Understanding PEW…and its limitations

The Jewish world has been immersed in discussion over the PEW Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” and it’s time to take a few minutes and define what the PEW Report is all about.

The PEW Report is quantitatively based and was derived after extensive polling in the Jewish community. It should be remembered that any poll is a snapshot in time and what’s important is how it relates to other surveys and the depth of knowledge of those doing the analysis.

A good example of how polling is used on a regular basis is in our election process. In an election, a poll tells us how many people favor one candidate over another.  A poll taken on a Monday asking the same questions about a list of candidates which is then taken again on Wednesday can give an indication about each candidate’s viability on the day of the future election. Same poll a few days later will catch even more detail. However – and this is key – no election campaign depends on one poll. Campaigns look at their work in relation to other polls being done around the same time within similar frameworks. That’s why, in the end, many campaigns rely on averages of polls and not on one poll alone.

An analyst who understands the trends, issues and future direction of the numbers involved is critical. There is more art than science done here, and the better analysts come to the fore throughout the course of their careers. When   candidates or organizations buy a poll, it is likely they are buying the wisdom of the interpreter more than anything else.

Polls can be manipulated and over-relied on. Journalists often look for things in polls that support a conclusion to which they’ve already come. Organizations use them to justify their beliefs. Much of that goes on in the Jewish world as well. Here is an example.

In the 1950s, the intermarriage rate in the Jewish community was in the single digits. For one reason or another, the next number most Jews were aware of was released in the early ‘90s, when it was reported that intermarriage rates crossed the 50 percent threshold. Without having specific knowledge of why that was so, one only has to look at the state of Jewish journalism at that time to deduce why that happened: It was a figure that Jewish Federations, who in effect owned Jewish media, were not anxious to publicize; so, the numbers in the single digits stuck and the news was managed.

We’ve already mentioned the importance of definitions when doing a poll.

Measuring things like the size, growth or shrinkage of the Jewish population in America, as well as the things that influence those numbers, depends on definitions of “who is a Jew?” and what constitutes Jewish life. In fact, they become critical in the analysis used to project outcomes.

This leads us to the question, “Who is PEW?”

The PEW polling entity was set up in 2004 by the PEW Foundation to study social trends and issues that shape our society and religious life. This was their first attempt to measure the Jewish community. It is a sincere and well thought out project and will likely be revisited again over the coming years and increase in value as PEW gains context for its work. Since it was released in October, however, the Jewish community has been in a panic mode over some of the numbers PEW published. It shouldn’t be.

This poll also marks a first in that the Jewish community has ceded the job of keeping tabs on its people to a non-Jewish entity. Barry Kosmin of Trinity College in Hartford has noted this with some reservations. All analysis starts with the question, “compared to what?” So a reminder is in order that PEW is not destiny, but is a tool we can use to help shape our own future.

Here are two examples of how issue is taken with this particular poll.

J.J. Goldberg of the Forward provides some perspective on the PEW numbers which he categorized in one sentence: ”There’s one more thing you need to know: It’s not true. None of it.” (http://forward.com/articles/185461/pew-survey-about-jewish-america-got-it-all-wrong/?p=all#ixzz2kP00Ypjx.)

Goldberg says that PEW skews the outlook for the Jewish future to one of deep gloom and doom by comparing its numbers to those produced in another major survey in 2000-2001. Goldberg claims that the numbers provided by that early 2000 poll proved faulty rendering some of its judgments as inaccurate and not worthy of being used as a comparative number. Goldberg maintains a better comparison would have been with the large survey done in 1990. Instead of the major weakness and deterioration of the Jewish community that the PEW study tells us about, the percentages compared to 1990 look very much like the PEW numbers this year — i.e. PEW’s numbers don’t reveal any major negative change since 1990.

Rabbi Avi Shafran writing in Haaretz has more specific problems with PEW’s definitions, which are presented in the poll and provide the basis for the numbers in the survey’s conclusions. Writes Shafron:  “One category of ‘Jews’ was ‘Jews by affinity’ – Americans lacking any Jewish parentage or any Jewish background who simply choose to call themselves Jews; more than one million people so identified themselves. Similarly suspicious are the survey’s self-described ‘Orthodox,’ fully 15 percent of whom reported that they ‘regularly attend services” in a non-Jewish place of worship, 24 percent of whom handle money on the Sabbath and 4 percent of whom say they erect holiday trees in their homes in December.”

We don’t know if Shafran and Goldberg are right or wrong in their analysis, but they’ve just pointed out to the Jewish community the tenuousness of making  judgments based on only one body of work, one snapshot in time, one uncritical analysis.

PEW is new to the Jewish business, this being the organization’s first all-encompassing effort. They will get better. But the degree of alarm that has greeted this effort has to be tempered by all that has gone before, and shaped and reshaped by that which follows from here. It’s a tool. It’s helpful. It needs to be understood and qualified and added to our store of knowledge. It is not definitive and not the end of the world, but merely a photograph in time that only has value when compared to other things and analyzed properly.

Only by understanding trends and issues within our community are we afforded the opportunity to rationally create and apply resources towards objectives we deem important. Polls help point the way and measure our progress in this endeavor. In that light, PEW needs to be studied and incorporated into our store of knowledge and not be made the be all and end all of all judgments we make at this point in time.


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