Living on the Edge

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. 

Research Scientist  Fern Chertok

Research Scientist
Fern Chertok

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.

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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.

Researcher in the Spotlight

Who are the researchers who formulate the questions, create the surveys, analyze the data, run the focus groups, and author our publications? In this section we introduce you to some of our researchers and bloggers. First up, Nicole Samuel, researcher at CMJS since 2005.

I’m Nicole Samuel, research associate at CMJS. My research portfolio includes Jewish identity, Jewish education, and communal organizations. As a researcher, I’ve had different opportunities to do fieldwork, including spending several weeks in summers 2007 and 2008 traveling to Jewish overnight camps. I didn’t attend overnight camp as a child, but I think I made up for it with my field work. I saw the power of experiential Jewish education and learned how friendships at camp translate into life-long social networks. I observed campfires, Shabbat under the stars and even a production of “High School Musical” in Hebrew. I spoke with Israeli emissaries who were learning about the diversity of Jewish life in America and counselors who were deciding to dedicate their careers to Jewish education, and specifically, overnight camp.  Continue reading