Sunday, March 30, 2008

Tough Questions About NJPS

The Jewish Week, January 10, 2003

As a journalist, rabbi and child of the Watergate era, I’m a skeptic at heart. Jews are encouraged to pose tough questions from the very first time they participate in a Passover Seder. Yet somehow, regarding a matter that hits closest to home, we’ve forgotten how to ask.

When the long-awaited results of the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) were not fully released, it was alleged that the outside research firm that conducted the survey, RoperASW, had “apparently lost critical data,” according to Stephen H. Hoffman, President and CEO of the United Jewish Communities. The UJC never clarified publicly just what data had been lost, how it happened, why this problem was not discovered sooner and how the lost data had corrupted the results. As often occurs when large organizations face humiliating gaffes, the matter was shoveled off to committee.

Some consider this mess a stroke of good fortune that might induce us to look beyond statistics and improve the quality of Jewish life on a more intuitive level. While I too am a great believer in quality over quantity, and while I understand that Jewish tradition frowns on excessive poll taking, even the Bible finds merit in a periodic census, and this one would have been of tremendous value.

At best we are witness to incompetence on a heads-must-roll scale, resulting in the waste of oodles of donated-dollars and volunteer hours. At worst -- and here is where my skeptical side emerges -- there is some information out there that someone doesn’t want us to know. If the fact that we are aging and shrinking is the “good” news that was readily shared when the preliminary results were released, so tell me, what is the bad news?

Some more biting questions: What does it say about the current state of American Jewish journalism that no reporter has made a serious effort to explain this Jewish communal equivalent to the “18 1/2 minute gap?” And what does it say about the Jewish community that this fiasco has barely appeared as a blip on the radar screen of the mainstream press? There is a very big story here and journalists are treating it altogether too delicately.

For instance, has anyone looked into the fact that RoperASW has a checkered history in surveying for Jewish organizations? Back in 1992, a poll commissioned by the American Jewish Committee revealed, shockingly, that twenty percent of Americans believed that the Holocaust never happened. Fortunately, Burns “Bud” Roper, former head of the company, refused to believe the numbers, investigated the matter and discovered that one of the questions put forward had been a double-negative mind-twister, skewing the results ("Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?"). Could some similar miscue have happened this time?

All I know is, someone wants this problem to go away. RoperASW’s Web site includes dozens of press releases on other projects – but not even a speck in the archives about the NJPS. At the time of the G.A., the UJC Web site attempted to explain this embarrassment in an unconvincing press release. But a more recent check of the same Web site showed that the matter has been buried entirely. As lame as the original UJC answers were, you can’t even find them there now.

You can’t find the answers, but you can find the original questions.
If you surf on over to http://www.ujc.org/content_display.html?ArticleID=60346, you can download the entire NJPS questionnaire. It’s over 100 pages long, but fascinating reading. I took a look and right off the bat I saw lots of questions that could have yielded potentially embarrassing results. Take #124, for instance: “Did you personally attend any synagogue, temple, or organized Jewish religious service during the past year?” The options are “Yes,” “No” and “Don’t remember.” If large numbers of American Jewry can’t even remember whether they set foot in a synagogue last year, I might personally be tempted to bring the shredder over to the NJPS office.

Then there’s question 135, which will let us know how many Jews are vegetarians. Imagine the uproar if we discovered that most Jews do not eat all the disgusting, fattening foods that we have always considered the essence of Jewish cuisine. My grandmother would be rolling over in her gribenes! What would that mean for the future of the kishke industry?

And how about question 227: “Do you believe in God?” Whoa! What is God doing in a survey about Jewish life? In fact, the survey includes a number of questions attempting to assess the quality of Judaic belief and practice. The very fact that these questions are now being asked speaks volumes about how important the so-called Jewish “renaissance” has grown in federation life. Jewish leaders, at least for the moment, are focusing more on Jewish observance and values than ever before. So if the survey were to indicate that most American Jews could care less about these things, it could set back years of progress in synagogue-federation relations.

Of course, the results we all await deal with the rate of intermarriage and the children of mixed faith households. Will these results tell us that the millions of dollars spent on “Continuity” programming following the 1990 NJPS were a vain flailing at demographic windmills? Perhaps, but anecdotal evidence has conditioned us expect a trend toward increasing assimilation; so unless the rate has skyrocketed exponentially, to the point where Jews would sooner marry hyenas than other Jews, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to suppress that information.

So we are left with lots of questions and precious few answers. But the most perplexing question of all is why we have failed to probe this debacle more painstakingly. Bud Roper once said of the typical American, “He may not be terribly articulate or literate, but he’s a pretty smart guy.” Could he say the same of American Jews?

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