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.
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.