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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“Ninety Miles v. Ninety Seconds:” Life in the Age of Missiles

Below are some reflections written on the way back from Israel 10 days ago, just as the cease fire with Hamas went into effect.  For those who only see images Israel through the lens of CNN, I wanted to share some of the experience and, hopefully, help readers appreciate one element of the human side of the conflict. 

Leonard Saxe
Director of CMJS and SSRI

Ninety miles, the distance from Cuba to Florida, is emblazoned in my childhood memory of the nuclear brinkmanship of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. A few days before Thanksgiving, I arrived in Israel to visit communities being pummeled by actual missiles from Gaza.  I came as an American Jew to show solidarity with Israeli brethren. I returned feeling an even stronger bond, but also fearing that we have become inured to violence.

At a briefing when I arrived, the memory came to the fore as the communities we would visit were described in the metric of time: How many seconds we would have from a “red alert” to reach safety in a shelter or by prostrating ourselves on the ground. Only 15 seconds is available in Sderot, 30 seconds for Ashkelon and 60 seconds for BeerSheva. Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, where one had 90 seconds to find shelter, seemed very safe.

As I traveled the next day, vigilant for the sound of alerts and contrails in the winter clouds overhead, I didn’t experience fear. Whatever I felt dissipated as I met person after person, each of whom had an ordinary exterior, but seemed to possess extraordinary dignity and resilience. They were clearly struggling to make life as normal and safe as possible for themselves and their children, and perhaps their lack of fear was contagious.

All of my encounters — in a day of traveling through a zone of red alerts — were extraordinary, but one stands out. We visited an absorption center for new immigrants just outside of Sderot, a frequent target of Hamas rockets. The center is home to dozens of families who have immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia. Our welcome to the village was a red alert. We were in a protected building in less than 15 seconds.

We were joined in the safe space by Natan Sharansky, the refusnik jailed for nine years in the Soviet Union now head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.  Sharansky is a hero, but that day, the heroes were the Ethiopian immigrants who had come to live in the midst of a surreal 21st century conflict. One was a father of five who had come three weeks ago.  When asked if he was “afraid,” he said, “No … in Israel, my children are ‘happy’. They have a future.”

Indeed, outside was a group of happy-looking children playing soccer.  I imagined, although perhaps it was a hope, that they were tethered with an invisible line to their parents’ homes and shelters. As we left, it was poignant when the children said, in unison, “shalom” (peace), and in the distant sky, a small cloud marked the spot where an Israeli anti-missile had destroyed a rocket headed to the city of Ashkelon.

Later, I was at a village for the elderly nearby Kiryat Malachi, where days before a missile had killed three people. Although some are being pressured to leave, the residents made clear that this was their home, their community, and that they weren’t leaving. As one told me, “this is where my friends are, why would I want to be elsewhere?” Her concern was for her children and grandchildren.

The comments of another grandmother remain with me. As I ate home-baked cookies she had prepared, we talked about what she does when there is an alert. She said that her house did not have a shelter and that she was supposed to go to one a few doors away. But, she said, “I’m old and don’t walk very well. So, during an alert, I sit in my favorite chair and look at the garden.”

In the fog of war and a depressing moment for humanity, much of what I heard – from young and not-so-young individuals — was awe-inspiring.  There was a lack of rancor toward the enemy, an acceptance of whatever life throws one’s way, and gratitude for being part of a community.  Psychologists talk of resiliency and the role of social support in coping.  What I saw, however, demands a new vocabulary to describe the strength that people derive from their bonds with others.

I return to the U.S. with a heavy heart. Anxious to spend Thanksgiving with family, but also troubled by the state of a world in need of repair. The existential threat of a nuclear missile 90 miles from our shores that I have had since childhood has been replaced by my first-hand knowledge of danger that is seconds, not miles, away. I was inspired by those I met, but I am angry at a world in which innocents are targeted for violence and in which to save a life requires even more violence.

President Kennedy, who drew a “line in the sand” when the Soviet Union started to move missiles toward Cuba, once said, “Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, the pursuit must go on.” A cease fire has been achieved between Hamas and Israel, but it’s only a small step. It should be reminder of the urgency of the task to create a more peaceful world.

Elderly in Russia and Ukraine: An analysis of the needs of Hesed Clients

In this blog post, CMJS researchers Liz Tighe, Raquel Magidin de Kramer and Dina Bleckman describe a recent research trip to eastern Ukraine and Moscow. This project is the latest in a series of reports on international comparisons of neediness among elderly Jews in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) conducted by researchers at CMJS.  The present work also included an initial review of data on international comparisons of the situation for children at risk in the FSU.

Throughout the FSU, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) has supported the development of Hesed welfare and Jewish community centers to assist in the provision of services to Jews in need and to support the renewal of Jewish life after years of suppression. Raquel, Dina, and I visited Hesed welfare centers in eastern Ukraine and Moscow, Russia in order to gain a better understanding of data collected by the JDC as part of their case management system.  As a resource for describing the needs of Jewish elderly and children served by these centers, the Hesed data are unparalleled.

Playground in Melitopol, Ukraine with the old mikveh (ritual bath) in background.

The primary goal of the visits was to determine how well the data reflect the nature of the problems experienced by elderly and children in these regions. It was also important to gain a better understanding of how information is interpreted and understood by those in the field who were collecting the data and whether their understanding is reflected in how we interpret the data here in the United States.  Given that the nature of community in these regions can vary dramatically from the typical communities we study here in the United States, it was also important for us to get a sense of the complexities of the social context in which these data are collected.

