So You Want to do a Jewish Community Study? Five Things to Consider First

by Mara Koven-Gelman

You’ve read the Pew Study on Jewish Life in America and now wondering how your local community sizes up. A solid community study led by the Federation can determine demographics, Jewish attitudes and behaviors leading to impactful planning and service delivery.

My former professor, demographer Dr. Gary Tobin z”l opened up his class in Jewish demographics with this line, “you don’t really need a study, it just provides the political leverage to make change.” Maybe that is a little harsh, but whatever your community’s reasons are to implement a study, here are five things to consider first:

1. Why Do A Study? Does your community know where the Jews are and what engages them? Understanding the motivation to conduct a study will impact how it is implemented (if at all.) Is there board pressure to move from agency deficit funding to programmatic funding? Is the community more fractured, running after dollars to survive?

With fewer and competing dollars to go around, a study will give the data on demographics (population size, ages, number of children, education level, religious denomination, Jewish observance level,) interests and attitudes. Concrete data can help Federation, organizations, and synagogues plan programs, services and even where to re-build community building. But there has to be community consensus or it will fail. The saying goes, “if the last study your community performed did not pass the smell test, it will be at least 20 years before your community will consider doing another one.”

2. A Study is a Community Building Exercise. As Federation UJA campaigns face challenges and in some cases are decreasing allocations to agencies/programs, it can offer value-added services. One of those is a community study. Ask local agencies and synagogues what three questions they want on the survey instrument to learn more about their constituents/members. Bring in agency executive directors to meet the research institute or firm. Make them part of the process.

One method used for community studies draws a random sample from a combined set of membership and donor lists provided by existing Jewish community organizations. Building positive relationship with agencies will help create a diverse, inclusive list. Better data in; better data out. This also positions the Federation as a central leader focused on community.

3. Can We Afford It? (or afford not to) The perception, based somewhat in reality is that only large city Federations can afford to perform studies. They cost from $75,000-$500,000 (Miami is currently doing one costing approximately $300,000; Buffalo’s cost approximately $100,000.) Given that planning happens locally, studies are periodically necessarily. Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, Senior Director of Research and Analysis at The Jewish Federations of North America and Director of the Berman Data Bank recommends communities annually save $20K that will accumulate after a decade or so. He notes that even saving $20K for a decade will get a community most but not necessarily all the way to conducting a study.

Additionally, Kotler-Berkowitz suggests that for communities facing cost constraints on studies, there are less rigorous and expensive methodologies that can still yield valuable community data, though communities need to be aware of the limits of such studies especially in terms of generalizing from the sample to the entire local Jewish population.

Other experts suggest it might be better to do a focused study on the group it wants to know more about. It may be more productive to query parents of children in day and afterschool programs if for example they want to know more about Jewish education choices.

4. Who sits on overseeing Study committee? Each community approaches this differently; but the overseeing committee should include individuals with these attributes: research study expertise, diverse Jewish community experience, dedication to pluralism and understanding of social science. Social science is a different discipline than medical or behavioral research and should be represented if possible. A commitment to outcome and ability to compromise are critical. A sense of humor when meetings tend to go long is also helpful.

5. So many methodologieswhich one works? You’ve heard of Nate Silver, the political campaign and baseball statistician guru who uses “meta-analysis” to determine razor sharp data. Meta-analysis compares many national studies searching for specific information. An example of meta-analysis: Steinhardt Social Research Institute at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies (Brandeis University) has published an interactive map of the Jewish population in every country in United States

The key to a valid study is to design it to address the community needs and answer its questions. The methodology over the years has changed to reflect technology and Jewish mobility across United States. In the past, most community studies were based on Random Digit Dialing (RDD), phoning all people in a region and screening for Jewish households. Now with cell phones, call display (where people may not answer) and mobility of populations (is your cell phone area code the same as the city you live in?) this method is no longer cost effective or in most cases, feasible.

This is widely seen as extremely expensive (may need to call 10,000 numbers to find one Jewish person who may not participate.) The methodologies are constantly changing, so it is important to choose a research that is on the cutting edge of technology and understands Jewish community studies.

An excellent resource to look at is 100s of Jewish community studies visible on-line, for free at Jewish Federation of North America’s Berman Jewish Data Bank.

This may seem like an overwhelming task at first, but considering these key points will help build a beneficial path for years to come.

Mara Koven-Gelman, MA, Jewish Communal Service, MA, Journalism, (lead Federation staff of the 2013 Buffalo Jewish Community Study). Study performed by Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies/Steinhardt Social Research Institute, Brandeis University)