Counting Jews

On the eve of the Jewish Federation of North America’s annual General Assembly this year, one might expect the release of a national Jewish population study, since it has been 10 years since the last one appeared.

But there will be no such detailed portrait of the demographics of American Jewry unveiled Nov. 6-8 at the GA in Denver, because in the wake of the controversy over the 2000-2001survey, none was commissioned this time around.

You may recall that the report a decade ago said the U.S. Jewish population was at 5.2 million, about 300,000 people less than was reported in 1990, and that intermarriage was up, but only slightly from two decades earlier. The bigger news was the troubles with the report itself, which was plagued by cost over-runs, lost data and sharp disputes among leading Jewish sociologists and demographers about the methodology and merit of its findings.

Partly as a result of the failure of the study, JFNA, already facing difficult financial challenges, opted not to commission another one last year. Life goes on, but experts in the field say the community is being shortsighted — some say “irresponsible” — in not gathering data on the size, whereabouts and attitudes of Jews around the country to benefit communal planning for the future.

At a two-day conference at Brandeis University this week, dozens of the specialists who direct and analyze these studies gathered to discuss the impact of not having this once-a-decade mother lode of Jewish data, and what to do about it. They noted that a number of communities (including New York) are doing local surveys, but suggested that national studies are vital, and need not be as large, expensive and infrequent as they have been over the last half-century. Several experts said these studies should focus less on figuring out how many Jews there are and more on what the behaviors, attitudes, trends and interests are among those they can identify.

Ironically, major communal leaders lay part of the blame on the lack of a national study at the feet of the very Jewish demographers clamoring for one. The leaders say that the demographers, who have a history of sniping at each other’s finding and methods, have undermined the credibility of the extensive and expensive work produced in the past.

The demographers, in turn, insist they would have little to complain about if the quality of the research was higher.

The two sides need to get together and focus forward rather than backward, recognizing the need for up-to-date information about what American Jews are up to, and why.

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