Jewish Journal

Flawed Methodology

by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

September 14, 2000 | 8:00 pm

No one seems to believe what Pini Herman does. While all observers - particularly outside of the Orthodox community - take for granted the phenomenal growth of the Orthodox, he continues to stand behind the seriously flawed methods he used in the Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey of 1997. That's the one that no one can believe, the one that claims that Orthodox numbers have actually declined in L.A. When his office stonewalled several requests from the Orthodox community to examine the raw data, a little skullduggery on our part turned up what really happened. The L.A. survey was not a census, but a survey of a smaller number of households, whose results are then extrapolated statistically. For that to work, you have to sample the community according to its actual composition. If 30 percent of your respondents call themselves Conservative, then you assume that the larger population also has 30 percent Conservative Jews. If your sample is off, so are your results.

That is precisely what happened. Those who made the calls got their phone numbers from two sources: random-number calls and the Federation list.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see why the Orthodox were seriously undercounted. Neither of the two methods used by the census-takers accurately measures Orthodox demographics. The first fails because the Orthodox are not uniformly spread throughout Jewish Los Angeles. They are heavily concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods. Taking a random sample from all neighborhoods seriously undercounts us.

The second sampling list - drawn from Federation sources - is even more problematic. Orthodox Jews give charitably to scores of recipient agencies, far beyond the per capita giving of other parts of the Jewish population. But Federation is not one of their favorite causes, for a variety of reasons. Using any Federation list for a general census, then, is a guarantee for undercounting the Orthodox community. And the sample takers reported that there was much greater responsiveness to their questions from members of the Federation list than the other!

Additionally, the phone method relies on the willingness of people to answer a series of questions over the phone. Ask yourself who is more willing to answer those questions on a Friday afternoon - a member of a Reform household with 1.4 children, or a mother of eight, frantically trying to finish her Shabbat preparations?

If the U.S. Census Bureau employed methods as unscientific to downgrade African American strength, there would be a congressional inquiry. Luckily for Pini Herman, it's only Federation money he's using.

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