Our trip began with a late night arrival to the city of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine.  Dnepr is the fourth largest city in Ukraine, with a population of around one million.  Located on the Dnieper River (which was frozen during our visit!), the city had been an industrial center for weapons and space industries during the Soviet era and had been a closed city, not appearing on maps and with restrictions on residents for travel outside and for outsiders to enter.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s the city was estimated to be nearly 40% Jewish.  At the start of World War II, it was estimated fewer than 20% Jewish.  Today, the Jewish community is estimated to be around 40,000, less than 5% of the total population in the city.

We also visited a smaller city outside of Dnepr, Melitopol.  We were so focused on our quest to understand the local data that we were taken by surprise by the generosity and enthusiasm of local community members who had prepared traditional Jewish music and dances to perform for us. We could not resist pulling out an iphone to try to capture some of what was experienced.

For Dina, whose family had emigrated from Russia when she was very young, seeing people engaged in Jewish activities in Dnepr and Melitopol had special meaning. From groups of men meeting at the local synagogue in Dnepr on the Tu B’Shvat holiday who invited us to join them for a fig and an Ha-aitz blessing, to the Hebrew classes, dance classes, literature clubs and other activities organized through the community centers, it was a powerful experience to witness such engagement in Jewish life knowing that just 25 years earlier there was nothing.

Jewish folk dance group in Melitpol.

Raquel, a daughter of a life-long Yiddish teacher, was especially taken by the renewed interest in the Yiddish language and culture. And all of us were impressed by the Tzedakah-o-matic in the lobby of one of the local Hesed centers, which in collaboration with a local banker, enabled users to make anonymous donations electronically.

Melitpol Hesed Center.

We learned much about the local data and we left with much more, including fond memories of the hospitality of all, particularly the patience and dedication of our translator, Anna, who worked tirelessly to convey our research questions to local staff and community members, and the generosity of the cooks at Hesed Menachem—the kindness in the food that they prepared and shared with us will always be remembered.

We also left with fond memories of dumplings, chicken schnitzel, pickled vegetables, sweet farmer’s cheese blintzes, and the best beet salad I have ever had.  If anyone can find the recipe from the restaurant in Melitopol I’ll forever be grateful!

Our report on the needs of Jewish elderly, which includes some of the Hesed data, can be viewed here, and the short-form research brief here.  It might be a bit more difficult to digest than dumplings, but we hope it provides at least a bit of food for thought. Enjoy!


New York: What Kind of Town?

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

“Never Mind”

Leonard Saxe, Director of CMJS and SSRI

Among the memorable characters created by Gilda Radner (z’l), one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live, was an older woman, Emily Litella, who would mishear the news. After engaging in an angry diatribe in response to what she thought she heard, Emily would shyly follow up with an apologetic “never mind.” Radner’s sketches came to mind as I heard about the latest data on young adults’ attachment to Israel.

For a half dozen years, a rallying cry among leading pundits has been that American Jews are losing the commitment to Israel that characterized earlier generations. The “distancing hypothesis” was propelled into the consciousness of American Jews by pollster Frank Luntz and later by a number of social scientists. In what would become the dominant narrative of the last several years, Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman argued in a 2007 report that a “mounting body of evidence has pointed to a growing distancing from Israel of American Jews, and the distancing seems to be most pronounced among younger Jews.”

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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.

New York Community Study Does Not Show Distancing From Israel

Ted Sasson

Ted Sasson, Senior Research Scientist

The Jewish Community Study of New York, just published, describes fascinating developments in the largest center of Jewish life outside of Israel.  There is much to digest and discuss. For the moment, though, I want to quickly address the small corner of the study that relates to a contentious issue among social scientists who study the Jews: trends in attachment to Israel.

The study’s authors, Steven Cohen, Jack Ukeles and Ron Miller, interpret the study’s findings to be consistent with Cohen’s broader claim that attachment to Israel is declining across the generations among non-Orthodox Jews, primarily due to intermarriage. A careful review of the evidence presented in the study report, however, suggests the possibility of an alternative interpretation. Continue reading

The New Philanthropy

The first of its kind, THE NEW PHILANTHROPY: AMERICAN JEWISH GIVING TO ISRAELI ORGANIZATIONS, draws on Internal Revenue Service documents to describe trends in American Jewish giving to Israeli organizations. Contrary to widespread belief, Eric Fleisch and I find that American Jewish giving increased substantially during the past two decades, roughly doubling to just over $2 billion before the great recession. We attribute increased giving to improved fundraising practices and growth in the number and variety of organizations fundraising in the United States, from 265 in the late 1980s to 667 in 2010. The largest sums were raised by organizations in the Zionist, welfare, and general education categories, followed by organizations in the medical, religious education, and arts & culture categories. The smallest sums were raised by organizations that support politically charged causes on the left (e.g. democracy, human rights) and right (e.g. West Bank settlements). We conclude that trends point to a rapidly diversifying philanthropic field and to ongoing engagement of American Jews with Israel.

The individual organizations are listed in the Appendix. We asking interested readers to help us by providing additions or corrections to this list of organizations. Please do so in our comment section.

Best wishes,

Ted Sasson and Eric Fleisch

Divided…Not Distant

Ted Sasson

Ted Sasson, Senior Research Scientist

A few weeks ago I testified, together with Len, before the Knesset Subcommittee on Israel-Diaspora Relations chaired by Einat Wilf.

Drawing on our recent research, I challenged the notion that American Jews are “distancing” from Israel. I noted that despite the popularity of the “distancing hypothesis” in the public discourse, there is actually little evidence for it. Rather than distanced, I described American Jews as increasingly divided among competing visions of Israel – of what Israel ought to be like, of what threatens Israel, and of how American Jews ought to relate to Israel.  In other words, what many frequently misinterpret as evidence of distancing often reflects an interest in and deep caring for Israel.

Previewing our latest research, I discussed four segments of American Jews’ relationship to Israel: philanthropy, tourism, public opinion, and advocacy. Continue reading

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