A Time for Counting

Opinion

By Uzi Rebhun

Published November 18, 2009, issue of November 27, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.