionable data point: the community has a mandate to consider and apply resources toward increasing the synagogue participation of intermarried couples.
  12. Local Jewish community studies have been used nationally to justify such efforts as Birthright and scholarships for Jewish overnight camps.

We could go on and on …

Third, the role of the researcher extends well beyond “simply” deploying a complex survey, providing the numbers, and producing a PowerPoint presentation or two. Typically researchers work intimately and extensively with community leaders to make sense of the results and move from information gathering to analysis to interpretation to action. In fact, all social science researchers have had the experience of answering questions by phone or email long after the official research period has concluded.

Certainly, other research techniques – such as focus groups, in-depth interviews, surveys of special populations – can provide valuable information on specific populations for focused policy needs. Even opt-in internet surveys can provide valuable data provided one understands that they reach primarily the affiliated and motivated population, but not the Jews who are distant from the community either psychographically or geographically.

With all that said, there’s simply no substitute for a random sample Jewish community study to learn not only about the Jews we know, but about the Jews we don’t know. Jewish community studies are not mere counting exercises. Rather, today’s Jewish community studies are complex, nuanced, and comprehensive research endeavors that provide rich and policy-relevant information and interpretation. The data supplied by scientifically-designed surveys provide reliable, rich and comprehensive information on the entire Jewish population, essential for sound planning and reliable policy formation. The extraordinary and growing diversity of Jews, their families, friends, and communities makes scientific community studies even more essential than in the past.

Ira M. Sheskin, Ph.D. is Professor and Chair of the Department of Geography and the Director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies, both at the University of Miami. He has conducted about 45 major demographic studies for Jewish Federations around the country. Along with Arnold Dashefsky, he is the Editor of the American Jewish Year Book. He has published numerous articles on the American Jewish community and is also the author of How Jewish Communities Differ ( and Survey Research for Geographers.

Steven M. Cohen, Ph.D., author or co-author of a dozen scholarly books and hundreds of research articles, is a sociologist of contemporary Jewry. He is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ Stanford. He was the lead researcher in the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011 along with Jack Ukeles, Ron Miller and Pearl Beck. He is President of the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry.