Staff transition: Michelle Shain

Michelle Shain is an associate research scientist at CMJS/SSRI. She will be leaving CMJS next week to begin a new position at the Orthodox Union’s Center for Communal Research.

How do you look back on your 10 years at CMJS? What do you feel you have gained from your time here?

My years at CMJS have been formative for me. I gained a tremendous amount of theoretical, methodological, and content expertise, in addition to practical research experience, which has left me prepared to take on my new role. Perhaps more importantly, I forged relationships with scholars from a variety of disciplines, as well as with funders and practitioners within the Jewish community. Those relationships helped me learn how to communicate research findings in a way that is useful to a broad set of stakeholders. I hope to bring the academic rigor as well as the passion that permeate the CMJS culture with me to the Orthodox Union’s Center for Communal Research.

Your research covered a wide range of topics, including Birthright, intermarriage, antisemitism on campus. Were there any unexpected findings?

The finding that surprised me the most was that going on a Birthright Israel trip has a positive, substantive impact on participants’ likelihoods of marrying a Jew later in life. That finding was first released in 2009 in the CMJS report Generation Birthright Israel and has been replicated since. I didn’t expect that a 10-day program would have an impact of that magnitude. I’m still trying to understand the mechanism behind it.

The finding that seems to surprise others the most is that the proportion of non-Jewish undergraduates who support the BDS movement is less than 10%, even at a school like the University of Michigan where the student government passed a BDS resolution. That finding was reported in the 2017 CMJS report The Limits of Hostility. I think the media’s reporting on this topic gives people a distorted picture of campus life.

What do you believe are some of the most interesting innovations in American Jewish life?

The proportion of US Jews who identify themselves with one of the major religious movements (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist) is declining. I think the most interesting innovations are those that are growing outside of the auspices of the major movements, in inter- or post-denominational spaces. I’m thinking of Mayyim Hayyim and Rising Tide, Hadar, the Hartman Institute and others. These innovations haven’t really been studied systematically by social scientists, but I think there’s a lot of important work happening there.

Does your work on marriage and fertility make you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of American Jewry?

I’m not worried that American Jewry is going to disappear any time soon. The number of Jews in the United States has actually gone up over the past few decades. But I will say that family formation is an area where the divide between Orthodox Jews and other Jews is particularly stark. Orthodox women marry relatively young and average about four births by age 40; college-educated, non-Orthodox women marry later (if at all) and average about 1.5 births by age 40. For me, those figures are symbolic of a profound gap in terms of how Orthodox and non-Orthodox American Jews understand Judaism, and I do worry about how to create a shared sense of peoplehood in that context.

Tell us about your new position.

I will be the Assistant Director of the Orthodox Union’s Center for Communal Research. The Center’s mission is to implement a sophisticated, ethical, responsive research and evaluation agenda that will advance the OU’s ability to serve the Jewish community. You can learn more about the Center here.

Our first project is tentatively titled “Singles, Stigma, and the ‘Shidduch Crisis’ in American Orthodoxy.” This will be a collaborative project looking at the issue from a variety of angles and disciplinary lenses, but my contribution will likely be related to demography: documenting marriage patterns within the Orthodox community, paying particular attention to gender and what factors might explain gender disparities. I will also be taking a lead on an evaluation of the OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus.