Why We Count

countingBy Jay Tcath

Ira M. Sheskin and Steven M. Cohen (“Jewish Community Studies Remain Vital for Planning and Policy-making”) provide an important response to questions posed by Susan J. Levine’s “Have Demographic Studies of the Jewish Community Outlived Their Usefulness?

These essays prompted thoughtful comments and, for our part, reflections on why, once a decade, we “count” our Chicago community via a demographic population survey.

After four decades of demographic studies, the question isn’t whether to continue to do them, but how to secure ever more relevant data to better inform our understanding of community needs.

Of course, our demographic studies are in addition to, not instead of marketing and branding studies, both of which we have completed in the past two years.

As the trusted custodian of communal tzedekah and charged with the responsibility of central planning, there are pressing questions that only a demographic population study can address, e.g.:

  • Based on births the past decade, can we expect the number of Jews utilizing Illinois’ 17 Hillels to increase or decrease by 2025?
  • Based on that same birth data and synagogue affiliation trends, the enrollment for Jewish overnight camps is likely to…. ?
  • Jewish seniors increasingly are choosing what types of housing arrangements and services?

Such demographic questions are not trivial. Neither are the answers.

Learning who we are, where we live, how Judaism informs our life choices and what our needs and dreams are is what our population studies seek to gauge every decade. What we learn from these surveys, supplemented with service updates from agencies, allows allocation committees to both be nimble and to engage in long-term planning.

Every involved, caring member of the Jewish community knows that changes, at an accelerated pace, are underway. And our communities will change many times between now and 2025. But humility – and the desire to do the most good possible – compels even the most informed among us to acknowledge that our allocation of finite resources must be based on sound data, not conventional wisdom or anecdote.

Survey data confirms and debunks our assumptions, allowing for more informed and hence successful initiatives.

These surveys are not just a snapshot revealing who we are now or, even more accurately, who we’ve become since the last study. The data provides the guidance for the strategic deployment of tens of millions of federation dollars annually and of many other communal resources.

Relevant survey data is shared and analyzed jointly with social services agencies, day schools and synagogues. For their own planning purposes, they too need to know who is affiliating and why, who is moving in or out of their neighborhood, and the background and Jewish lifestyle choices of the people they serve now and will serve in the future.

Other key consumers of this data are foundations interested in further informing and leveraging their grant making.

Like many other federations, we will continue counting what Messrs. Sheskin and Cohen count, as well as inquiring into the attitudes and perceptions of community members that Ms. Levine seeks to discern. Both are necessary; neither is sufficient.

We do not count merely for counting’s sake. We count because it impacts how wisely we distribute tzedakkah, plan our future and deploy professional and volunteer resources. We count because our community – and its dreams – counts.

Jay Tcath is Executive Vice President at Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.