From Research to Action

From Research to Action Conference, May 2019

Local Jewish community studies are a fixture of Jewish communal life in the United States. But how are the findings used after a study is completed and shared with the community?  Early last summer (2919), we gathered lay and professional leaders from 15 communities that have conducted studies with CMJS/SSRI for a two-day meeting, “From Research to Action: Using Community Studies Data for Program Planning and Policy.” We asked them to share what they had learned or hoped to learn from their local study and discuss best practices around strategic planning, fundraising, and rollouts.

Community representatives shared a range of action steps their federations and agencies had taken as a result of report findings. Some mentioned earmarking funds for programs in an underserved geographic area after learning that their Jewish population had spread there. Others used their study to help decide which programs should be scaled up and which should be merged or eliminated. Study results were used by communities to reconsider the role and structure of the federation, to guide strategic planning, and to aid in fundraising efforts for new initiatives. Shari Merrill, Chief Impact Officer, Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, described a “paradigm shift” in fundraising, allocating funds, and the community engagement model as a result of the 2017 Washington, DC studyContinue reading

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.

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CMJS Welcomes Barry Shrage

Barry Shrage recently joined Brandeis University as a Professor of the Practice in the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program. At CMJS, he will lead the Initiative for Jewish Identity.

First, welcome to Brandeis and CMJS and congratulations on the conclusion of 31 very successful years at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston.

Thank you! I’m excited to be here!

At CMJS you will be spearheading the Initiative for Jewish Identity. Can you describe the Initiative and tell us what experiences prompted you to feel this is where you wanted to focus your intellectual energy?

At the heart of the Initiative is the question of how to build a Jewish community that loves its faith, institutions, traditions, and Israel. Understanding how Jewish identity forms is an essential part of this inquiry. Jewish identity has been an issue that has been at the core of my work since 1970, when I became involved in Jewish community after the Six Day War. Through my work at a community center, I saw how the Six Day War brought issues of Jewish identity to the fore for many Jewish Americans and a renewed sense of ethnic pride to young people. At that same time, I saw firsthand that most formal afterschool educational programs were not really working. As the head of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Jewish identity continued to strike me as the preeminent concern of the community. For that reason, we put a high priority adult education programs and Israel travel followup. Continue reading

Annette Koren Retires

Annette Koren recently retired from CMJS after 13 years. We asked her to share with us some of her thoughts on her career and the state of Israel studies.

Congratulations on your prolific career! Can you tell us a little about your background before you joined CMJS in 2004?

I attended graduate school at Indiana University where I earned a PhD in social and economic history. I taught at Fordham University before beginning a career in business. After a stint in market research and part-time teaching, I became the Research and Evaluation consultant for the Boston Bureau of Jewish Education where I got to know CMJS’ Dr. Amy Sales through our partnership evaluating the Sh’arim Family Educator Initiative.

You have spearheaded many of the projects related to Israel studies on college campuses. How do you think the study of Israel on campus has changed since you began looking at it? 

It has expanded dramatically. The American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University are two examples. Beginning in 2005, AICE funded and provided professional development assistance to graduate students concentrating in Israel studies and also recruited and funded Israeli faculty to teach courses about Israel at universities in the United States. The Schusterman Center at Brandeis, founded in 2007, prepared graduate students in the field and created the Summer Institute for Israel Studies (SIIS). To date, SIIS has prepared 270 faculty members from a variety of colleges and universities to teach about Israel. These individuals, many who otherwise may never have taught a course about Israel, now teach such courses at colleges and universities across the United States and around the world.

AICE and SIIS, with their emphasis on academic scholarship, as opposed to advocacy, helped make it possible for professors to offer their students the opportunity to learn about Israel beyond ‘the conflict.’ Our directories of Israel studies document the dramatic increase in the range and sheer numbers of courses being offered.  Continue reading

“All Together Separate”: How the Study Evolved

Ethnicity_v6By Leonard Saxe and Theodore Sasson

Our focus in “All Together Separate: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion on the Brandeis campus” was a single campus. It happens to be our home institution and, as the report acknowledges, has a unique history as the first and only nonsectarian Jewish-sponsored university in the country. Conducting research about one’s own environment has advantages and disadvantages. The obvious advantage is that we have abundant contextual information. But it is also a disadvantage—in Bayesian statistical terms, we have “priors.” In developing, analyzing, and reporting the study we tried to use our contextual information to create a more nuanced study, while also working hard to be as objective as possible.

