Not So Good With the Math

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There have been murmurings since December that the UJC’s National Jewish Population Survey was way off. 

With the publication of a new “meta-study” from the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University the verdict-and the corrective-is in. And the UJC missed by a mile.

According to JTA, the NJPS estimated the American Jewish population at 5.2 million Jews. But Len Saxe, who led the new report, says the number is actually closer to 6 to 6.4 million (and even more if a broader definition of Jewishness is used).

How does an organization spend millions of dollars (which could have been used to benefit the very Jews they’re counting) and still come away with data that’s just plain wrong?

According to Saxe, the NJPS substantially undercounted Jews in their 20s and early 30s. It seems that the leaders of tomorrow were out speed-dating and climbing the corporate ladder and missed the dinnertime call.

Those who have landlines, that is. Young Jewish adults who have eschewed landlines in favor of cellphones never even stood a chance.

The good news? There are more American Jews than we thought. The bad news?  Percentages.

Says Saxe:

[T]he numbers suggest that the community, even if it is growing, has not been effective in certain areas – penetrating a much smaller portion of the Jewish population than previously thought – and it will take more programming to reach the underaffiliated. That also means significantly more philanthropic funding will be needed.

All of this makes for a good story in the Jewish press. We’re not shrinking. Hurrah! The UJC can’t make a survey worth a shekel. Boo!

But the question remains: what now?

Posted on February 20, 2007

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One thought on “Not So Good With the Math

  1. Hannah

    Why do we have to immediately look for a good side and a bad side to every new piece of information that’s been published? It’s amazing to me that the debate over Jewish demography is so politicized that every new piece of information must, bottom line, mean a win for one camp and a lose for someone else.

    The policy question for those involved in “growing the community” or “reaching the underaffiliated” is: should a change in the numbers affect your strategy? I think the answer is no. If you really think you’re doing the right thing to attract people, knowing that more of them are out there shouldn’t affect you.

    I especially don’t think that the Jewish community should see its failure to “engage” these people as a failure. If these people wanted Jewish life, they would probably know where to find it. If these numbers (which will probably be misinterpreted) spur people to give more money and to create more innovative programming and to be more welcoming, great.

    If they were just undercounted because they weren’t in the house, that’s another (lesser) issue. Speaking as someone with no landline in my early 20s – yes, I probably was out to dinner. Which is neither a catastrophe nor a great sign of promise for the Jewish people.

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