Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

14 Shevat 5761 - Febuary 7, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Observant Jews Urged to Participate in Population Survey
by B. Isaac

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 months.

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 1990.

"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 underrepresented.

"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."


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