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The Numbers Game

The sharks are already circling the waters in anticipation of next week’s planned release of the long-awaited National Jewish Population Survey, or NJPS. The $6 million study, originally scheduled for release in 2000, has been delayed repeatedly while scholars argued arcane questions of survey methodology. Now, it appears, one side has won the battle, and the losers, not surprisingly, are doing what they can to spoil the victory.

Although the terms of battle often seem impossibly obscure — revolving around issues like weighting of samples, response rates for random-digit dialing and coding of questionnaires — the stakes are considerable. For the survey’s sponsor, United Jewish Communities, what’s at stake is the competence and legitimacy of an effort that’s come to be seen as a signature undertaking of the struggling charity. For the rest of us, the stakes are nothing less than the collective Jewish self-image that will emerge from the survey’s thousands of statistics.

Of the two, the competency of the UJC seems to have created the most sparks during the scholars’ debates. The 2000 survey was conducted under a cloud of doubt about the accuracy of its predecessor, National Jewish Population Survey 1990. That survey was billed at the time as the most extensive study ever of American Jews, but public attention was drawn almost entirely to a single finding: that the annual interfaith marriage rate among American Jews was 52%. The finding set off a panicked flood of doomsday predictions of imminent Jewish demise. It also set off a furious internal debate, as growing numbers of experts came to believe the figure was in fact grossly inflated.

Scholars designing the successor survey thus faced a painful dilemma. If they accepted the criticisms of the 1990 survey, they would have to structure the 2000 survey differently to avoid making the same mistakes. But that would make it difficult to track trends across decades by comparing numbers from one survey to the next, a key goal in all polling. Moreover, researchers were under pressure from the sponsors not to admit that the 1990 survey, with all its costs and attendant publicity, had been a muck-up.

From the signs coming out of the tight-lipped survey team in recent months, it appears that the UJC has decided to bite the bullet and admit the flaws in the 1990 study. The new survey is already being derided by its critics — mostly defenders of the 1990 survey — as a clunker that won’t be comparable to previous studies because of changed methodology. Perhaps that means we can expect some straight talk for a change.

The real issue to watch for when the new survey comes out next week is not disappearance, but division. Jewish communal life in this country is characterized increasingly by the actions of a militant minority that seems more and more willing to celebrate its Jewishness and speak out on issues, but less and less connected to the moderately affiliated Jews who continue to form the vast majority of the community. If the new survey can help us to understand these two groups — and more important, help them to understand and communicate with each other — it will have been worth all the aggravation and expense.

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