Jewish Community Studies with Matthew Boxer

Matthew Boxer joins us to talk about contemporary American Jewish communities, why gathering population data matters, what we can learn from these kinds of studies, and how examining a range of communities from across the U.S. helps us to understand the varieties of American Jewish life between smaller and larger communities. We discuss how community studies are put to practical use, how it relates to trends in Big Data and quantification, and how all this contributes to our broad understanding of American Jewry and the American Jewish experience.

Read about the community studies conducted by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies:

Other important Jewish community and population studies:

Other major figures, topics, and books discussed:

Matt Boxer is an assistant research scientist at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute based there, and he also teaches at Brandeis’ Hornstein Jewish professional leadership program. His research focuses on local and national Jewish population studies, and he will soon finish the manuscript for his first book, which will examine the effects of local Jewish Community size on Jewish identity.  The Cohen Center is a multidisciplinary research institute focused on the study of contemporary Jewish life. They and the SSRI oversee a series of studies, among them the local Jewish Community surveys we’ll discuss today. These studies provide estimates on the size and character of Jewish communities all over the US, helping the communities to understand the wants needs and interests of the people they serve to develop strategic plans as systematic assessments of resource allocation for programs and services. Recent studies include Collier County, Florida, Nashville, Pittsburgh Seattle and elsewhere.

The Cohen Center also is the home for other research projects like the American Jewish population project, which aims to determine a population map of American Jewry and then also manages the assessment of the Birthright Israel program. Today Matt and I are going to focus on these communities studies that Matt and his team have been developing what we can learn from them and also the question of Jewish life in smaller communities.

In this episode of Jewish History matters, we discussed these studies, what can be learned from them, and how they’re put to use. We got a chance to talk about how methods of big data are being utilized in Jewish sociological studies, and will also discuss Matt’s own research on smaller Jewish communities: Why these smaller communities matter in an age when more and more people are gravitating towards big cities, and what we can learn by comparing the experiences of small and large Jewish communal life.

This conversation is particularly interesting because even though this is a podcast about Jewish history, that doesn’t mean that the present isn’t of interest too. If anything, we need to understand the present better in order to comprehend how Jewish history has helped to shape it. Fundamentally, it shows one way in which Jewish scholarship really does matter, inasmuch as these studies are both meant to provide scholarly insight and also are intended to be directly applied by Jewish communities themselves.

And so it raises tough questions too about the purpose of this kind of research; how it serves the needs of the Jewish communities and also tries to maintain Independence and scholarly objectivity, how it contributes to our broad understanding of American Jewry and the American Jewish experience, and also provides useful data for future historians.

What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

Jason Lustig: Could you tell us a bit about these communities studies and how they originated? What are the objectives you’re trying to achieve, and what do we learn from them?

Matthew Boxer: Sociologists and demographers do research all the time on different populations all across the country, and there are lots of reasons to do it. Frequently, it comes down to how you solve some sort of social problem. How do you figure out how to best allocate funding for different kinds of social programs? Typically, they use data from the United States Census, or different surveys conducted by the Census Bureau or large-scale national foundations. It’s really easy to do that if you ask the right questions, if you have information about the particular group that you’re most interested in.

But there just isn’t that kind of information about Jews. The U.S. Census doesn’t ask about religion, ironically in part due to Jewish activism in the 1950s and ’60s. We were concerned that having a list of all the Jews, particularly not so long in the aftermath of the Holocaust, could potentially be used by antisemites as a way to target the Jewish population. So if we want to know about the Jewish population of the United States, we have to do our own survey.

The first local Jewish community study was conducted in 1925 in New York City, and it was conducted for all the reasons you might expect. They were trying to estimate the size of the Jewish population, figure out something about their characteristics, both demographic and social. And partly it was because they were trying to determine where exactly the Jewish population lived within the city. Where should we put our institutions, where should we build hospitals to serve the Jewish community? Where should we put our schools? Where should we put institutions to serve the needy?  If you don’t know precisely where your population lives, it’s hard to figure out where to put those institutions, so that’s really why community studies started. For a long time, it was really just the largest communities doing these studies every once in a while. Starting in 1965 and every 10 years thereafter, Boston has been doing a study every 10 years.

The studies have evolved a little bit. There are lots of different things that you expect to get out of them. You want to know what is the population size and where in the local community is the population most heavily or least heavily concentrated. So in Boston, for instance, everybody knows that the population is heavily concentrated in Brookline and Newton, but there are some other places where the expectation was that there would have been a lot of growth between 2005 and 2015, and we wanted to know if we could document that.

You want to know about demographics, age, sex, educational attainment, overall health, religious denomination. We want to know about, how many people have exposure to Jewish education? How many are enrolled in day school? How many in Hebrew school? How many are participating in summer camps and youth groups and Israel trips and other forms of Jewish educational programs? And what are the characteristics of the people who are involved in each of those forms of Jewish education? What are the barriers to entry? What are the motivations for participating? Communities always want to know about different sorts of behavior, ritual practices, how many people join synagogues or JCC’s or other forms of organizations. What kinds of programs do people attend? What kinds of programs are people interested in?

Sometimes, we’ll ask different kinds of attitudinal questions. We’ve asked questions about, for example, the question of a permanent settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Should Israel dismantle all, some, or none of the settlements in the West Bank? We might ask questions about, do you think that the U.S. should move the embassy to Jerusalem? We might ask questions about lots of different things along those lines. We’ll ask how connected people are to Israel. How frequently they’ll seek out news about Israel. Do they volunteer for Jewish organizations, or non-Jewish organizations, or both? How much time do they spend volunteering? What sorts of causes do they volunteer for?  Do they make charitable donations? Are those to Jewish organizations or non-Jewish organizations? What causes are they supporting with their money?

And communities want to know about not just the community as a whole, but also about subgroups within the community, like interfaith families with young children. We’re conducting a couple of studies in south Florida where, as you might imagine, seasonal residents are a big concern.

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JL: Can you tell me a bit about one of the recent studies, and maybe what were some of the surprising or unexpected things that you learned from them?

MB: One of the things that surprises me is in my interactions with people in communities. Everyone has sort of their blinders on, and they have a hard time putting together their view with everything that’s going on around them that they might not be aware of.

The concern about the decline of synagogue membership is a good example of this, the fear that we’re losing too many people who are just not joining congregations anymore. Yes, the overall rate of affiliation is down nationally, and certainly, there are local communities where it’s down more than others. But a big chunk of the difference between today and ten years or twenty years ago is the rise of the independent minyanim. That’s something that I don’t think has gotten enough attention.

I think another example of this is the communal concern over antisemitism. We’ve asked on a number of these surveys, have you personally experienced any incidents of antisemitism in the last year? And there are some places where the number is very high, and there are some places where it’s very low. For example, in Nashville in 2015, there were two major incidents immediately before we launched the survey. Three weeks before we launched the survey, a swastika was painted on the side of the AEPi house on the Vanderbilt campus. And two days before we launched the survey, somebody fired a bullet at one of the local synagogues while most of the leadership of the Jewish community was at the state capitol for the states Holocaust Remembrance Day. So, two significant incidents of anti-Semitism right before we launched the survey. Typically, that means we’re going to get inflated numbers for a question like “did you personally experience any antisemitic incidents in the last year?” And in the end, 15% of respondents said “Yes,” which is not a very high number considering the two significant incidents right before we launched the study.

Last year while we were collecting data in Naples, FL, Pittsburgh, and DC, this was when the Jewish community was experiencing the rash of bomb threats all over the country. In the numbers of people who said that they experienced antisemitic incidents, the numbers weren’t all that high. People are more concerned about antisemitism than actually experiencing it in their normal, everyday lives. If you if you just looked at the way the Jewish community focuses so heavily on antisemitism sometimes, you might think it’s a much bigger problem than it actually is in people’s lived experiences.

JL: Right. I mean, maybe like so much else what you’re describing is how people are anxious or concerned about things that they don’t necessarily experience on a personal level.

So you’ve mentioned a number of these individual communities studies. If you had to put them together, what would you say is the big picture takeaway?

MB: Well, so much as every community is unique, they all have the same concerns. They all have the same interest. Everyone still wants to know is my community growing, shrinking, or staying about the same. Are my grandchildren going to be Jewish? Is there any next generation in my community?  How do we take care of Jews in need in our community? Are our synagogues going to be able to stay open? And what sorts of Jewish educational options do we need for our children?

These are universal concerns. They might be coming from slightly different places, but every community expresses more or less the same concerns regardless of how they arrived at those concerns. It’s the little details, the little small things that are different from one community to the next.

JL: That’s interesting. What you’re saying, in a way, is that we’re learning about the shared anxieties of communities in addition to any kind of demographic data. In terms of the studies themselves and their results, what do we learn and how are they being put to use in a practical way?

MB: In Collier County (Naples, Florida) and surrounding area, we asked a series of questions about health issues and financial concerns. We typically use that to determine how many people are going to need assistance in those areas. But the timing of this particular study worked out such that we were going to release the results of the study about a month after they took a direct hit from one of the big hurricanes, I think it was Hurricane Irma.

And so here we had these data, and we could map out on a zip code level where we would know where there were concentrations of households with significant health or financial obstacles. We could tell them, here are the zip codes, here the neighborhoods where you have large concentrations of people in need. If you haven’t heard from a whole bunch of your people in those areas, start knocking on doors. And they were able to do it.

It’s a use that we never put these data to in a community study. Being able to know how a community deals with situations like that could be really helpful for the next community that experiences a natural disaster, and if there’s a big earthquake in California, or a mudslide in Washington, or another hurricane hits somewhere in the south Atlantic. If we can learn lessons to make it a little easier, a little better for the people in our communities who are suffering like, isn’t that what a Jewish community is for in the first place?

JL: This is obviously a podcast about Jewish history. But it’s not really any reason not to talk about the present. As someone who’s studying contemporary Jewish life, what do we learn from these kinds of questions? What are the implications?

MB:  I think there are a couple of very strong ties to history here. Whatever the community looks like today is a product of what the community looked like before, and understanding what the community was like in the past can often help you understand what it’s like in the present.

So, for instance, you and I both grew up in Western New York. We know the Buffalo Jewish community very well. We know that the community used to be a lot larger than it is today. It’s older, it’s smaller, and there aren’t very many young adults. One of the questions that popped up when we were conducting Buffalo’s community study in 2013 is: What happened to the young adults? And it’s easy to see. They all moved away when they went to college. They went away, and they didn’t move back home. They stayed somewhere else.

Really, what it came down to was, the economy in Buffalo wasn’t very strong. It had gotten weaker over time, and as the fate of the community declined the overall city of Buffalo, much of the Jewish community left as well. One of the things I often tell people in the context of these studies is that Jews are adaptable in all kinds of ways. American Jews are very adaptable. We have portable job skills. So when the economy collapses in one part of the country, we can move to another part of the country where the economy is doing well and find jobs there. That’s what happened to Buffalo, but to really understand what happened to the Jewish community, you also have to understand what the community was like before and not just the Jewish community, but the surrounding community as well.

And related to this, the data that we collect provides I think a pretty rich picture of what any given community looks like today. I can easily imagine ten years from now, twenty years from now, fifty years from now, some historian picks up one of the reports that we’ve produced and they’ll have the basic population characteristics of the community in 2018, and that will tell them something about the dynamics of the community. I think that’s valuable.

JL: Right. This is a challenge I think a lot of historians face—we don’t really have a lot of reliable population numbers, historically speaking. So if we know for instance that so many Jews were impacted by such and such a historical event, but we don’t really know how many Jews there were in that city as a whole, it makes it harder to put those events into context.

