Declining To Be Counted: Many Factors Affect Ultra-Orthodox Failure To Fill Out Census

By Tali Yahalom

Published April 21, 2010, issue of April 30, 2010.
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How many ultra-Orthodox Jews does it take to fill out the U.S Census?

Given the low response rates from Brooklyn’s Hasidic enclaves, the answer remains unclear.

After the April 16 deadline to mail in the completed surveys, participation rates in communities such as Williamsburg and Boro Park hovered at around 40%, prompting Jewish leaders to employ grass-roots efforts and special measures to urge residents to get involved.

Community officials, who say they are not surprised by the low numbers, attributed the neglect to a host of factors, including a scheduling overlap with hectic Passover preparations, poor Yiddish translations of Census literature and the government’s reliance on advertisements on television, radio and other forms of modern media that are shunned in these communities.

“Bad timing, bad language,” said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York, of the factors behind the numbers, which, as of April 20, dipped as low as 39% in Williamsburg, 37% in Boro Park and 40% in Crown Heights. “Why should you fill out the census if it seems worthless to you?”

These figures, which are from sections of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in these areas, stand out as relatively low, especially when compared with regional and national numbers. According to the most recent Census numbers from April 16, mail-in participation rates totaled 51% in Brooklyn, 56% in New York City, 64% in New York State and 69% nationwide.

“It comes back to the issue of outreach and explanation. That has to be improved,” said David Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and a leader in the Satmar community. On April 12, the UJO issued a press release in conjunction with the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty that blamed the timing around pre-Passover cleaning for the communities’ Census dereliction.

A version of the release, equal parts sympathy and exigency in tone, was printed in the local Yiddish weekly newspaper Der Yid on April 8. “We understand that because the forms were received right before Passover, you may not have had time to complete it yet,” the statement said. “For every resident not counted, the city will lose $3,000 that would otherwise be going to pay for vital services for you, our community residents.”

On May 1, Census representatives will begin visiting households that did not mail in completed forms. To prepare for this door-to-door canvass, officials from the New York State Senate’s Census Project will meet on April 22 with representatives from the JCRC, Met Council and the Jewish community councils of Williamsburg, Boro Park, Crown Heights and Flatbush to brainstorm ways for rabbis, community leaders and Census officials to increase the neighborhoods’ participation rates.

“The message we’ve been giving to everyone as a chesed [merciful] service organization is… you’ve trusted us before. We wouldn’t ask you to fill out something we didn’t think was safe,” said Rose Turshen, Census Project manager at the Met Council, which received a $118,765 grant from New York State to undertake Census outreach. The Met Council has translated Census advertisements into Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and Spanish to explain the benefits of completing the forms, and will send Census representatives to Jewish community councils to answer questions.

On April 14, an e-mail sent on behalf of Met Council CEO William Rapfogel to the heads of 25 Jewish community councils stated, “As leaders in your communities on so many different levels, now is the time to weigh in by encouraging residents to respond and get counted.”

City Council member Stephen Levin, who represents Williamsburg, stressed that this sort of “word of mouth” advertising would be vital in the coming weeks, and said that grass-roots efforts would be the most effective in reaching elusive households.

Despite these pleas, most local residents seemed largely detached from the issue when asked about it April 15.

On Lee Avenue in Williamsburg, passersby dismissed questions about the Census and, for the most part, had not heard about their community’s poor performance or seen many advertisements about the national endeavor. Several men and women interviewed declined to say whether they had completed the form, or simply responded that they had not and then walked away.

One man, Jacob Moskowitz, 29, said he mailed his form in on time, but conceded that he was “part of the few that did.” Was he aware of the community’s poor participation rate? “That’s why I did it,” he said.

“People are ignorant, but I know it’s very important,” said Williamsburg resident Shmuel Rosen, 41. “People are busy with family, kids, education” and are not in tune with American politics, he continued. “Not everyone feels that this is a life-threatening [issue]. People have other problems and don’t have time to do it.” But, Rosen suggested, “if there would be an explanation to the community which would explain why they have to do it,” the numbers would likely increase.

Contact Tali Yahalom at feedback@forward.com






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