July 25, 2012
Who knows who L.A.'s Jews are?
Los Angeles hasn't done a demographic survey since 1997, leaving many questions open
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And a small, highly targeted study such as the Wilshire Boulevard one doesn’t offer the totality, or accuracy, of a larger study, demographers say.
For instance, Federation recently conducted a survey of nearly 800 Jewish adults younger than 45, before launching major initiatives specifically targeting young Jews.
That survey, which is still being analyzed, yielded useful data about attitudes and needs, according to Benor, whom Federation hired to analyze the data. But because the data was collected via a chain of e-mail addresses that originated with Jewish organizations, it probably doesn’t accurately represent the unaffiliated, people on the fringes of Jewish life or many immigrant populations, Benor said.
“The survey isn’t really useful for answering demographic questions,” she said. “It is useful for answering questions about needs and preferences in a small subsection of young Jewish Los Angeles.”
Other anecdotal evidence has provided some information. Federation, for instance, estimates that, since 2008, an additional 75,000 to 100,000 Los Angeles Jews have become financially unstable, a number it bases on data collected from Jewish social service agencies. Phillips says those numbers are plausible, and they tell Federation it needs to move resources there.
But, he added, “If you want a more comprehensive picture of Jewish poverty in L.A., a population survey would be a better tool.”
While Sanderson agrees that a study could help refine and guide programs, he believes Federation already has a good read on the community.
“I don’t think we’ll learn anything that will dramatically change the work we’re already doing. I think it will validate things we’re doing,” he said.
He points to existing programming geared toward intermarried families, and, he said, whether the intermarriage rate is 50 percent or 65 percent won’t dramatically alter those programs.
But demographers offer a host of stories to challenge the notion that new data doesn’t lead to change.
Ukeles said both Cleveland and Pittsburgh assumed their younger populations were shrinking. But a population survey revealed that the perception was fueled largely by anecdotal data, including the fact that children of community leaders had moved out. But young people were actually moving in and were not yet on Federation’s radar, partially because some were moving to areas that were not traditionally Jewish.
New York’s just-released survey revealed that Modern Orthodox Jews are among the most generous supporters of UJA-Federation — a surprise that will surely alter what was thought to have been a tense relationship, Ukeles predicts.
A survey in Phoenix decided the question of whether to build a new community center in the southern or the eastern part of the city, and a San Francisco-area study found that nearly all Jews in Marin County are intermarried, but many of them are seeking a Jewish connection.
In Los Angeles, the 1997 survey found a larger number of indigent Holocaust survivors than was previously known, and new programs were developed to serve them.
Most community studies don’t simply stop at basic numbers, but also delve into attitudes, affiliations and beliefs.
A survey can tell not only how many Jews are intermarried, but also whether those families identify as Jews and how they express their Judaism. It can measure attachment to Israel among various segments, and can evaluate the efficacy of formal and informal Jewish educational experiences — day school, camp, Hebrew school, Birthright Israel.
The community determines exactly what questions get asked.
Most survey firms conduct focus groups to find out what data points could help service providers refine their programming, Phillips said.
In the sprawl of Los Angeles, a new survey would first have to figure out which areas to sample, according to Phillips. New populations in Santa Clarita have not been counted before, for instance, but areas of low Jewish density require more phone calls, and thus are more costly. (Orange County has never done a Jewish survey, Phillips said.)
In the chosen areas, firms conduct randomized calling — surveyors plow through hundreds of thousands of viable phone numbers to come up with a Jewish sample.
But getting that sample is difficult.
Randomized calling has suffered greatly from the onslaught of telemarketers, and the result is that many people do not answer calls identified as toll-free numbers, and hang up at any indication of a cold call. Ukeles says his firm includes cell phone numbers — many young people don’t have landlines — but not all surveyors do.
Once the data is collected, the analysis will begin. And to further complicate matters, answers are not always black and white: If someone works in a soup kitchen on Sundays with a bunch of other Jews, is that a Jewish activity?
Even further, the seemingly simple question of who is Jewish has dogged demographers since the 1990 Jewish community survey. Is self-identifying as a Jew enough? What about people who don’t self-identify, but have one, or even two, Jewish parents?
The national Jewish surveys done in 1990 and 2000 were the subject of much controversy because of questions like these. Additionally, in the 2000 survey, data was said to have been lost, misunderstood and miscounted.
Demographers, it turns out, also tend to be a feisty crowd, and after both national surveys they publically ripped into their peers’ methodologies and analysis.
But Phillips said that what outsiders perceive as catfights are pretty standard for the academic world, where merciless peer reviews are common. He points out, too, that all the demographers who criticize each other continue to work together and share data sets.
Phillips also said that community leaders sometimes don’t want to hear what the data are saying.
“It threatens the authority and agenda of lay leaders if you do a study that shows that what they think is important is actually not that important, or not true,” Phillips said.
Right now, The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the umbrella group that usually sponsors a national Jewish census every decade, has no plans for the next one. The last national study cost $6 million over seven years, including marketing, data collection, reports and recommendations.
“I think there was a sense that, given the controversies over the 2000 study, the people who we would have had to approach for funding were exhausted by the whole process. There was not the will in either the funding community or across the federation system to go through that again,” said Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, director of research and analysis at JFNA.
JFNA has redirected its research budget to collect and process data from local federations and to conduct micro studies and focus groups, Kotler-Berkowitz said.
Of course, once you have solid data, the biggest challenge is knowing what to do with it.
“A demographic study does not lead immediately to programmatic implementation,” John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA — Federation of New York, told The New York Jewish Week. “It has to be understood, reviewed and tested to determine the best way [to approach issues]. It takes months, going to one, two or three years, to get this right.”
So the question remains as to whether Los Angeles’ Federation will be nimble enough to handle that.
“It’s going to require leadership, money and just enough process but not too much,” said Leder. “It’s a wasted million if there is not a programmatic response that follows.”
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