MB: Absolutely. You know, in history we typically don’t necessarily know about the general dynamics of the community as a whole. I think that’s one of the things that these studies that we’re conducting will be able to provide to historians down the road.

JL:  Could you maybe explain a bit about the kinds of communities that you tend to study? Why do you tend to study these ones and not other ones?

MB: It’s actually fairly simple. What it comes down to is the communities that we study are the ones that ask us to study them, and have the resources to be able to pay for the research.

Conducting a representative sample survey, it’s a very expensive enterprise. It’s a very difficult thing to do. What that means is that smaller communities often don’t have the resources. They just can’t afford to pay for this kind of research. You can look at the Pew national study of the American Jewish community in 2013. I forget exactly what they spent, I believe it was north of three million dollars. And they had 3,600 or so completed surveys. Three million dollars for 3,600 completed surveys.

It’s not unusual, if you’re doing everything using standard traditional techniques, to spend $1000 per completed survey. That’s not at all out of the question. And you need about a thousand completed surveys to be able to represent the full community and especially if you want to be able to say something about subgroups within the community.

Think, for example, if you want to say something statistically reliable about intermarried families with children. If you have a thousand completed surveys in the community as a whole, you might have 30 or 50 completed surveys from intermarried families with children. Statistics is quite literally a numbers game. You need a vast amount of data to be able to say anything reliable. And one of the ironies of this kind of work is that you need about the same amount of information to say something about a local community as you do about the national community. But if you want to be able to say something about subgroups within the local community to the same degree of reliability as you would say something about the community as a whole, you need the same amount of information about the subgroup. And there’s no way we’re getting to a thousand completed surveys for any given subgroup in any of these communities we study, not with the kinds of budgets they have available.

So really it comes down to the expense of doing this kind of research very few smaller communities can afford to pay for it.

JL: Right. I mean there are probably relatively few communities that can afford to do what Boston has done, to do a study every ten years.

MB: To their credit, there are a number of communities that try and come very close to doing it every ten years. But again, they’re all big cities. Seattle’s had studies conducted with the Cohen Center; their last one was in 2014. Their previous study before that was in 2001 or 2002. Before that, they had studies in 1990 and in 1978. So they’re not quite every ten years, but they’re trying, and they’re coming pretty close. Miami has done one roughly every ten years going back to the ’80s. Cincinnati did their last study in 2008, and I believe they’re starting to plan for a study this year or next year. Cleveland’s done a study roughly every ten years. There are a number of communities that are trying to do it.

JL: One of the things that is really interesting about this whole setup that you’re describing is that, in a lot of ways, the research is being driven not by the researchers directly, but by the communities—inasmuch as a community needs to be able to fund it. And likewise, they’re also supplying some of the questions and hoping that the answers to those questions will be actionable in some way. As a researcher and as a sociologist, do you feel that there is something missing from the research because you are not necessarily saying “oh, yeah, I want to study Jews in this region or in this community because I think they’ll be particularly interesting,” but because these communities are coming to you?

MB: There are definitely things I wish we could pay more attention to. One of the problems of community studies in general is, how long can you make the survey? Every community has a dozen or so areas that they want data on, and you could easily do a 30-minute survey on each of those different areas.

So you wind up with an instrument that’s, in some ways, an inch deep and a mile wide. You’re trying to provide information for all of the different constituent groups, but you can’t give any one of them too much because the more you give to, let’s say, the social service agencies, the more questions you devote to the things that they’re working on, the less space you might then have for the Jewish cultural organizations in the community and the questions that they want to ask.  And so it becomes a delicate balancing act.

So we always want more depth in basically every area that we’re asking about. And then there are certain kinds of questions that just don’t lend themselves very well to surveys. For instance: “What are your motivations for joining a synagogue?” We can suggest to you a number of common motivations, and you can check them off. But what exactly is your motivation for doing anything? That’s not something that anyone can describe easily by checking off a box, or hitting yes or no in response to a particular item. It’s more of a conversation.

JL: Right. You’re talking about the complexity of quantifying Jewishness. And this is one of the things that came up in our conversation with Shari Rabin (about her book Jews on the Frontier), when we talked about the difficulty of defining Jewishness—that having a kind of report card of Jewish practice is maybe a bit problematic. In what ways do you think that the anxieties of Jewish leadership, and the kinds of questions that you’re investigating in your studies, are sometimes limited by the question of how people understand the possibilities of Jewish practice and Jewishness? And what do you think that your studies have to contribute to this broader conversation?

MB: I think one has to think outside the box a little bit. You can’t just stick with the traditional measures that everybody is familiar with, and think of as these are the only ways of being Jewish. There are lots of different ways of being Jewish.

One of the things we’ve taken to doing the last few years is we’ve developed what we call an “index of Jewish engagement.” We take a series of behavioral measures: family holiday observances, cultural activities like listening to Jewish music or reading Jewish literature, even visiting Jewish websites. Communal practices like paying dues to a synagogue or attending any kind of Jewish program, whether it’s formal or informal, in the traditional centers of Jewish life like synagogues or Jewish community centers, or in newer organizations like Moishe house, volunteering and donating to Jewish causes as well. We throw it all together, and we look at what are the patterns by which people engage in Jewish life, and we look at other measures as well. We look at people doing advocacy work, and that can play out in lots of different ways. If you volunteer with your local Jewish Community Relations Council, which are common in large communities, or with the Anti-Defamation League, that might mean something different from volunteering with Bend to the Arc or Repair the World. Or maybe you work with a non-Jewish organization, but you do that because you see being a good citizen or working to solve social problems and sort of an inherent part of what it means to be a Jew.

I think of places like in Nashville. We learned about a particular bakery on the east side of town. It’s just a bakery, but the owners have taken it upon themselves to develop a network of young adult Jews who aren’t involved institutionally. And they gather them together for social and cultural programs, built primarily around the fact that these people are all Jews.

