A long-delayed survey of American Jews is now underway and
observant Jews are being asked to consent to being
interviewed should they be among the 5000 households who are
called by representatives of the current National Jewish
Population Survey, or "NJPS 2000."
As its name indicates, the survey was to have been completed
last year. A number of problems set in, however, and the
process was substantially delayed. Now, however, the
Survey's interviewers are well into making their calls, and
the effort is expected to continue for the next several
According to Agudath Israel of America director of public
affairs Rabbi Avi Shafran, the United Jewish Communities --
the national Jewish charitable communal body conducting the
survey -- was apprised last year of concerns that the size
and strength of the Orthodox community had been grossly
underestimated as a result of the prior such survey, in
"While population estimates may have no particular inherent
meaning to Torah Jews," the Agudath Israel spokesman
explained, "the fact that the 1990 study seemed to find that
the Orthodox community had not been growing, something
rather strikingly at odds with both anecdotal evidence and
experience, was a cause of great concern to us -- and in
some cases was used in ways that harmed our interests.
"One of the things that most intrigue open-minded Jews who
were raised without benefit of a Jewish education is the
surprising perseverance of Jewish religious observance.
Observation of the growth of the frum community has
played a large role in the return of countless Yiddishe
neshomos to their religious heritage."
Rabbi Shafran notes that an accurate portrayal of the
Orthodox community might help the larger Jewish world regard
Orthodox day schools that service children from non-Orthodox
families as the valuable fortresses against assimilation and
intermarriage that they are. Moreover, he adds, "Torah study
and observance, the unmistakable engines of the Orthodox
community's successes, could be seen not as artifacts to be
at best sentimentalized but as ideals to be empowered and
embraced." Jews across the country could, many for the first
time, find themselves considering that "perhaps the Jewish
future actually lies in fidelity to the Jewish past."
Rabbi Shafran notes that these studies are not censuses, but
estimations; for each Jew interviewed, it is assumed that
there are thousands who live similar lives. Indeed, Agudath
Israel asked a she'eila about the permissibility of
participation before deciding to encourage the community to
respond to calls.
Among the factors that may have led the 1990 study to paint
the misleading portrait of a waning Orthodox community are
responses provided by Jews who claimed to be lapsed Orthodox
when, in reality, they were never observant in the first
place but had merely once belonged to Orthodox shuls.
Another is the fact that survey personnel made phone calls
on Shabbos, thereby reducing the numbers of observant Jews
who were able to respond.
What is more, calls were made randomly to homes across the
country, allowing self-described Jewish homes in areas far-
flung and highly unlikely to have Orthodox residents to be
given equal weight with homes in cities with large and
strongly observant Jewish populations. Each Jewish
household, moreover, was counted as a single unit, whether
it contained two people or twelve.
The UJC has pledged not to make Shabbos calls this time
around and, while "random-digit dialing" will still be
employed, the group's researchers have reached out to
Orthodox organizations and congregations to attempt to
ensure that the pool of homes being interviewed more
accurately reflects the proportion of Orthodox Jews in the
larger American society.
Whether these measures will prove sufficient to result in an
accurate representation of Orthodox Jews in the final survey
result, of course, cannot be known.
"One thing is certain, though," observes Rabbi Shafran. "If
Torah observant Jews who are called by the surveyors choose
not to speak with them, we will certainly be
"An Orthodox home is a busy place where people value time
immeasurably. The last thing most of us would like to spend
half an hour doing is telling a stranger on the phone about
our families and lives. But there are times when what seems
like wasted time can turn out to have impact well beyond
what we may have imagined.
"Few of us will actually receive a call from the NJPS
survey. But those who do should realize that it is an
opportunity to help portray the health and vibrancy of the
observant Jewish community -- and, indirectly, an
opportunity to have a positive effect on other Jews."