BY DEBORAH MOON
An upcoming study of the greater Portland Jewish community will enable Jewish organizations to enhance and create programs, services and infrastructure that will serve our community more deeply and broadly.
“These studies are incredibly difficult, but what makes them fun is how much impact they can have,” says principal investigator Matthew Boxer, an assistant research professor at Brandeis University. “It can make a community stronger … (it helps) improve its strengths and confront its weaknesses.”
The Jewish Federation of Greater Portland has commissioned Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies/Steinhardt Social Research Institute to “collect, analyze and report accurate, actionable data to support and promote vibrant Jewish life in Greater Portland.”
“This study is a guide for our community to focus our communal investments for the next 10 years,” says JFGP President and CEO Marc Blattner. “This will be the most comprehensive, scientifically valid study in Jewish Portland’s history.” He notes that for its last study in 2008, funding limitations did not allow Federation to hire a
nationally recognized leading provider.
“There are two leading community study research practices in the country, and this time we interviewed both and chose Brandeis,” says Blattner.
Over the past decade, Boxer and CMJS/SSRI have completed or are working on 29 community studies and are in conversation with five other communities. Studies have included Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle, as well as smaller Jewish communities such as Orlando, Nashville and Delaware.
Both Blattner and JFGP Director of Allocations Caron Blau Rothstein, who will be the project manager for the study, look forward to making data-driven rather than anecdotally driven allocations’ decisions. But the impact will be communal – extending beyond Federation to give synagogues and other Jewish institutions the concrete data they need to make decisions.
For instance, if the study reveals there is a large concentration of Jews in an area with few or no Jewish resources, a synagogue or school might want to open a satellite location or offer programming in the area, says Rothstein.
That is exactly what happened after CMJS/SSRI completed its study in Seattle. Boxer says the study revealed a much larger than expected Jewish population in Northwest Seattle. After the study, that Federation started offering mobile programs in the area, and Chabad opened a center there.
“We need a communal study to really understand who is here,” says Rothstein. “Are we really supporting the breadth of Jewish identity and depth of Jewish expression? We just don’t know.”
The communal study will gather socio-demographic data using representative samples from both Jews known to local Jewish organizations and those who are not known. Membership and contact lists from congregations and agencies will be cross-referenced to ensure a household is only included once, and then a computer will pick a randomized sample. Boxer says finding a representative sample of unknown Jews is more difficult.
“Our American Jewish Population Project gets us the total population estimate,” he says. “The difference between the total estimate and the number of Jews on organizations’ lists is the number of Jews who have to be represented by the people we find who are Jewish but not on lists. The technique works because our holistic body of research shows that all we need to do is find enough of the people not on the lists and get them to do the survey, and we can make them stand in mathematically for all the Jews not on lists without biasing estimates.”
Another key in planning the study is creating the questions. Federation will schedule meetings with community leaders and organizations to help select important, not merely interesting, questions. Boxer typically comes to a community for that process, but it may need to be virtual this year. He says there are three categories of questions: top tier questions are those that provide information you cannot function without; second tier, the bulk of the survey, provide useful information that helps serve the community more efficiently; third are “factoids” that are interesting facts, but not useful. Only a few “interesting” questions should be included.
Questions that are included in most communities address ritual behavior and Jewish engagement, connection to Israel and social service needs. For instance, are households struggling financially, or do they struggle with disabilities?
“We ask what kind of help they need to help the community serve them better,” says Boxer.
When the study is completed, the entire data set is available (with any personal information that could identify respondents removed). Boxer will lead one or two public presentations and meet with Jewish organization to help them figure out how to use the data.
“We want to make it as useful as possible to all Jewish organizations in a community and help them figure out how best to use it,” says Boxer.
The survey is expected to run from October 2022 through January 2023. (See below for timeline.)
“This is a call to the community to help us decide what we need,” says Rothstein. “This study will help us understand how to help people connect to our community in more and more meaningful ways.”
Blattner agrees: “When you are called or get an opportunity to participate, we hope you will respond and make your voice heard.”
JEWISH COMMUNITY STUDY TIMELINE
May-June 2022: Kickoff meetings with community leaders/organizations
July-October 2022: Draft and finalize survey
October 2022-January 2023: Conduct survey
April-May 2023: Final report