We want to know about those things, and we try to come up with questions to measure the sorts of informal activities. I even think of for instance my mother used to participate in a couple of different mahjong groups. All they did was get together in playing mahjong. But it was it was just a bunch of Jews getting together socially to talk about their lives, have a little fun, occasionally Jewish topics would come up. I think a lot of people do things like that. And if someone feels like that’s an informal sort of Jewish social club that they belong to, we want to know about that too. I agree there are limits to some of the traditional measures of engagement in Jewish life. You still need to collect that data, but you have to ask other sorts of questions too.

JL:  So do you see your work as making a kind of intervention against more institutionally-based metrics for understanding Jewish engagement?

MB: You know, I don’t really know. I think most the communities that we’ve worked with, at least the senior leadership are certainly aware that they have people for whom the traditional means are what they’re looking for, and they have plenty of people who are looking for something else, and they need to serve both.

I think they often don’t necessarily know what the other means are though. And we look at it as part of our job to figure out what is the best way is to measure what Jewish people are doing, regardless of where they’re doing it, how they’re doing it, who they’re doing it with. We just need to find ways of measuring to the best of our ability all the different ways of engaging in Jewish life.

JL:  So what’s interesting here is that this is all research that’s meant to be applied, which is to say that the communities that are supporting it certainly are hoping that they’ll be able to apply the findings to help to direct their activities in one way or another. So how does this affect your approach?

MB:  I follow the Bourdieu school of thought. Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, referred to sociology as a martial art. And what he meant by that is that it’s not supposed to be an ivory tower exercise. You’re supposed to use the tools of the trade to get in the trenches, get your hands dirty, solve social problems. We are trying to come up with data that can be used for the benefit of the Jewish community.

JL: It brings up an important challenge, a kind of balancing act in Jewish research—whether we’re talking about historical research, or sociological, or otherwise—and ultimately why we pursue the study of it. Do we do it in order to understand Jewish history and culture for its own sake, or for some kind of intracommunal purpose, for the continued development and existence of the Jewish community? Personally, I’m of course interested in the continued existence of Jewish life, but I don’t necessarily see that as the direct purpose of my own research. Do you feel any kind of tension in your own work between these aims?

MB: One of the greatest dangers in social science research is you don’t want to be so caught up in the community that you’re studying and the people around you that you lose your objectivity or your ability to differentiate between what you want to see and what you’re actually seeing.

That’s always a tough thing to negotiate, because obviously the Jewish community is my community and I want the best for them. My work is largely designed to help them make the best data-driven decisions they can to prepare for a better future, but I still have to be objective about.

The caution that I always give communities is: I want to tell the truth. Whether that makes you look good or bad isn’t my concern. I’m not concerned with you looking good. I’m concerned with you being good. I want the communities to be able to use these data to serve the Jewish community as best as possible, partly because that’s what they hired us for, and partly because this is my community, too, even if I don’t live in that particular community. They might not be my brothers and my sisters, but they’re certainly my cousins.

At the same time, I went to graduate school to study sociology to learn how to study human behavior as objectively as I possibly can. And I think the Jews are a fascinating case study in all kinds of ways. We’re this highly educated white ethnic group; we don’t totally belong in American society but fit in really well. You have all kinds of advantages but are also discriminated against in lots of ways, mostly subtle, usually not all that big, but sometimes very big. How does that work? How does that relate to other religious groups? What lessons can other religious groups or ethnic groups learn from us, and what lessons can we learn from them?

On one level, it’s very much about doing work to benefit the Jewish community. On another level, it’s a series of interesting puzzles to put together. These are very much intellectual head-scratchers, and as an intellectually curious person, it’s not like work. It’s like I’m doing puzzles all day. It’s fun.

JL: To move on to another issue for a moment, one of the things that I find to be really interesting is the way in which we live in an age of metrics, when we’re talking a lot about big data. And we sometimes talk about assessing projects and initiatives or even entire fields of study in quantitative terms. How do you think that the community studies that you’re doing fit into a wider trend of quantification?

MB:  We fit the big data trends in lots of different ways. It’s our biggest point of difference compared to other people who do this kind of research. We have a project, the American Jewish Population Project, run by Elizabeth Tighe, Raquel Magidin, and Daniel Parmer Elizabeth here at the Cohen Center, where they’re trying to map out on a county or metro area level; they go a small as they can. How many Jews live where throughout the lower 48 United States?

They do it by collecting data from thousands of the best-done random digit dialing surveys in the country. The way it works is more or less you randomly dial a phone number. Someone picks up on the other end. You do it a little more subtly than this, but you ask them, “Is anybody in your household Jewish?” If they say yes, you have a Jew. If they say no, there are no Jews there and you move on. It’s an effective way, at least on the national level, of figuring out what proportion of the population in a particular area is Jewish, which in turn leads to population estimate.

It’s problematic on the local level because of phone number portability. The only reason I have a Boston-area phone number is because when I moved here, the doorbells for building I was living in worked through the phone system, but it could only work if you had a Boston area number. Without that, I’d still have a phone number from Madison, Wisconsin, where I was in graduate school.

Today, more than fifty percent of all households in the United States are cell phone-only, and roughly forty percent of cell phones have area codes that do not match the local area where their owners currently reside. It means if you’re relying on random digit dialing for a local survey, on average you’re missing twenty percent of your population just to start with.

On a national level, it’s not such a problem. Our group at the American Jewish Population Project has done exactly that by collecting thousands of these surveys using a process called meta-analysis, or cross-survey analysis, small area estimation. These are all very complicated statistical processes, very difficult to pull off. They’ve done it masterfully.  And so in any community with a substantially large Jewish community, they can give you very accurate estimates of the number of adults who are Jewish by religion, which is roughly 78 percent nationally of the American Jewish adult population according to the Pew study in 2013.

