Essay: Just the facts, please

In such a nebulous, heart-tugging industry as 'Jewish identity formation,' it is easy to be swept into subjective assessments of success.

steinhardt illustration (photo credit: )
steinhardt illustration
(photo credit: )
I've often been told that I'm fixated on numbers. Perhaps it's my background on Wall Street, where the state of the markets is reflected in quantitative terms. Or perhaps I recognize that in such a nebulous, heart-tugging industry as "Jewish identity formation," it is easy to be swept into subjective assessments of success. How, one might ask, can the Jewish heart and soul be quantitatively defined? In its present state, however - with declining rates of affiliation and abominable levels of Jewish literacy - the community can hardly afford to rely on subjective analysis. We need to gain an accurate assessment of what the community looks like, because if we're running down the wrong paths, we're not wasting only resources, we're squandering the Jewish future itself. And yet all too often I hear about outreach initiatives that claim great success - based on speculation, presumption and wishful thinking. When I ask what kind of research went into the creation of these programs - what demographic studies pointed to the need, and what programmatic analysis corroborated the effectiveness - I am usually met with blank stares. It amazes me that the Jewish people, known throughout our history as intellectuals - the People of the Book - will rely on wishful thinking and unscientific hosannas when involved in what is arguably our most vital endeavor: understanding and strengthening Jewish identity and commitment. WHEN WE think of the state of Jewish demographic research, there is cause for concern. The most basic data - the number of Jews in America - is fraught with dispute. Each survey uses a different methodology, allowing little opportunity for the mapping of larger trends. Quantitative and qualitative research is not coordinated. In sum, the vital information we need on the makeup of American Jewry and the best methods of engaging Jews is fleeting and imprecise. In such an atmosphere, Jewish leaders working to shore up identity are essentially flying blind. The Steinhardt Social Research Institute was created to hasten the end of second-rate thinking and subjective analysis in Jewish life. The SSRI is born of my belief that intensive statistical research and analysis are the best tools we have in assessing what the community needs, and in selecting the most effective programs and initiatives to meet those needs. Moreover, I hope we begin to answer important questions about our future not yet seriously asked. Let this institute become a linchpin in Jewish renaissance by telling us, not what we want to hear, but what we need to hear if we are serious about reversing the declines in affiliation. The SSRI will be the first of its kind: A national clearinghouse for the study and evaluation of the American Jewish population and the various enterprises aimed at reinvigorating Jewish life. Under one roof, we will join qualitative and quantitative research, program evaluation and identity studies, demographic analysis and the mapping of trends. It will be a Jewish policy think tank with the ability to coordinate research, standardize methodologies and facilitate an exchange of ideas among the best social scientists. Perhaps most importantly, it will provide the macro view of Jewish life in America that has thus far been lacking. Until now, many of us have been basing our programs on assumptions. The first and foremost assumption concerns the sheer number of Jews in America. Despite various community surveys and - to say the least - contentious national Jewish population studies, there has not been an unimpeachable, systemic, quantitative analysis of American Jews. If we don't know the numbers, how can we expect large-scale programs to respond meaningfully to our needs? ANOTHER SET of assumptions that needs to be corrected concerns the inner spiritual life of American Jews. To what degree are the denominations currently meeting our spiritual needs? If more American Jews today define themselves in non-religious categories, what are these categories, and how can we best enhance and increase opportunities for Jewish engagement? These questions, too, have no easy answers. But this is all the more reason for rigorous research and analysis that may set us on the right path. And now that I have spoken the words of the proper Michael Steinhardt - the semi-respectable philanthropist and hopeful donor - let me add a few words from the other Michael Steinhardt - the provocateur, the man who is desperately concerned about the demographic and cultural decline of American non-Orthodox Jewry, who is shocked by the complacency and "get along, go along" psychology of community leadership, and passionately determined to work with others to reverse these trends. Here are some of my hopes for the SSRI: * First, the percentage of Jewish dollars going to the Jewish world has declined regularly since the middle of the 20th century. This represents a slow-motion but ultimately fatal bleeding away of our capacity to function. How can we halt and reverse that decline? One of the projects the SSRI might focus on is philanthropic giving. Such a study could include profiles of philanthropists; research into the shift toward non-Jewish causes; and analysis of what factors, if any, are able to change priorities back toward Jewish giving. Our objective will be to reinvigorate Jewish giving, particularly in the areas that matter for the Jewish future. * Another area that calls for attention is Orthodox outreach. I would estimate this to be a $2 billion a year industry. What is the yield per dollar? The returnees appear to be less than 1% of American Jews - if one can trust the National Jewish Population Studies. I would like to see a serious, disciplined study of many such programs to establish whether this is true medicine for our demographic decline, or is it, in the end, just a vast WPA for the Orthodox community? * Another area of potential research concerns the sacred cow of Pluralism - the orthodox religion of the liberals and secularists. Well, how about some disciplined research on what behaviors pluralism nurtures? Does it have a dark side? Is pluralism in fact an invitation to nebulous ideas and a marker of I-don't-really-care loyalties (as I suspect)? Or does this type of inclusiveness inspire people on the periphery to come closer? Again - let the chips fall where they may. I hope that we can get some facts for a change to help us make some true judgments on this powerful dogma. Let me confess that beyond my fantasies there is also an act of faith in my founding of the SSRI. It is not only faith in Brandeis University and the researchers, present and future. It is also the hope that future donors will be inspired by rigorous evaluation and objective assessments which will refute cynical claims that philanthropy is about control, social climbing and ego. I hope that a new generation - more entrepreneurial, more disciplined - will respond so generously as to create one of philanthropy's finest hours. In the 21st century, wisdom cannot be had without a quantitative precision that has long been lacking in the Jewish community. By serving as a model of objective inquiry, this institute will illuminate our world, making for a long-lasting and luminescent renaissance of American Jewish life. This essay is based on a speech given by the writer at the Inaugural Dinner of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute on November 2.