A Time for Counting

Opinion

By Uzi Rebhun

Published November 18, 2009, issue of November 27, 2009.
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The end of a decade provides a good opportunity for taking stock. The American Jewish community has had a tradition of conducting a decennial population survey that looks at its aggregate numbers but also beyond to paint a detailed portrait of Jewish demography and identity. Unfortunately, with the first decade of the 21st century nearing its end, there are currently no plans for such a survey for 2010.

The custom of conducting a national Jewish communal survey at 10-year intervals began in 1970. Although there was no such survey in 1980, the custom resumed with the National Jewish Population Surveys of 1990 and of 2000-01.

The latter two surveys were the objects of considerable criticism, both over their methodology, and over their headline findings. In 1990, the controversy was focused on the survey’s finding of an intermarriage rate in excess of 50%. In 2000-01, the suggestion that the national Jewish population had, perhaps, declined over the previous decade came under fire.

In the wake of the criticism that engulfed the 2000-01 NJPS, the survey’s sponsor, United Jewish Communities (its predecessor body, the Council of Jewish Federations, was responsible for the 1990 survey), indicated that it wouldn’t conduct an equivalent survey in 2010. As of yet, we have no reason to believe that the organization, since renamed the Jewish Federations of North America, is going to reconsider.

Past criticism and mistakes, however, should not stop the American Jewish community from conducting a new national population survey. Rather, we should learn from previous missteps; scientific investigations always attempt to improve upon earlier methods and tools. Moreover, whatever its shortcomings, the NJPS 2000-01 yielded valuable information on American Jewry. The large number of scholarly and communal policy publications that made use of its data should encourage the continuation of the NJPS endeavor.

True, a new national survey will face complicated challenges to both incorporate lessons from the past and to ensure maximum comparability with earlier findings. The wording of questions and their content should enable appropriate comparison with data on the general American population as well as on major Jewish communities elsewhere, thus adapting questions from the U.S. decennial census, the General Social Survey, the Israeli census of population and housing, and other sources. A new survey should also go beyond one-time data collection to compile a focus group for follow-up on socio-demographic and identification patterns at defined future intervals.

The Jewish community needs to muster the collective will and initiative to conduct a new national survey of the American Jewish population. A community that does not have a solid, up-to-date understanding of its own characteristics will have a difficult time effectively allocating resources to meet its present needs, let alone planning for its future.

Uzi Rebhun is a senior lecturer at the Division of Jewish Demography and Statistics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry.


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