They’re a little less accurate on Jews of no religion (JNR’s), or 22 percent of adult Jews according to the Pew study. But they have some models that have proven to be at least as effective as anything else out there. They released an estimate about a month before the Pew Research Center released their estimate in 2013. Pew came up with an estimate of 6.7 million Jews in the United States. The AJPP group came up with an estimate of 6.8 million. So really accurate on a national level. This is the basis of our population estimates in the large communities where we conduct studies, so that’s our first means of using big data, and probably the most important.

There are a number of other ways as well that we rely on big data. I think the next most important is there are certain things that can be known on an almost census-like level of accuracy and you can talk to every Jewish day school find out how many children are enrolled and use that to guide your estimates.

What tends to happen in any survey of the Jewish community is that the people who are most willing to answer your questions are the people who are most involved in the community, which means the sorts of people who are going to send their kids to day school are going to be most willing to do the survey. And if you only get that you’re going to end up with biased results. It will be inaccurate; you’ll overestimate engagement.

One of the things that we do is it will talk to the day schools will find out exactly levels of enrollment. And we’ll see once we’ve done all of our analysis. Are we overestimating or underestimating the number of kids in day school? Usually, the people who send their kids to day school are most willing to participate in the survey. You can end up with an overestimate, but you can adjust for that. You can correct for that using a statistical technique called weighting. The end result is you can make the data a lot more accurate if you have these external sources of information that you can use as benchmarks to guide your weighting process. You can do that with day schools, with Hebrew schools, with donors to the local Jewish Federation, with a number of other things as well like synagogue membership. And it corrects for a lot of potential bias in survey results.

In some ways, using multiple sources of data is akin to using the wisdom of the crowd. If you gather enough data, even if it’s not from a representative sample, if it’s a massive enough sample, if it’s as close to the totality of the population as you can get, you’ll frequently get an accurate result even if it’s not as systematic as you would like. Using these external sources of data in some ways is like that it helps ensure you know that you’re not biasing your results. I don’t think anyone else is using this though in the contact of community studies. I think it’s just us.

JL: So in these studies, a major question is how many Jews are there in a particular place, and then the follow-up obviously is what are the characteristics of these people in their communities? But what I would ask you is, to press you on this issue, why is the number of Jews particularly important? Doesn’t the quality of Jewish life and culture matter more than the quantity of the Jews themselves?

MB:  Absolutely. There is no question, quality matters much more than quantity. But knowing the size of the community is helpful for planning, if you know the breakdown. If you know that that you’re operating at full capacity of your schools, you might need to build an additional school or build an additional wing to an existing school if you know that you have a large population. If there’s clamoring for access to kosher food, but you don’t have a kosher butcher, you might be able to support one. You might be able to recruit one to come to the community, but you can’t really do that that the population isn’t large enough.

At the end of the day, though, you’re right: Doing a study just to find out how many Jews we have is kind of a silly reason to conduct a study. To the extent that it matters how big the population is, that information really has to be in service of serving the community in some way.

JL: On that note, I wanted to turn a bit to talking about smaller Jewish communities. Because the big data methods that you’ve been talking about might work well for a national study or with a large community, but what about smaller ones? Have you been able to study these smaller Jewish communities, and what does it tell us about the varied experiences of Jews in larger communities versus smaller ones? I wanted to bring this up, in part, because I know that your own research has related closely to the question of smaller Jewish communities.

MB: Yeah, Buffalo was one of the smallest ones of these that we’ve done, or that anyone has done a community study for. I think there are only two communities in the last 30 years or so with Jewish populations smaller than 5,000 that have sponsored a systematic community study. And it’s partly because of a lack of resources. If your local Jewish Federation has an annual budget of $150,000, and it’s going to cost that much to conduct this study, my advice to the community is: spend your money in your community providing services. Don’t worry about doing a representative sample survey. It’s not going to be a valuable enough for you to spend the resources.

Buffalo is a small community relative to New York or Boston or Chicago or Miami, but it’s not really a small community. We estimated the population at a little over 12,000 Jews. By my definition that makes it a medium-sized Jewish community, by the standards of demographic research, it would be a small community.

JL: How do you define a small community?

MB: I ended up settling on a definition of any place with fewer than 5,000 Jewish residents. There are plenty of other definitions out there. According to some of them, you’re not even a community unless you have a hundred or a thousand Jewish residents. Having grown up in Niagara Falls, there are no more than several dozen Jews today, but I would still say that there’s a Jewish community there.

I don’t think there’s a there’s much of a level that you need to clear to be recognized as a community. I think when you get too big, you’re not really small anymore. There are certain things that change once you hit a certain threshold: if you have a hundred thousand Jews, are you a small Jewish community? Maybe if you live in New York, you think that’s small, but by no means is that a small community.

JL: Right. I think one of the things that is the really fascinating transformation of Jewish life across the entirety of the twentieth century is a shift away from the dispersion in many communities or many countries towards a number of major centers. I want to say about eighty percent of American Jews live in just a handful of very large communities. So in this context, why do smaller communities matter? And also is there a sort of challenge here, in terms of our ability to study and understand communities that don’t necessarily have the budget to fund the study, or when we can’t necessarily get enough people to answer a survey when you can get a really good sample?

MB: These are great questions. Certainly, it’s much harder to study small communities. It doesn’t make sense to do a representative sample survey in a place like Niagara Falls. It would make a lot more sense to borrow my parent’s Rolodex, because they know all the Jews there. They have their phone numbers. But even if you you got every single Jew in Niagara Falls to complete your survey what are you going to have? You’re going to have 50 or 60 surveys? Statistically speaking, you can’t do anything with that.

