By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – After retiring from a career in the financial industry, West Hartford resident Mark Trencher decided to launch a second vocation – and a labor of love. Nishma Research, founded last summer, draws on Trencher’s professional expertise in marketing research and extensive involvement in the Greater Hartford Jewish community, including stints on the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford Long-Range Planning Committee and Commission on Jewish Education and Leadership, as chair of the Mandell JCC Hartford Jewish Film Festival, as president of Young Israel of West Hartford and Bess and Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy, and as board member of an Israel-advocacy committee.
“In these positions, I’ve sought to improve communications within the leadership and expand organizational outreach and involvement,” Trencher says. “Community efforts are most effective when they are collaborative, and that includes listening to members, clients, and other constituencies. Doing the right research gives the important information an organization needs to grow and to succeed. I’ve seen research applied effectively in some world-class businesses, and would love to see similar successes in the Jewish world. ‘Nishma’ means ‘we listen’ in Hebrew – and it reflects our mission of providing quality research to the Jewish community.”
Trencher holds a graduate degree in statistics and is Nishma’s primary analyst, consulting with other experienced statisticians and focus-group moderators as needed and with an advisory group of academics and researchers.
He plans to personally fund one study every year that sheds light on a topic of importance to the Jewish world and promotes better listening among its diverse strains. In addition, Trencher hopes to support Nishma’s pro bono work with several client-funded research projects annually.
During its inaugural year, Nishma took on both paid and pro bono projects.
The consultancy worked with a social-service agency in New York, conducting a member survey and a demographic study projecting the size of the agency’s potential client base in the Tri-State area.
Nishma also published its first pro bono study, Starting a Conversation: A Pioneering Survey of Those Who Have Left the Orthodox Community, initiated in fall 2015.
Trencher became interested in the subject after reading several memoirs by individuals who had left the Orthodox community.
“There are some similar themes across these memoirs, but there has never been a quantitative study of these people and I thought that might be something of value,” Trencher says. “Specifically, I was curious about their religious journeys, practices, beliefs, sense of Jewish identity and community, and family relationships.”
Trencher was encouraged to pursue the study by one of the memoirists, Shulem Deen (All Who Go Do Not Return), and then recruited an advisory group of experts and academics, including Prof. Steven M. Cohen, a preeminent survey researcher in the Jewish world. Nishma designed, conducted, and analyzed the survey.
“The study was challenging because there is no census or ‘list’ of these people that we could draw from, and we don’t even know its size,” says Trencher, who recruited participants via several organizations that provide services to people leaving Orthodox communities. Nishma also publicized the survey on several Facebook groups for people who have transitioned in their religious practice or who are comfortable in their Jewish religious communities and practice, but are exploring questions or issues.
The online survey garnered interest from 1,500 prospective participants. Of these, 885 – representing 31 U.S. states and 11 foreign countries – met Nishma’s respondent criteria.
“We did not provide a ‘Why did you leave?’ checklist, but allowed people to take as much space as they needed to tell us their stories, which were eloquent and poignant,” Trencher says. Researchers identified more than 50 different factors that could cause someone to shift their religious orientation, which varied among sub-groups like Ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox.
“Among all segments, an important factor was the intellectual thinking they had done about religion in trying to resolve secular knowledge with religious teachings,” Trencher says. “Those leaving the Ultra-Orthodox world often wanted more control over their lives, while those leaving the Modern Orthodox world often cited a desire for a more prominent role for women.”
One-third of respondents reported that they have left their Orthodox communities in terms of their beliefs and private behaviors, but covertly, still residing in those communities until they are ready to emerge publicly.
The survey is available for download on the Nishma Research website. Trencher is planning to share the results with the community through webinars and forums.
“Ultimately, our hope is that the findings will be used to open hearts and minds to the challenges facing these people, with the goal of binding us all together,” he says.
This month, Nishma will roll out ShulSurvey, a comprehensive synagogue-membership assessment that will gather information on how congregants view and rate their synagogue. Findings will be comparative with other synagogues and will also reveal the perspectives of various demographic groups.
“My perception was that Jewish organizations do a fair amount of research, and it is often done by competent but expensive research firms that do most of their work in the corporate or secular worlds,” Trencher says of his decision to start his consultancy. “While Nishma is a small firm, I felt there was an opportunity to provide Jewish organizations with a dedicated resource that more deeply understands the Jewish community, that focuses exclusively in our community, and at a substantially lower price.”
To read Starting a Conversation: A Pioneering Survey of Those Who Have Left the Orthodox Community: nishmaresearch.com.