A number of unanticipated findings shaped the report. First, the concern of our respondents, across racial and ethnic groups, about race and diversity issues on campus had not been fully appreciated. The negotiated end to recent student protests (#FordHall2015) did not settle the issues and, instead, seems to have brought them to the fore. A second significant finding was the notable increase in the diversity of Brandeis’s student population. Nearly half are now students of color and a large number are international students. Brandeis, which in the 1970s had an undergraduate student population of mostly Jewish students, now has a student body with about one third identifying as Jewish.

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A Fond Farewell


From l-r: Ariel Stein, Sarah Meyer, Viktoria Bedo

It’s time to bid a fond farewell to three research specialists, Ariel Stein, Sarah Meyer, and Viktoria Bedo, who are moving on to new adventures. Before they depart, we want to tell you a little more about them and what they have been up to.

Ariel Stein grew up in the Orthodox community of Baltimore, MD. He studied psychology and Jewish studies at the University of Pennsylvania. A former research specialist and college classmate of Ariel’s, Dina Bleckman, mentioned her work at CMJS and suggested he apply. While at CMJS, Ariel worked on a number of projects, in particular those focusing on program evaluation, Israel education, and young adults. Ariel notes he has gained professional skills in a number of areas: study and survey design, analysis, and interviewing. In addition to his work here, Ariel is also the co-creator and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Literary Journal. Ariel is moving with his fiancée to Los Angeles.

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Grandparents and Jewish Identity


This post is part of series that takes a deeper look at some of the findings from our Millennial Children of Intermarriage report. The first installment looks at the relationship of children of intermarriage to their grandparents. We found that the relationship to Jewish grandparents can be extremely important for a child’s later Jewish identity.

Background: Our study draws on a sample of approximately 2,7000 respondents and in-depth interviews with 27 children of intermarriage in four cities. We compared children of intermarriage and children of inmarriage to identify which experiences and relationships are most likely to result in robust Jewish attitudes and practices in adulthood. The central finding of the study was that participation during college in Birthright Israel, campus groups such as Hillel and Chabad, and/or taking courses focusing on Jewish topics was life-changing in terms of respondents’ Jewish engagement. At the same time, participation in Jewish life during college was related to childhood experiences. As part of the study, survey respondents were asked open-ended questions about who had the greatest influence on their religious identities when they were growing up, and in what ways. About one-fifth of children of inmarriage and intermarriage mentioned grandparents as an important adult influence. We decided to look into this relationship further.

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Researcher in the Spotlight

Janet Krasner Aronson

Janet Krasner Aronson

Janet Krasner Aronson recently earned her PhD in social policy at the Heller School at Brandeis University and is an associate research scientist at CMJS/SSRI. She has been a member of the Taglit-Birthright Israel team, the Israel studies team, and currently manages several of our Jewish community studies. Her dissertation focused on the “ripple effects” of social intervention programs, specifically the ways in which Taglit-Birthright Israel impacts the parents of participants.

Several months ago, while still a graduate student, Janet was the first participant in a newly formed exchange program between the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University and the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The exchange is designed to foster collaboration on socio-demographic studies of world Jewry. Our interview below expands on that experience.

Why did SSRI partner with the Avraham Harman Institute? Can you describe the program and what it is trying to accomplish?

The Steinhardt and Harman Institutes are natural partners for collaboration—they are pre-eminent academic centers for the study of contemporary Jewish life. Both of our institutes study Jewish populations, and there is much that we can learn from one another about socio-demographic trends. The project allows staff and students—not just the directors who meet frequently—to get to know another and learn about one another’s methods and findings. Each planned exchange between graduate students from each institution includes meetings with research staff, participation in on-going courses, and a colloquium presentation by the visitor. Over time, we also hope to work on joint publications and applications for grant funding. The visits are spaced approximately six months apart so that the participating graduate students can, in the interim, meet via SKYPE and email.