So you can’t use the same techniques to study small communities, but they matter tremendously. And there are a few different reasons for this. One is if eighty percent of American Jews live in you know it’s about 45 or so communities all over the country, that means that twenty percent live in other places. Our latest estimate is the Jewish population is in the ballpark of 7.2 million today in the United States. Well, twenty percent of that means you’re really close to one and a half million people. To just ignore one and a half million people seems foolish. We should know something about these people. We should know if their Jewish lives are similar to or different from the Jewish lives of people in large Jewish communities. We should know you know what are the challenges that use in small communities face. How do you transmit Jewish identity to your children in the absence of the resources for educational institutions? How do you make sure that your children grow up with a strong Jewish identity even if they have no Jewish peers? If you’re worried about intermarriage, how do Jews in small communities find Jewish marriage partners for their children, if there are no age-appropriate options who are Jewish in the community? What do they do? How do they survive?

Small Jewish communities, in a lot of ways, are the bellwether of the overall community’s future patterns of assimilation. They display new trends sooner than you can find in large communities, and they have to be really Innovative about how they provide even basic services.

I think, even if nothing else, because you have to work harder to be Jewish in small Jewish communities, you really have to be in the trenches. You are personally responsible for any Jewish activity that you might want to have, because if you don’t do it, it won’t exist. And that’s not true in large communities. But what that means is that because they’re working harder in the small communities, the small communities have often figured out ways of strengthening Jewish identity that large communities could also take advantage of, but often don’t because they don’t need to.

I think one good example of this is the working title for a chapter of my upcoming book that explores how the size of the Jewish community affects Jewish identity, “Thirty different recipes for kugel.” Where this comes from is: My mother, when I was growing up, was one of the women who did all the cooking and the cleaning and setting up for Jewish communal events in our shul, our synagogue, in Niagara Falls. And she would take my sister and me with her. Whatever I know about cooking, I mostly know about from going with my mother to help prepare for these events. And every woman in the community had her own recipe or recipes for kugel.

And so today, I have dozens of different recipes for sweet kugels, savory kugels, potato kugels, noodle kugels—lots of different recipes for kugel. In the context of helping to cook and clean and set up these communal events, I got what could easily be described as a total education in the laws of kashrut, of keeping kosher, the customs and traditions around Jewish holiday observance and Shabbat observance, things that that a lot of Jews learn in big communities in Hebrew school.

But if you learned it in Hebrew school its book learning. When you learn it in the kitchen, it’s life. That’s something that happens when I talk to people who grew up in small Jewish communities. A lot of them have similar stories. And it’s clear that growing up in the kitchen and helping prepare for Jewish communal events, and getting that kind of Jewish education that maybe in a bigger community they would get in a different way, it’s deeply personally meaningful. That’s something that could be done in any large community, but I think the big cities aren’t taking as great advantage.

JL: Right. One of the things that we see both of us personally are examples of this migration of young Jews from smaller communities to more of the metropolitan centers. Whether you’re talking about Boston in your case, or Los Angeles in mine, this is something that is a huge challenge, I think, for these smaller communities.

MB: And it says it’s also just something to do with the general trends in America today. One of the reasons why the young people left Buffalo and didn’t come back was that they went off to college, they acquired all of these job skills, they were able to get good jobs, but there weren’t a lot of good jobs available in Buffalo. There were plenty of good jobs and other places. And so that’s where they ended up.

Jews are particularly prone to this because almost sixty percent of us nationally have college degrees. In Boston, it’s more like ninety and, if I’m remembering correctly, about sixty percent of us in the Boston area have a graduate degree. We can go anywhere. We can go anywhere there are jobs, and people will hire us because we have these portable job skills. It means that we don’t have to live in some of these small communities, where a lot of us grew up.

You know, there are a lot of things I miss about Niagara Falls. The Jewish community there wasn’t like a community, it was like an extended family. It was like having dozens of surrogate grandparents. That’s a lovely thing to grow up with. It’s hard to find something like that. It’s hard to find a community that feels like family in a bigger community we’re not just not oriented that way.

But to do the kind of work that I do, to do the kind of work that we have at the Cohen Center—well, the Cohen Center doesn’t exist in Niagara Falls. It doesn’t exist in the Buffalo. And it doesn’t exist even in other large cities. It only exists here. And so if this is the kind of work I want to do, and I so love doing it, this is where I have to be. I have to be in Boston, because the job only exists here.

When you read the histories of how Jews ended up even in the big community, frequently, it’s because there was a trade route and itinerant peddler took his cart and stopped where he stopped, because that seemed like a fruitful place to set up a business, and they ended up staying there.

That’s how a lot of the Jewish communities and the routes west were created. It’s how a lot of Jewish communities in the South were created and in the Midwest as well. You set up a trading post and eventually a community grows up around you. Just because that was the prevailing economic conditions of the time. And I don’t think that’s changed all that much.

JL: It reminds me a lot of some broader trends in Jewish history. Whether you are talking about port Jews, the idea that Jews settle in centers of economic activity. And then, of course, the centers of economic activity shift, and they move, but the Jews are still there. And also something else, like if you are familiar with Yuri Slezkine’s book, The Jewish Century. He talks about Jews’ capability to not just move from one place to another; the term that he uses is the mercurial nature of Jewishness. He makes this argument that it’s actually the unrootedness of Jews in any particular place, and their ability to migrate and to move and to adapt is really a central character of modernity, broadly speaking, which is why he calls the twentieth century the “Jewish century.” Is this something that perhaps we see continuing, that the Jews might have settled in places all over the country, but ultimately we see this migration towards a major population and economic centers?

MB:  Absolutely, and again it’s so tightly tied to education. Who are the most mobile people in American society today? It’s people with college degrees, and especially advanced degrees. And Jews are one of the most highly educated demographics in the American population. As I said, almost sixty percent of us have college degrees, and the American population as a whole it’s more like thirty.

JL: Right. I think that this is bringing us to a really interesting set of questions, inasmuch as, broadly speaking, the Jewish population in the US is a small percentage of the overall population. On an even larger scale, the worldwide Jewish population is an even more minuscule component of the global human population. So when we’re talking about some of these phenomena of Jewish migration within the U.S. and the differences between Jewish life in small towns versus bigger cities, and small Jewish communities versus larger ones, what do you think that studying the Jewish population has to tell us about America at large?

