Overdoing the Pew Report?


Brown Academics Emphasize the Survey’s Limitations

“Is the Sky Falling?” was the title of a panel discussion at Brown University on the findings of the recent Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews. The findings have generated enormous attention in the media in recent weeks. But the four academics who presented on November 14 found a bit of Chicken Little in the question.

Part of the problem is that, as Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island President and CEO Jeffrey Savit pointed out in the last issue of “The Jewish Voice,” the report largely affirms what smaller surveys have already seen. But Calvin Goldscheider, a retired sociologist long prominent in Jewish demography, pointed out that we probably wouldn’t have believed the report if it had said anything much different. That’s because these kinds of surveys are inherently difficult to carry out.

First off is the low response rate for telephone surveys of this kind: only 15 percent of people answer the phone and agree to interviews. We also have no directly comparable past survey to show change over time, as previous research used questionnaires with often quite different wording. A deeper problem, as emphasized by Daniel Vaca from the religious studies department, is that questions about religious identity are hard for people to answer in any case.

To add concreteness to the questions, these and other questionnaires use categories based on traditional Protestant notions of a sharp tension between religious and secular life. But these categories have never worked well for Jews, and Professor Vaca said they don’t even work so well for Protestants anymore as religious expression has become more varied and individualistic.

Lila Berman, a guest expert in Jewish history from Temple University, added that we have to be wary of the agenda behind surveys. In the 19th century, European Jewish communities encouraged surveys in order to show their participation and presence in their home countries, while Americans in the assimiliationist 1930s sought them in order to know what was “normal.” People tend to use surveys to press their own concerns, so it can be hard to see the underlying reality the surveys are trying to suggest.

As if to counter those who see the report as a crisis in American Judaism, Professor Goldscheider and others drew on other research to emphasize the underlying strength of communities today. Families are much better connected now than they were a century ago, when the children of immigrants often wanted little to do with their parents’ ways. So children are highly likely to adopt their parents’ practices and social networks, work in the same professions and live in the same neighborhoods.

Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, a Ph.D. student of Goldscheider’s but the only non-academic on the panel (he directs research for the Jewish Federations of North America), urged people to focus on behaviors, not attitudes that are hard to express over the phone. On that note, he pointed out that Jews involved in synagogues tend also to be more involved in Jewish secular institutions, so the divide is not between religious and secularist but between engaged and non-engaged. He said the Pew Report will still be useful for researchers, but mainly in the more technical details of the findings, and not in the highly publicized big generalizations.

While the panelists focused on scholarly questions, the event had been promoted throughout the local community and the hundred-plus in attendance included many non-academics. Their questions included several on religion, including one student who took Dr. Kotler-Berkowitz’s point a step further.

Religious identity is hard to express, he argued but, at the end of the day, religious meaning is a more powerful force than the sociological patterns the panelists emphasized. Yet meaning is even harder to discuss than identity – especially presently with Jews experimenting with many kinds of spiritual practices. Surveys like the Pew Report are therefore likely to be even less useful in the future – a conclusion that everyone could agree with.

Editor’s note: John Landry (jtlandry@verizon.net) is a member of The Jewish Voice editorial board.