How did you think about your goals for the one-week exchange?

My personal goal for the exchange was to develop my professional network. Socio-demography is a small field and as a newcomer, there are a lot of scholars whose work I have read but have not yet had the opportunity to meet. In addition, I was interested in learning about the areas of interest of the Harman Institute to understand how they overlapped with the work done here at Steinhardt. From the perspective of SSRI, I saw my participation as an opportunity to share our work following up the Pew report “Portrait of American Jews” and gain the perspectives of non-Americans on a variety of issues, including the construction of Jewish identity.

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The CMJS/SSRI Approach to Community Studies

Matthew Boxer

Matthew Boxer

Matthew Boxer, PhD, is a research scientist at CMJS and SSRI and a principal investigator for our community studies. Below he discusses our unique approach to this research and the potential such studies represent.

CMJS/SSRI has become increasingly involved in Jewish community studies in recent years. Can you tell us a little about why these studies are important?

 Community studies have been one of the most important ways that the American Jewish community understands itself. CMJS/SSRI has long been involved in these studies and our new emphasis on this work is a way to bring modern methods to the study of Jewish life. Our goal is to understand the growth of communities and, most importantly, the needs, interests, and Jewish engagement of community members. We learn where the Jewish community is successfully providing services that meet members’ needs and where there are still gaps. Ultimately, our goal for these studies is to help the community strengthen itself where it is already strong and improve itself where there are challenges. Having high-quality data is essential to this effort.

Your reference to data leads me to my next question. Are there unique aspects to the CMJS/SSRI approach to community studies?

Yes! We have developed a set of new methods to estimate the size of Jewish communities more accurately than can be done using traditional approaches. We turn to our Steinhardt Institute meta-analysis research program, which synthesizes data from nationally representative surveys of the US population, to produce estimates of the local Jewish population. In addition we use data from our JData project, which provides census-like figures about participation in Jewish educational programs, to calibrate survey results and ensure that we don’t overestimate the most engaged members of the community or underestimate the unaffiliated. Alongside the survey synthesis for population numbers, we field a comprehensive survey to everyone with a name on any of the community’s membership lists. The result is a study with extremely accurate population estimates without the fallout from excessive costs and/or methodologically problematic techniques. By not having to do a screener, we are able to focus our resources to better understand the characteristics of community members. We also spend a lot of time talking to people in the community finding out what they want to know. Rather than reuse surveys for multiple communities, we customize each community’s survey based on the information we gained during our investigation and meeting process.
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Ten Takeaways from Pew

The recently released Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” has garnered tremendous attention. For most in the media and among many scholars and pundits concerned with the Jewish community, the headline was an increase in the portion of the population that describes itself as “atheist, agnostic, or having no particular religion.” Lost in the conversation was that the study found population growth among U.S. Jews, not the decline that many had claimed.  Pew’s findings are consonant with research done at the Cohen Center/Steinhardt Institute that documents the increase in the U.S. Jewish population, both among those who identify Judaism as their religion and those who identify by other criteria.

Leonard SaxeBelow Leonard Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute, provides his ten takeaways of the Pew study.