MB: I think when you look at the Jews and our patterns of behavior and migration and educational attainment and achievement, there are a couple of key lessons. One is, in some ways, we were the original model minority. We are the group that wasn’t especially welcomed when we first came to the country, but we did well for ourselves. We blended into the culture while maintaining a distinct identity, and we’ve done so seamlessly in a lot of ways that we’ve sort of become more American than the Americans around us if you will. That’s something that you see other ethnic groups also doing. It’s mostly predominantly white ethnic groups. At the end of the day, although we like to believe that America is purely meritocratic, it’s not. We do get certain advantages for being able to blend in as just another white ethnic group. I think that’s one key lesson.

JL: So with all this in mind, especially the challenges of studying the small communities, how do you do it? And what do you learn from it in particular?

MB: I think here I’d like to refer to your question on big data again. One of the ways that you’d asked me before was, how do you go about studying small Jewish communities, and I said you can’t use the same techniques as you do in these large communities. You can’t conduct a community study. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t gather quantitative, statistically-reliable data.

One of the things that I’ve done is that I used Birthright Israel’s evaluation. So Birthright Israel is possibly the largest single entity for Jewish educational programming in the history of the world. And they brought over 600,000 young adults from all over the world to Israel for a ten-day educational tour since they were founded in 1999. And here at the Cohen Center, we’ve been doing their evaluation work from the very beginning.

For my doctoral work, I took a particular cohort, the summer 2008 cohort, and I basically went through person by person based on where they came from and mapped out where all the applicants live. And I went through archival records and various estimates in population studies to figure out on the county-by-county level how many Jews live in each county in the United States. And since I knew what counties these people were from, and I know how many Jews there were in each county, I could look at where are there differences in between people who come from communities of different sizes and see are there really differences between people from small communities and large communities.

I don’t know where else you could possibly get a sample with as many people from truly small Jewish communities as I had. There have been other people who have tried. Think about National Jewish Population Survey from 2000, for example. They released a report that was about small Jewish communities. They had 362 respondents, and how did they define small Jewish communities? It was anything outside the forty largest metropolitan areas in the country. Which meant, for example, that if you lived in Hartford, Connecticut, where the Jewish population is thirty-something thousand people—by no means is it a small community—you were nevertheless defined as being from a small Jewish community. And that just doesn’t work. That’s not a small community. It doesn’t help you identify differences between communities of different sizes.

Using just this one cohort from Birthright Israel, though, I had 1065 applicants to Birthright from communities with fewer than 100 Jewish residents. And another 1921 from communities with 100 to 4,999 Jewish residents. So almost 3000 total from small communities.

I don’t know where else you would get a statistically valid sample to study people in small Jewish communities, and how they compare to people elsewhere. It’s a really valuable source, and part of what I’m working on for my book is adding in additional data from subsequent rounds because of course, we can do the same analysis there.

Getting at the diversity, giving it the full diversity, and properly defining who belongs in what category so that you can really tell what is the difference between small communities and large communities, and what are the lessons that can be learned if you have reliable data. I think is one of the biggest challenges.

But among other things, one of the things I’ve found is that in these really tiny communities, these places with fewer than 100 Jews, people tend to read more Jewish books. They browse more Jewish websites. They listen to more Jewish music than people anywhere else. And you although you might expect that people in the largest communities would be the people who most frequently attend religious services. It turns out that people in the tiniest communities attend just as often, if not more.

JL: Why do you think that is the case?

MB: I think it’s because you know and I think back to my experiences growing up in Niagara Falls where we had the same ten people showing up to Shabbat morning services every week. It’s not because they were particularly religious. It’s not because they particularly wanted to go to services. It was because if somebody wanted to have services, and you didn’t have a minyan, if he didn’t have the quorum that you need to be able to recite certain prayers, then you can’t have organized communal services. If they didn’t show up, there won’t be a minyan. And so they showed up every week because that’s what it meant to be part of a small community. You owed it to the other members of your community to be there when they needed you. You get more of a diffusion of responsibility in bigger communities. And it doesn’t take long for that diffusion to pop up.

It’s one of the things that’s really special about these small communities, that sense of communal responsibility, that sense of personal responsibility, that you have to do it because there’s nobody else who can or will. Whereas in a place like Boston, if I don’t want to go to services one week, there’s still going to be a minyan, it’s not a problem.

But I think it also points to another key idea, as I mentioned earlier Bourdieu’s notion of sociology as a martial art. Through kind of a roundabout way, I came up from that with the analogy of Judaism as a contact sport. In small communities, Jewish life is a contact sport. You get in the trenches, you get your hands dirty, you do everything because the community’s counting on you.

In a larger Jewish community, it might be more of a spectator sport. Going to services in Boston sometimes feels like I’m attending a concert.  I show up somewhere, and I watch somebody perform the liturgy. And there’s not much interaction, and there’s not much personal involvement. If I’m not there, it doesn’t change anything. There’s no impact on the community. There’s no effect on anyone if I’m not there.

In Niagara Falls, if you didn’t show up there might not be services. You had to be there. And particularly on Shabbat mornings where you need to call seven people up to the Torah, everybody has an Aliyah; everybody is called up for reading one of the portions of the Torah reading for the week.

Everybody got personally involved. And if you happen to miss a step somewhere, everybody noticed. Not because they were particularly immersed in the liturgy, but because they just knew. They knew what it was supposed to be like, they knew when something was missing, and they wanted to make sure that everything was as it needed to be so that for the people for whom services will be really important they would always be there.

JL: One of the things that really strikes me about your description of small Jewish communal life was that you mentioned Pierre Bourdieu; there’s another sociologist whose work it seems to be reminiscent of, the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. He proposed a system of thought surrounding this idea of Gesellschaft und Gemeindeschaft, between “society” and “community,” which many people have sort of taken to apply to sort of anxieties about modernity; that the big city is associated with sort of anonymity and a lack of community, whereas the small village for the town is associated with this sense of communal belonging in one way or another. One of the things that is really striking I think is this romanticization of the small community. Do you think that that you are romanticizing some of the small town or small community Jewish life?

