Frustrated Sociologists Want Census Religion Question

By Nacha Cattan

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
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Jewish researchers frustrated with the trouble-plagued National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 are calling for a question on religion to be added to the decennial United States Census.

Bucking the Jewish community’s historic opposition to government inquiries on religion, three leading scholars now say it may be the only way to count Jews accurately. The reform advocates include Steven M. Cohen, senior consultant to the Jewish population survey; Jack Ukeles, a private consultant who specializes in Jewish demographic studies, and Len Saxe, co-director of the North American Jewish Data Bank at Brandeis University. The view was aired at a recent academic conference on the population survey and its fallout, held near Boston.

The inclusion of the ‘R’ word in the once-a-decade tally was long considered anathema by Jewish groups. Since a religion question was considered in the 1950s, Jewish groups have been instrumental in keeping the Census religion-free on church-state-separation grounds, fearing that such information could ultimately be used to persecute Jews. But following a host of missteps and errors in the $6 million NJPS, sponsored by United Jewish Communities, academics are reconsidering.

“If it’s important for the community to have a better handle over time on the numbers, I’m not sure there’s something else we can do other than try to encourage the religion question on the Census,” said Saxe, whose data bank houses the population survey. “It would mean doing the study would be a whole lot easier,” he said, noting that particular Jewish behavior patterns would still need to be studied privately.

But an American Jewish Congress official said that such a move would be harmful to Jews. “Who the hell wants somebody to know how few of us there are in particular places?” said Marc Stern, assistant executive director of the AJCongress.

The debate, perhaps the first in recent history, appears to pit the Jewish community’s internal need to identify populations for service delivery against its external aim of maximum freedom within the larger American society.

Ukeles publicized his view at a colloquium on the NJPS held on the campuses of Brandeis, in Waltham, Mass., and Hebrew College in Newton. The October 26 through October 27 colloquium brought together demographers, Jewish policy experts and some denominational leaders to discuss how the study can help shape the community’s agenda despite its limitations.

Participants said the colloquium was a thoughtful attempt to find ways of maximizing the survey’s usefulness. But the event was sprinkled with flare-ups over the survey’s controversial methodology. One participant called for an inquiry into the handling of the NJPS, and a squabble broke out over whether Bob Dylan, who became a born-again Christian for a period, should have been considered a Jew.

The survey was released in September after being initially released a year earlier but then withdrawn after certain support data were found to be missing. In the interim, an internal investigation and an external review were initiated by UJC, the sponsor. The external review found that the survey’s signature 5.2 million Jewish population figure was probably an undercount, that the survey lacked comparability to other studies and that it may have overcounted more religiously inclined Jews. But experts are still hoping to tease out meaning from the study based on the relationship between variables such as age and religious denomination.

At the colloquium, organizational leaders strongly urged that the complicated data be made more accessible. Demographers announced projects to recalculate the survey’s findings to correct what critics say are its inaccuracies through the use of so-called weighting. No policy statement arose from the conference, but participants called for a unified position on exactly what the NJPS can and cannot be used for.

“The central question is how to use this data,” said sociologist Samuel Heilman of the City University of New York. “A number of people said one of the problems with the data is the difficulty of talking about trends. But trends are what we’re talking about.”

Other criticism of the data emerged as well. Ron Miller, the director of research at Ukeles Associates, claimed that the survey incorrectly focused on individuals at the expense of households, thereby undervaluing an area of Jewish growth. He said that the number of Jewish households and the number of Jews per household had actually increased over the past 10 years.

But Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna said that Miller seemed to be effectively legitimating interfaith marriage, since it increases the number of households containing Jews. Miller denied this and decried a proposal by the National Jewish Data Bank to put the survey’s raw data on the Internet, effectively allowing the public to calculate their own population figures. “To allow people to do their own weights would only lead to incredible confusion,” he said.

Researchers spoke about building on the NJPS findings to conduct long-term studies on Jewish behavior patterns such as the emergence of single mothers and the practices of interfaith families.

Some liberals argue that interfaith families should be encouraged to maintain Jewish homes. But, said Sylvia Barack Fishman, associate professor of Near Eastern and Judaic studies at Brandeis, this may not always stem assimilation: “Even affiliated families often have Christian observances in their homes.”

Overall, said population survey consultant Cohen, the colloquium “demonstrated that whatever our reservations are about methodological issues, errors and shortcomings in the NJPS, with caution the major substantive findings are both valuable and reliable.”

Apparently not enough to keep researchers from defecting to the Census.

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