  1. American Jews have not vanished. Pew’s estimate of 4.2M adult Jews by religion (JBR) is 25%/40% greater than the corresponding figures from NJPS 1990/2000-01. The Pew estimate of JBRs is not a methodological artifact – it’s almost precisely what one finds if you examine hundreds of surveys done with state of the art methodology that ask a standard question about religious identification (see American Jewish Population Estimates: 2012).
  2. The Pew estimate of a total population of 6.7M Jews is, as well, substantially larger than the corresponding estimates of NJPS 1990 and 2000-01. Notably, Pew’s criteria for who counts as a Jew are more conservative. Earlier surveys, in counting Jews of no religion (JNR), did not require self-identification as a Jew. NJPS 2000-01, in particular, included persons of Jewish background who were not considered Jewish by Pew.
  3. Pew estimates that 23% of the Jewish population is Jewish by criteria other than religion. That’s not very different than the results of other studies; in particular, the ARIS studies find higher rates (30%), while the Steinhardt Institute (based on studies using the Knowledge Network panel) uses a slightly lower rate (19%). What it means to be a JNR has, perhaps, changed and there are more such individuals because the overall population is larger.
  4. One explanation for the larger Jewish population estimate is the effect of intermarriage on Jewish identification. As Ted Sasson details in a recent article in Tablet Magazine, the children of intermarriage are identifying as Jewish at high rates. Although intermarriage rates remain high (above 2/3 for non-Orthodox Jews), most children of one Jewish parent (as defined by Pew) see themselves as Jewish.
  5. If one compares Pew’s JBRs with NJPS JBRs (1990 and 2000-01), on similar questions (e.g., fasted on Yom Kippur, importance of Judaism), the reported rates are almost identical. What’s different is that Pew estimates that there are many more individuals engaging in these behaviors than indicated by earlier studies. The numeric increase is not accounted for by those who are Orthodox (who comprise only 12% of the JBR population).
  6. Among Pew’s JNR adults (estimated at 1.1M), nearly half answered the religion question by indicating that they are atheist or agnostic (both categories were included as part of the prompts). Although some regard this as a negation of Jewish identity, a substantial majority of Pew’s respondents, including JBRs, regard Judaism “mainly” as “ancestry/culture.” Only a small minority regard Judaism mainly as a religion.
  7. Pew estimates that there are 1.3M Jewish children, but they restrict the child population to those being “raised” Jewish (900k raised exclusively as Jews, 300k partly Jewish, and 100k as Jews of no religion). Pew excludes 500k children who live in a household with a Jewish parent. Many, if not most, of these children would be considered Jewish by the community (e.g., eligible for youth/young adult programs). Note: Pew estimates that 20% of the total adult Jewish population is 18-29 (1.1M/91k/age cohort). If one assumes that current 0-18 age cohorts are the same size, there are then 1.6M children. This is not the “enlarged” Jewish population, but rather the core Jewish population.
  8. The Pew findings do not reflect changes in intermarriage being wrought by programs such as Taglit-Birthright Israel. Taglit has dramatic effects on intermarriage rates for participants in its ten-day Israel education programs (see, particularly so for those from intermarried households. Because highly educated American Jews delay marriage (until their 30s), the impact of Taglit did not have a marked effect on the rates reported by Pew.
  9. Regarding Israel, Pew’s findings show high levels of support and attachment to Israel. Overall, nearly 45% of all Jewish adults have visited Israel, including a similar proportion of young adults (again, influenced by Taglit). As well, almost 90% of all Jews say that caring about Israel is “essential” or “important” to their Jewishness.
  10. One puzzle regarding Pew’s findings is their estimate of 3.5M individuals of Jewish background (2.4M adults and 1.1M children). Considered by Pew non-Jewish (and, thus, not part of their 6.7M estimate of the Jewish population), Jewish background individuals have Jewish parents and/or were raised Jewish. The puzzle is that nearly 75% of these individuals consider themselves Jewish and many engage in Jewish practices (including regular synagogue attendance, fasting on Yom Kippur). They were excluded because they also indicated that they had another religion (in some cases, agnostic/atheist). Pew has, to date, not provided detailed information about these individuals.

In sum, rather than painting a bleak portrait of American Jewry, the Pew survey describes high levels of Jewish identification, albeit many of those who identify as Jewish are not highly engaged in Jewish life and with formal Jewish organizations. My key take-away is that the U.S. Jewish community has a challenge: How to sustain identification and engagement with Judaism, both as a religious movement and as a culture. Intermarriage and the encounter with a dominant non-Jewish culture has, no doubt, reduced the ranks of those who identify as Jewish (the Jewish population would be 10 million, not 7 million), but the loss in Jewish identification is far less than had been thought. Whether or not these trends will be sustained is impossible to predict, but the current levels of identification and engagement suggest a host of opportunities.