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.
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.
We are very pleased to announce the release of our latest report Living on the Edge: Economic Insecurity Among Jewish Households in Greater Rhode Island. Below we interview Fern Chertok, principal investigator of the study and research scientist at CMJS.
Can you tell us a little about the impetus for the study?
Rhode Island families, including Jewish households, were especially hard hit by the 2008-2011 recession and, even in the face of a modest improvement in the economy, many face continued economic hardship. Rhode Island still has among the highest rates of unemployment in the nation.
Rhode Island is also home to the oldest surviving synagogue in the United States and its Jewish community has a long history of helping each other dating back to the 1870s with the founding of the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association. Following in this long tradition of assisting members of the Jewish community in difficulty, the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island is now facing a host of tough decisions about how and where to best deploy its resources to address economic needs of Jewish households. The Alliance sought the assistance of CMJS to conduct research that would aid their understanding of the economic challenges and needs of Jewish households in the Alliance’s catchment area communities.
What is “living on the edge” How did you define economic insecurity?
We used the term “living on the edge” to describe the economic reality of the substantial group of families that stretch to meet their basic living costs and don’t earn enough to create their own safety net of personal savings that they can employ in the case of an emergency expense. Even modest unexpected costs can topple the economic stability of these households.
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