MB: I don’t think so. But only because I also recognize some of the problems that go along with it. In a smaller community, you might not be able to get you know high quality teachers, professional teachers, people who are trained in pedagogy. It’s harder to get kosher food. If for whatever reason you can’t make services one week, maybe the community doesn’t have a minyan. That’s not a good thing if you want your kids to go to have Jewish peers.

And one of the things I’ve talked about with people I’ve interviewed in rural Maine, is that these are people who drive their kids, an hour and a half or two hours each way for Hebrew school once or twice a week. That’s a lot of driving when, in theory, you could just get your kids on some sort of conference call, and they could interact over the Internet with people in Hebrew school.

They don’t want to do that because they want their kids to be in a room with other Jewish kids to have Jewish peers, Jewish friends. That’s not always possible in a very small Jewish community. I think if I am romanticizing the benefits, I’m certainly aware of the obstacles as well.

Obviously, I have chosen to live in a large Jewish community. If that ever changes if I ever wanted to move away from Boston, then the first places I would look, all things being equal, would be other large Jewish communities. Because although there are certain things that I absolutely miss about Niagara Falls or Madison, which is also a small Jewish community, I think there are ways to recreate that in a large community if you can find the right clever the right group of friends of your own personal community. And it would be difficult to have the benefits of the large community in a place where there aren’t very many Jews while also getting those benefits of the small community.

I think you can do that in the big city. You can’t see can’t get the best of both worlds and the small communities, and that’s really what I want for myself. For other people, they’re free to make their own choices.

JL: As we conclude, the question I would ask is: In studying contemporary Jewish life, how does it help to put Jewish history into perspective, and likewise what’s the importance of historical perspective when we are engaging with the present and trying to understand it?

MB: The past shapes the present, and the present will shape the future. As you and I were exchanging emails leading up to this, you suggested a source to me, one that I’m very familiar with, by Jacob Rader Marcus, To Count a People. And Marcus talks about exactly why you go to the trouble of putting together the sorts of population estimates that I put together.

It’s not that the number by itself is all that important. But what really matters is, how is the community shifting over time? Is it getting larger? Is it shrinking, or is it staying about the same? How do its overall characteristics change over time? What are the factors that contribute to that? What are the prevailing trends in the world around us and within the Jewish community that are causing changes?

You have to know your history to be able to figure out how you’ve gotten from that past to the present. And knowing it makes it a lot easier to project what are the possibilities moving forward from today.

This is all applied research. This is all intended to help to mean these communities make themselves as strong as they possibly can, as beneficial to their members as they possibly can while knowing how different decisions have worked out in the past is an important component of that.

It makes it possible for us to make better decisions today, which in turn we hope will make for a stronger Jewish community tomorrow. And ten years from now, when we go back and redo some of these studies, and fifty years from now when historians look back on the work that we’ve done today, they’ll have an easier time tracking how the community has changed over time and what decisions need to be made to prepare us for tomorrow because we’ve done this work now.

JL: Right. And so ultimately then, these studies that you’re doing—why do they ultimately matter? What are the long-term implications for what we know you know about the American Jewish community, about America at large, or about the Jewish experience?

MB: The results of these studies shape decisions that communal organizations make about how they serve the community. A great example of this is what happened from Boston’s decennial studies. In the wake of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey when the entire American Jewish community was terrified about continuity because the intermarriage rate was reported as being higher than 50% for the first time, Boston set up a series of interventions, where rather than risking losing our people to the surrounding Community because we weren’t welcoming to Interfaith families, they instituted a series of programs intended to bring intermarried families into the fold and make them feel welcome. You make them feel like this was their Community too.

By 2005, when they conducted that study it turned out that 60% of the children of intermarried families were being raised as Jew. In the rest of the country, it was thought it was more like 25% a lot of the critics looked at this, and they said that couldn’t possibly be right. He must have done something wrong collecting or analyzing the data, but sure enough, much of the country copied the sorts of programs that the Boston Jewish community had been producing.

By 2013, when Pew conducted their national study, it saw sixty percent of the children of intermarried parents being raised as Jews. What started out in Boston as a result of looking at data, to address a major concern of the community, led to a sea change in affiliation and identification with the community and the way the community looks at this segment of the population.

You can find examples like that and lots of different ways and lots of different studies. These studies are used to make decisions about allocating resources financially, and otherwise, building new buildings, establishing new programs producing scholarships, serving people in need. All of it is intended to make a stronger Jewish community and to alleviate pain where there is any in the Jewish community.

Yeah, that’s something I’m proud of to you to be a part of being able to do that. You know I talked about Naples where we had these data on families in need and the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. I can’t point to any specific example of you know a family that was helped because our data helped the social service agencies pinpoint somebody who needed assistance, but we provided data that could help.

And if the data that we provided did help at all that’s a win, and I will take that any day.  I look at Seattle where we found that 12 or 13 percent of the Jewish population lived in the part of the city of Seattle that was north of the ship canal and west of Interstate 5. Twelve or thirteen percent of the Jewish population of the entire community live there. There were no programs there were no institutions and people in that part of the city weren’t you know they weren’t driving to other parts of the city to participate because traffic in Seattle is horrible.

Within six months of releasing the results of the study, Chabad opened a house in Ballard, which is the key neighborhood where a lot of Jews live in that part of the city. The Federation was working on plans to bring programs to that part of the city so that people would have you no more connection to Jewish life. Do we deserve credit for any of that? Not really. The Chabad and the Federation deserve credit for that. But to the extent that our data helped lead to those interventions, that’s a win. This was a way that our work could be used to make Jewish life more vibrant, and I will take that any day of the week.

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