New York: What Kind of Town?

Note: This blog entry is, in part, a response to a news report of my comments/questions about the 2011 New York Community Study. It’s a brief summary of my key questions and also reflects conversations with the research team, lead by Prof. Steven M. Cohen. 

Leonard Saxe, director of CMJS and SSRI

In June, UJA-Federation of New York released its long-anticipated 2011 population study. For some, the headline was stunning: The Jewish population of New York had grown more than 8% during the last decade, pushed by high birthrates among Orthodox women. Along with the increase in the Orthodox population, there was also a dramatic increase in poverty rates and evidence of a continuing downward slide in the Jewish engagement of non-Orthodox Jews. The results were riveting and suggested the need for a major reorientation of UJA funding priorities. The study used state-of-the-art methods, but is the narrative of a changing New York Jewish community, as told by the survey, accurate? How do the outcomes reported in the study compare to non-survey data and what we know from other sources about New York Jewry? Continue reading

“Never Mind”

Leonard Saxe, Director of CMJS and SSRI

Among the memorable characters created by Gilda Radner (z’l), one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live, was an older woman, Emily Litella, who would mishear the news. After engaging in an angry diatribe in response to what she thought she heard, Emily would shyly follow up with an apologetic “never mind.” Radner’s sketches came to mind as I heard about the latest data on young adults’ attachment to Israel.

For a half dozen years, a rallying cry among leading pundits has been that American Jews are losing the commitment to Israel that characterized earlier generations. The “distancing hypothesis” was propelled into the consciousness of American Jews by pollster Frank Luntz and later by a number of social scientists. In what would become the dominant narrative of the last several years, Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman argued in a 2007 report that a “mounting body of evidence has pointed to a growing distancing from Israel of American Jews, and the distancing seems to be most pronounced among younger Jews.”

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Researcher in the Spotlight

This post is the second in our series profiling CMJS researchers. Today, we introduce Graham Wright, research associate at CMJS since 2005.

Your work primarily concerns Birthright Israel, correct? How does your background inform the way you see your work?

Graham Wright

My work largely concerns research connected with Taglit-Birthright Israel. However, I often lend a hand to other projects that require tricky statistics or sampling work. I’m generally interested in anything that delves into interesting methodological or analytical issues, especially if it requires digging into the literature and/or spending time staring up at the ceiling trying to figure something out. Any sort of problem solving usually appeals to me, regardless of the issue.

My background is in philosophy, which is somewhat unorthodox for a survey researcher. However, most of my knowledge of statistics is self-taught, and my background in philosophy was essential in helping me to absorb the abstract mathematical ideas lurking behind most statistical tests and formulas. In addition, difficult philosophical questions about things like causality and certainty are at the center of survey research, and I find wrestling with these issues is the most exciting part of my work here.

Any thoughts about the significance of your research for academics or policymakers?

Methodologically speaking, there is a large gulf between the larger social sciences field and the bulk of Jewish social science research. Many of the techniques we use to collect and analyze data have been standard in the social sciences for the last 50 years, but are still considered new and controversial in the Jewish world, and are often badly misunderstood. One of our biggest challenges is presenting our results in a manner that is easy to understand, but doesn’t gloss over the subtleties and qualifications that are present in any form of quantitative research. My hope is that the efforts we’ve put into finding new ways to present our data can help bridge the rift between Jewish social science research and the field as a whole.

What do you do when you are not estimating variances and wrestling with causality ?

I play guitar and keyboards in a dancy synth-rock band, which occupies the balance of my social life. My music tastes run the gamut from baroque to bluegrass to jazz to hip hop, although I find that punk rock is the best music to write Stata code by. I’ve been taking graduate courses for the past few years, and in September I’m beginning the Masters of Public Policy program at the Heller School at Brandeis. At the same time, I’ll continue my work at the Cohen Center.