The Zinger in the Pew Report

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People will be speaking for quite a while about the the new Pew report on American Jews, and its depressing outlook for the future of any continuation of Jewish affiliation outside of Orthodoxy. One item, appearing at the end of Chapter Four, took everyone by surprise. Fifteen percent of ultra-Orthodox Jews reported that they attended non-Jewish religious services a few times a year. Huh? Can this really be true. The same figure was reported for Modern Orthodox Jews.

Given the sad factionalizing of the Orthodox community, we think we understand what is going on. Occasionally, someone from the yeshivish community will drop by a Young Israel. And a Modern Orthodox traveller in need of a late shacharis might, from time to time, try out a chassidishe shteibel.

This is as “non-Jewish” (r”l) as it gets. Riddle solved.

Not so funny are the real flaws in the report, some of which resulted in the serious under-reporting of Orthodox strength:

1) The clustering of Orthodox population in specific areas
2) The perhaps tens of thousands (or more) especially outside those areas who are strongly affiliated with Chabad. Those people will not call themselves Orthodox, put belong there for the purpose of the poll.
3) The not-so-new touchstone of Orthodoxy is Shabbos observance. Had that been built in to the poll, it would have shown far less defection from Orthodoxy in the past (where lots of people joined Orthodox shuls, but were not shomrei Shabbos, and were subsequently drained off by the growth spurt of Conservatism in the ’50’s-’70’s) Most of those who reported on Orthodox strength noted that defections from Orthodoxy among young people today had declined from the adult dropout rate of the past. Even the original Pew report underscored the difference. Someone at the Tablet got it really, badly wrong – or simply has it in for Orthodoxy.
4) No one ever comes up with perfectly articulated questions for polls, but something has to be wrong when only 76% of ultra- Orthodox respondents avoid handling money on Shabbos. What was unclear in this poll? The definition of “money,” “Shabbos” (maybe they meant before Rabbenu Tam on motza’ei Shabbos?), “handle” or “ultra-Orthodox?” Maybe we should have learned from previous polls that relying on self-identification is not the best way to go?

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Steve Brizel
1 year 10 months ago

Robert Lebovits wrote:

“I was contacted on a Sunday via cell phone and for approximately 40 minutes I was asked very detailed and nuanced questions about my religious affiliation, religious practices, cultural identification, family life, value set, demographics, etc. It was very thorough and sophisticated. As a psychologist I am fairly familiar with the “demand characteristics” that questions can possess, aimed at drawing out particular kinds of responses. I did not perceive obvious bias in the content of the questions nor in the way they were structured and presented. My wife – who was also listening to the interviewer since I put her on speakerphone – heard no overt skewing as well.
Obviously, as a self-report assessment the data accumulated will reflect idiosyncratic perceptions and definitions that an outside observer might challenge. Am I really a yeshivish FFB with a Zionistic flavor whose children have turned out to be more Chareidi or am I Chareidi lite with a love of Eretz Yisroel that is misinterpreted as supportive of the secular Zionist vision? That may be open to classification error though I imagine it would be a distinction without a difference.”

Take a look at the survey, and ask yourself whether any of the nuances and idiosyncracies that you mentioned were accounted for in its findings with respect to the Torah observant community. I stand by my assessment that the authors, via a carefully placed footnote, which I quoted elsewhere, view the Torah observant community, and especially Charedi communities such as Monsey, Passaic, Lakewood and Baltimore, for starters, as either beyond their expertise or simply too insular for their otherwise skilled researchers. The bottom line remains that as long as there is no firm definition of “who is a Jew”, then the numbers in the heterodox world will always be expanded so as to fit into a secular Jewish establishment’s POV that “the big tent” is its working definition, and that the committed MO and Charedi worlds can be underestimated both in numbers and their contributions to the Jewish People.

Robert Lebovits
1 year 10 months ago

Many comments have questioned the veracity of the study results and by extension the construction and presentation of the survey. I don’t know if anyone offering a critique actually participated in the process. I did.
I was contacted on a Sunday via cell phone and for approximately 40 minutes I was asked very detailed and nuanced questions about my religious affiliation, religious practices, cultural identification, family life, value set, demographics, etc. It was very thorough and sophisticated. As a psychologist I am fairly familiar with the “demand characteristics” that questions can possess, aimed at drawing out particular kinds of responses. I did not perceive obvious bias in the content of the questions nor in the way they were structured and presented. My wife – who was also listening to the interviewer since I put her on speakerphone – heard no overt skewing as well.
Obviously, as a self-report assessment the data accumulated will reflect idiosyncratic perceptions and definitions that an outside observer might challenge. Am I really a yeshivish FFB with a Zionistic flavor whose children have turned out to be more Chareidi or am I Chareidi lite with a love of Eretz Yisroel that is misinterpreted as supportive of the secular Zionist vision? That may be open to classification error though I imagine it would be a distinction without a difference.
From my experience I conclude that the survey is an accurate representation of the subject it examined and its results are valid, however odd some of them might seem.

mycroft
1 year 10 months ago

Steve Brizel
October 18, 2013 at 3:08 pm
Mycroft wrote in part:

“About a decade ago when similar complaints were made about the percentage of Orthodox “Jews in surveys I took US government statistics for esrog importing and if I recall correctly was a figure around 170,000″

Take a look at the NYT-there is article that 500,000 lulavim were imported”

I used both a google search and a NY Times search for the article-I subscribe to the NYT and thus have unlimited free access to search their archives and was unable to find the article. Please indicate when the article appeared so I can find it. I did find a number of posts referring to 200,000 lulavim exported to US. Unlike esrogim we are both aware that another religion in a different season may well use lulavim thus total imports during the year may not only be Jewish usage. If there are really anywhere close to 500000 lulavim in use that would indicate a religious Jewish population of well over a million-probably in range of 1.2-1.5 million. I don’t believe anyone has claimed a figure in that ball park

Steve Brizel
1 year 10 months ago

Mycroft wrote in part:

“About a decade ago when similar complaints were made about the percentage of Orthodox Jews in surveys I took US government statistics for esrog importing and if I recall correctly was a figure around 170,000”

Take a look at the NYT-there is article that 500,000 lulavim were imported.

Reb Yid
1 year 10 months ago

Steve:

You are missing the boat here. Most Orthodox organizations don’t even have basic data about themselves or their congregations (the major exception being OU and to a much more limited extent Young Israel). It’s not a priority for many, a matter of sheer ignorance for some and outright threatening for others.

In my various capacities as researcher, the Orthodox have inevitably come to folks like me wanting to know more about their own communities. Some groups, like Chabad and NCSY, are beginning to “get” that they need more and better data in order to plan for the future. And often this will mean working with social scientists from outside the community. The Orthodox need the researchers far more than the researchers need the Orthodox.

As one who has been part of this process on numerous occasions–no-one is out to “get” the Orthodox (or any group) with surveys like these. It is certainly true that after the findings are released, any group, individual or researcher can use these data for certain purposes. Data themselves do not tell you want to do–it’s the values you bring with you that give you direction, where the data themselves may be a starting point.