Local Jewish community studies are a fixture of Jewish communal life in the United States. But how are the findings used after a study is completed and shared with the community? Early last summer (2919), we gathered lay and professional leaders from 15 communities that have conducted studies with CMJS/SSRI for a two-day meeting, “From Research to Action: Using Community Studies Data for Program Planning and Policy.” We asked them to share what they had learned or hoped to learn from their local study and discuss best practices around strategic planning, fundraising, and rollouts.
Community representatives shared a range of action steps their federations and agencies had taken as a result of report findings. Some mentioned earmarking funds for programs in an underserved geographic area after learning that their Jewish population had spread there. Others used their study to help decide which programs should be scaled up and which should be merged or eliminated. Study results were used by communities to reconsider the role and structure of the federation, to guide strategic planning, and to aid in fundraising efforts for new initiatives. Shari Merrill, Chief Impact Officer, Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, described a “paradigm shift” in fundraising, allocating funds, and the community engagement model as a result of the 2017 Washington, DC study.
Life after community studies often includes followup research. Pittsburgh, whose study was completed in 2018, plans five followup studies in over next three years. One, currently in the field, is a study of interfaith couple who are raising their children as Jews. In Boston, “Outbound on the T: Jewish young adults in Cambridge, Somerville, and Jamaica Plain” involved a reanalysis of the community study data supplemented by interviews of Jewish young adults.
Several speakers emphasized the importance of having a diverse group of individuals connected to the study—not only at the study’s conception but also for establishing priorities in the followup stage. Nanette Fridman, principal at Fridman Strategies, suggested having more than one person who can dive into the data and help other community members make sense of what can be complex information. Professor Leonard Bickman advised building in program evaluation to all new initiatives to ensure that they achieve desired goals.
Jewish engagement—what it means, how to measure it, and how to strengthen it—was a recurring topic. Many communities were enthusiastic about the CMJS/SSRI Index of Jewish Engagement. The index provides an alternative model for analyzing Jewish identification. For example, rather than using denominational categories, which have become less meaningful in recent decades, our index yields a data-derived classifications based on the actual way in which community members engage in Jewish life. As one community representative noted, the model substantiated what they knew regarding attitudes and beliefs of community members, but provided a new vocabulary for understanding the community and for engagement strategies.
Offering a perspective on national Jewish community data and suggesting ways that communities could use the national data for their benefit were Alan Cooperman, Director of Religion Research, and Greg Smith, Associate Director of Research, from the Pew Research Center. Researchers from CMJS/SSRI’s American Jewish Population Project also discussed how their national data can supplement local data and provide an important check on population estimates.
Turning research into action depends on the collaboration of a host of interested parties with different interests and needs. CMJS and SSRI hope that our cross-communal conversation inspired community representatives and gave them new ideas about how to approach and plan for their local data. Our goal is to make the community’s tasks going forward clearer and more effective. As Michal Becker, Director of Adult Engagement & Outreach, Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee noted, “It’s easier to focus on our work when we have the science behind it.”