Pew to the Rescue: Saving Jewish Demography

They say that genius is often only revealed after death. The late Jewish demographer, Dr. Gary A. Tobin, was widely respected during life, however some of his most important insights are just beginning to be realized. Pew’s recently released study on the American Jewish community is the most comprehensive since the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), which, Pew notes, “became the subject of heavy criticism on methodological grounds… and continuing academic controversy.” Gary was at the center of this debate. His concern was not only that the Jewish population had been “systematically undercounted for decades,” but also that the Jews who were being undercounted represent a critical segment of the Jewish community.

The near celebrity status of Malcolm Gladwell and his book Outliers is helping to highlight the importance of analyzing the periphery. However, Tobin’s concern for the undercounted a decade ago stood in stark contrast to many of his contemporaries. Defenders of the NJPS argued that criticizing the study for undercounting the “less affiliated and the intermarried and the more marginal” — read, less important Jews — amounted to nothing more than a Pyrrhic victory, more harmful than helpful.

But those of us who were mentored by Gary learned, while pouring over binders of raw data, that American Jews change along with American culture. For example, Pew reports that the 22 percent of American Jews who claim no religion mirrors the roughly one-in-five Americans who claim no religious affiliation. We also learned that attempting to resist this reality is not only a fool’s errand, but serves to weaken the community.

Citing a 2008 Pew study that showed that Americans were switching religions more than ever, Tobin cautioned, “No number of day schools or summer camps is going to turn back the clock on religious freedom and competition. It is time for Jews to join every other group in America and quit obsessing about who is being lost and start acting on who might come in.” He advocated casting a wider net and letting the data show us the full spectrum of the Jewish community. Pew took Gary’s concerns to heart.

J.J. Goldberg wrote in the Forward, “Above all, [Pew’s study] vindicates a thesis championed by the late sociologist Gary Tobin. He argued that calling up a random stranger and asking right off the bat about their religion is a sure way to get a false reading.” Pew’s interviewers increased the overall response rate by establishing a rapport before inquiring about religion. Gary was concerned that new immigrants, among others, may feel accosted and decline to answer. But the potential impact extends much further. Young people, who embrace multiple identities, may feel pigeonholed by having to identify as Jewish first and foremost. Pew’s methodological tweak helps to capture a wide array of Jews who do not see themselves as only Jewish, a segment of the population that Pew notes is rapidly growing.

The American Jewish community is just starting to come around to the notion that the point of surveys is not to track decline, but to understand where we as a community are going and to help direct it. A decade ago Goldberg opined that communal agendas seemed to dictate Jewish population surveys. Pew detached the scientific study of the Jewish community from the communal agenda and in doing so offers a more truthful and useful portrait of the Jewish community. As Brad Hirschfield noted in the Washington Post, “the greatest, and perhaps most troubling, part of the study is that the non-Jews who conducted it are more Jewish in their approach to Jewish identity than many of the custodians of Jewish culture who are commenting on the study and its results!”

Preconceived notions about who Jews are or how they should act perpetuate a narrow, sometimes self-defeating outlook on Jewish identity and the Jewish future. Our experience is that the Jewish community is incredibly diverse, resilient, and in a state of constant change. Tobin was an optimist and believed that adapting to change was a fundamental part of Jewish history and success—a belief upon which our work is based. This is an opportunity embrace the 94 percent who Pew found are proud of being Jewish. One can imagine Gary conjuring the psychoanalyst in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint: “So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”