Lifting Veil on Science of Counting Jews

$300K Miami Study Aims To Help Jewish Agencies Plan

Getty Images

By Uriel Heilman

Published January 29, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

(JTA) — Fueled by KitKats and Cherry Coke, some two dozen people sit hunched over stacks of questionnaires in a windowless conference room in Miami, a phalanx of 1980s-era push-button telephones in front of them.

It’s the first day of work on a new survey of Miami Jews, and operators are having a hard time finding cooperative respondents.

“To you personally, is being Jewish, 1, mainly a matter of religion; 2, mainly a matter of ancestry; or 3, mainly a matter of culture?” a surveyor asks.

Ira Sheskin, the go-to man for Jewish communities that want to count their Jews, is overseeing the work. A professor of geography at the University of Miami, Sheskin is now on his 43rd Jewish federation population study, and he’s got it down to a science.

He has found that subjects are much more likely to talk if the interviewer is female. Because of the unique background of Miami Jews, Sheskin has hired interviewers who speak six different languages. Those with some fluency in Judaism offer certain advantages, such as the ability to discern when a respondent has misunderstood a question about whether they keep two sets of dishes to be about kitchenware rather than Jewish observance.

For the Miami survey, Sheskin has brought some of his veteran interviewers with him: Two women from Pennsylvania who have worked with him twice before and his octogenarian mother-in-law, who sits in a corner dutifully dialing numbers. His son and wife are helping out, too.

“When you get someone on the phone who is cooperative, it’s actually a very interesting process that both the respondent and the interviewer benefit from,” says Sheskin, 63, who did his first large community study in 1982, also for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. “You hear some fascinating stories in these interviews, and you realize how inconsistent some people are.”

The last time the Miami federation took a census, in 2004, it found 113,000 Jews in Miami-Dade County. A lot has happened since: Hundreds of Latin American Jewish families from Venezuela, Mexico, Argentina and elsewhere have immigrated. The economic crisis and real estate bust of 2008 hit the state hard, slowing domestic migration to Florida for several years. The Orthodox community in Miami Beach appears to have grown. Old people died. Babies were born.

“The change in the complexion of the population has been really dramatic,” says Jacob Solomon, CEO of the Miami federation.

But without hard numbers, no one knows exactly how dramatic. That’s where survey data come in.

The new study, whose results are expected to be released this fall, will provide not only demographic data — country of birth, age, number of children, education level, religious denomination, Jewish observance level and more — but also take the pulse of community members on such issues as their emotional attachment to Israel, frequency of synagogue attendance, the importance of being Jewish to their lives and what sorts of Jewish activities they do.

In all, there are 151 possible questions, culled from past surveys and refined through 15 focus groups, four federation committee meetings, and discussions between Sheskin and federation leaders. About 80 percent of the survey is identical to Miami’s last one, in 2004.

These kinds of population surveys are meant to help Jewish agencies and institutions plan for the future. If, for example, the number of Jewish households with young children is falling in a particular city, it may put the local JCC’s expansion plans on ice. A question in the Miami survey about the newspapers read by respondents will help guide the federation’s newspaper ad spending. A survey Sheskin conducted years ago in nearby Broward County helped a Reform synagogue in Fort Lauderdale figure out that it was better to refurbish their old building than erect one 2 1/2 miles away, where it turned out few Reform Jews lived.

“There’s no question in my mind that these types of results provide data to federations that allow them to do better planning,” Sheskin told JTA. “I’ve never seen a federation that doesn’t want to do a study. Finding money is always the issue.”

This study is costing the Miami federation about $300,000.

“We allocate over $20 million per year — that’s $200 million over 10 years,” said Solomon, the federation CEO. “So to spend $300,000 once a decade to help guide the wisdom of committees and boards and agencies and synagogues as to how spend their money seems like a good investment.”

There’s a certain rhythm to survey taking. First, operators cast a wide net, calling number after number on Random Digit Dialing lists Sheskin has generated with local area codes. Finding Jews among respondents is a little like finding needles in a haystack, but it’s not an idle exercise. The early phone calls — probably about 7,000 of them — help calculate the number of Jews as a portion of the total population.

Operators then start zeroing in on the Jews, culling numbers from lists provided by Jewish institutions, including cellphone numbers with non-Florida area codes. Interviews usually take 15-17 minutes to complete.

Twenty years ago, the work was more straightforward. But telephone surveying has become more difficult due to the decline of landlines, the rising number of locals with non-local cellphone numbers and the propensity not to answer calls from unfamiliar numbers.

In the Miami survey, every number gets four tries, and interviewers call back those who specify a more convenient time to talk. In an effort to boost cooperation, the federation has taken out advertisements in local media and mailed thousands of postcards alerting community members they might be calling.

The goal is to get a sample size of roughly 1,800 Jews — enough respondents not just for the overall picture, but also enough to learn about subgroups: Holocaust survivors, Latin Jews, Israelis, retirees, parents. In all, the calling period will probably last five weeks. Interviewers work four-hour shifts spread over 12-hour days, earning $18 per hour.

Then comes the work of entering and crunching the data — Sheskin’s interviewers record answers by hand — and months of study. By fall, the survey should be ready to make news.

“Even if everybody doesn’t respond, and even if things aren’t perfect,” Sheskin says, “you still get a pretty good idea of what the Jewish community looks like.”


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!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • 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.