Understanding the Present to Plan the Jewish Future

By Leonard Saxe and Janet Krasner Aronson

As we watch the carnage wrought by COVID-19, mourn losses, and witness lives and livelihoods disrupted, it may seem difficult to take stock and look forward. Those with leadership responsibility for the Jewish community face challenging decisions ahead, and many will look to evidence and data to guide their decision-making. Those of us in the Jewish research community have a special obligation to ensure that the data we produce is of the highest value for navigating a post-COVID world.

The extent and impact of the pandemic vary widely. While some members of the Jewish community are suffering personal loss, economic devastation, and separation from loved ones, others are embracing a “pause” from daily life and filling their time by “Zooming” with old friends, cooking, and learning online. The impact of the crisis is perhaps as diverse as our community. How can Jewish leaders draw lessons from these varied experiences to help plan for the future and ensure that they and the institutions they support are prepared for the challenges that lay ahead?

Understanding how the community is affected and assessing the communal response will be essential to this undertaking. Which segments of the community have been most harmed by the economic disruption, and what will that mean for their ability to participate in Jewish life going forward? Who is participating in new forms of online Jewish life, and might those resources continue as a means for engaging people even when social distancing guidelines are relaxed? Which Jewish institutions are most effectively meeting the needs of community members today, and what do those successes suggest for the future?

The purpose of systematic research is to help leaders extend their knowledge beyond their personal experience. In the absence of data, the door will be open to decisions based solely on anecdotal evidence or made by instinct, emotion, or in the service of expediency. It is natural for all of us to privilege what we observe directly, or, as Daniel Kahneman describes it, “What you see is all that there is.” We assume that our own lives, and those of the people we know, are typical, when, in fact, Jewish leaders may experience the Jewish world in quite different ways than others in the community.

Scientific research can document the experience of broad segments of the community and synthesize this evidence in a form that policy-makers can use in making decisions about the allocation of resources. With an eye toward best serving our community, we offer the following suggestions for promoting reliability and validity in new research endeavors:

Clarify the goals. No single study can answer every question, and tradeoffs are necessary between cost, time, and quality. Every study should be designed to address the research goals. For a deep understanding about complex and sensitive issues, such as the experience of poverty and loss, qualitative interview studies of targeted groups yield rich information. To capture a wide range of experiences across large groups, surveys of community members provide the bigger picture.

Know who you are studying. It is not the number of people you survey or interview that determines a study’s utility but whether the sample is representative of the group you want to understand. Conducting surveys of individuals who appear on a list, whether that of an organization or the Postal Service, allows researchers to know with confidence who was invited to the survey and who was excluded. Survey invitations posted on social media platforms are more limited in evaluating who is – and is not – represented. Clarity about who is represented by survey findings is essential to their valid interpretation.

Acknowledge limitations. Inherent in survey research is the fact that every number is an estimate. We ask questions of a sample of people and, using statistical methods, infer what the response would have been if everyone had been asked. Depending upon the study design, some estimates are precise and some are less so. Regardless of whether or not data points are precisely measured, the most useful information is often the differences between groups. We learn by comparisons.

Recognize complexity. Genius has been described as the ability to simplify something complex. In practice, research findings are often oversimplified as funders look for a single cause and an uncomplicated solution. The Jewish community is diverse by background, identity, and ways of engaging. Useful research must acknowledge this complexity and be applicable to different people and needs.

Using precious human and fiscal resources to gather social data on the impact of the COVID crisis will, no doubt, compete with needs to provide immediate support to the community. But, if we have learned anything from the COVID crisis, it is the importance of data and science-based analysis. Communal organizations are dependent on philanthropic support and can only function effectively if they are good stewards of the resources they collect and distribute. Our call is for thoughtful data-driven decision-making.

As researchers, we cannot predict the lessons we will learn by examining the lives of Jewish families in this unprecedented moment. Would that we were wise enough to know which needs will be most critical and which programs most necessary. What we can do is describe a research-driven process to gather information that can inform such decisions. We call on the community to embrace such information and begin thinking about how to re-order our communal priorities and policies to address the needs of a post-pandemic world.

Leonard Saxe, Ph.D. is Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and Director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University.

Janet Krasner Aronson, Ph.D. is Associate Director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.