Social Research: Out From Under the Organizational Umbrella

By Bethamie Horowitz

Published April 29, 2005, issue of April 29, 2005.
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Jewish social research, to judge by a series of recent developments, is shifting its base from the organizational world to the academy.

Earlier this month, Michael Steinhardt, chairman of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, donated $12 million to establish the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University. The gift forms the endowment for the institute, whose purpose is to become the main address for research about American Jewry and Jewish organizations.

Six months ago, Brandeis also inaugurated the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education — for the sake of full disclosure, note that I work for the sponsoring foundation. The center’s purpose is to transform the quality of teaching and learning in Jewish education settings by supporting research initiatives and pioneering new approaches to developing Jewish educators.

And last month the Frankel family donated $20 million to establish the Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, where each year a group of visiting scholars will collaborate on the study of the history, culture, literature and religion of Jews past and present. Contemporary Jewry, while not the chief arena of the institute’s activities, is clearly one domain that fits within its mandate. Moreover, in addition to the founding of the new Frankel Institute, the university’s Center for Jewish Studies is itself in the midst of a search for a new faculty member “whose research and teaching focus on contemporary Jewish societies in Europe, Israel or the Americas.”

At the same time as these developments in the academy appear to have gained momentum, recent staff cuts and reorganization at the United Jewish Communities, such as the retrenching of two key managerial positions related to research, suggest that the communal body is now getting out of the business of itself producing statistics of record about American Jewry. Given that UJC has been a central sponsor of research about American Jews, as had been its predecessor, the Council of Jewish Federations, this is nothing less than a major shift in the research orientation of UJC.

UJC’s executive director, Howard Rieger, has himself affirmed this change. Future social research, he says, “will need to be action-oriented, where the purpose of gathering information would be to do something with it. Producing reports alone is insufficient.” UJC will aspire to be “more nimble, flexible and policy-interested rather than seeking a definitive academic point of view.”

Taken together, these developments appear to signal a shift in the “town-gown” division of labor for assessing the condition of America’s Jews. The capacity of the academy to produce research about American Jewry has grown as the research ambitions of the organizational world have shrunk.

The changes at UJC mirror a similar shift at the American Jewish Committee, for years the premier address for social science research about American Jews. Whereas 40 years ago AJCommittee employed on staff several prominent scholars who developed major studies about Jews in America, for years now it has commissioned outside academics to conduct studies that inform its programmatic goals.

This is worth noting because knowledge isn’t neutral, and the political forces and institutional arrangements underlying its production can influence its quality and usability — both in terms of the sorts of questions being raised and the nature of the answers and evidence being brought to bear.

With changes afoot, it is worth considering the implications of this shift in the institutional arrangements, and whether they are good or bad for American Jews.

First, this is good news from the point of view of developing a serious knowledge base regarding American Jewry, because the questions worth addressing about American Jewry deserve a broader frame than the Jewish organizational world typically provides. I’m thinking not only about the academy’s ready infrastructure of books and bytes, but also about its usual commitment to open and long-term inquiry, a stance that can be difficult to sustain in the day-to-day life of communal organizations.

Moreover, the Jewish world will be better served by an ongoing, extensive, multidisciplinary research operation that develops expertise over time — in terms of ideas, issues, methods and personnel. A study like the erstwhile National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 would have fared better had it been based within a sustained professional research operation rather than being relegated to once-in-10-years “pick-up game,” as it has been over the decades.

In addition, conducting research from a university base can foster a commitment to methodological and analytic rigor that should become standard for research about American Jews. Today numerous organizations commission studies to learn about the world in which they operate and to guide them strategically, but the quality of the research and the questions they addressed are not necessarily up to snuff.

However, the shift of the research enterprise into the academy is not without challenges. It’s important that unique features of Jews and Judaism not be lost in translation in comparing the experience of the Jews to other groups and traditions. This problem turned up recently in a newly issued report about faith among young Americans. Not only is “faith” a problematic category for most Jews, but the way religious practice and connection are defined in this study exemplifies the thorny problem of determining the appropriate metrics to use in comparing Jews to other ethnic-religious groups.

The best way to foster the balance between “town” and “gown” of Jewish social research is to cultivate a cadre of social scientists who can be in but not fully of the Jewish organizational world, so as to be sensitive to its concerns but not fully locked into its terms.

Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist, directs research for the Mandel Foundation.

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