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Both the 1993 churchgoing study and the URJ figures found twice as many people claiming religious involvement as were actually involved.
According to Steven M. Cohen, one of the authors of the UJA-Federation study and a leading sociologist of the Jewish community, the Reform membership discrepancy is a related but distinct phenomenon from church attendance overreporting.
“We have both social desirability factors at work, as well as confusion and fluidity of definitions” of Jewish denominations and congregational membership, Cohen said. “They’re all in play.”
The UJA-Federation survey, which counted Jews in the five boroughs of New York City, Westchester and Long Island, determined the number of Reform households belonging to synagogues by analyzing the weighted responses to a question asking the denomination of a household, and another asking whether anyone in the house belonged to a synagogue, havurah or minyan.
The URJ’s data is based on reports from member synagogues, which share membership data with the umbrella group.
The discrepancy between the figures could theoretically point to an error in the weighting of survey responses, which were used to project an overall figure. But Cohen said he stands by his work. “This is not a weighting problem. It’s definitely an issue of the respondents’ interpretation of the questions,” he said.
The apparent discrepancy between the figures in the UJA-Federation survey and the Reform movement’s own numbers was first noted by Rochelle Rudnick, an administrator of a Conservative synagogue in New Jersey who holds a master’s degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Despite repeated requests, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism could not provide the number of households paying dues to Conservative synagogues within the counties surveyed by the UJA-Federation. The movement collects membership figures from individual synagogues each year in order to charge dues from those synagogues. The USCJ said it relies on the UJA survey and others like it for numbers about its membership and lacks resources to fund its own study.