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.
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.
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?
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.
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