The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey just released findings from the community study it conducted in its catchment area, where it studied responses from about 3,100 respondents and held focus groups with local lay and professional leaders from December 20, 2021, through February 4, 2022.
There weren’t many surprises in the study — and that’s a good thing.
Instead, the information deepened and added nuance and possibility to the knowledge that the federation and its partners already had about its home ground.
The study came out of deep knowledge of the community and deep ties to local funders and service providers. It was funded by the federation and the Bergen County-based Russell Berrie Foundation; now the federation is working on a new strategic plan based on the insights it has gained, and it, along with its partner agencies and many local shuls and other Jewish organizations, will benefit from the study.
(Both the full 108-page survey and an 11-page executive summary are on the homepage of the federation’s website, jfnnj.org.)
“I think that when you talk about planning and serving and building and growing the Jewish community, you need current data to use as a driver for decision-making,” the federation’s CEO, Jason Shames, said. “The last study we had was in 2014, and a lot has happened in our world since then. Especially post-covid, we wanted to get a better understanding of who we are, what we are, and what our perspectives are.”
Because the federation is “an umbrella organization, it is our obligation to do this kind of work,” he added.
The Northern New Jersey Jewish Community Study is not a demographic survey — that very ambitious undertaking would try to estimate the number of Jews in the community, as well as collect other data outside the scope of the community study. The study tried to reach and include as many community members as possible by asking them to participate; the federation and its partners sent the survey to its own lists as well as lists from schools, shuls, JCCs, and any Jewish organizations anyone could think of, and participants were asked to forward the survey to all their lists, and to all the Jews they knew. So although everyone who filled out a survey had some connection to the Jewish community, and although some of those connections were strong, others were as tenuous as being the friend of a friend.
The study “validates a lot of what we had sensed on the ground,” Mr. Shames said.
“It validates our sense of the community as tightly connected to Israel; we were a little but only a little surprised that antisemitism was the number one issue on everyone’s mind. We already had hired a community security director.
“The study shows many opportunities in terms of engagement. We heard from people who want to get involved in the community; the puzzle is how to engage them.”
One problem that the study showed — to no one’s surprise — “is that if you are Orthodox in Teaneck, for example, or Reform in Wyckoff, you feel like you live in different worlds. That might feel true, but you have far more in common than you might realize. You have so much in common that it shouldn’t be true.
“I was surprised by how aware people were of living in their own Jewish bubbles, and I was reassured by some of them saying things like ‘I know I really don’t know much about the other Jewish bubbles, and maybe I should.’ I like this idea that there are segments of our community who are willing to come together.”
There were other reassuring messages that came through in the data, Mr. Shames said. “There was a high regard for being part of the Jewish community. Even the people who called themselves Just Jewish” — as opposed to identifying themselves as Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist — “expressed a strong desire for connection to Jewish life.
“It showed us the changing nature of Jewish life in northern New Jersey,” he continued. “It’s not just about religion. It’s religion and theology plus something else. It’s an incredible opportunity for us and for synagogues to think about the programs and services they offer. It speaks to the strength of our community.”
Roberta Abrams of Montvale, a past president of the federation, “was the lay chair of the strategic engineering task force,” she said. “It was a really robust, varied, great group of people who were very engaged. We had people who were new to federation, who we didn’t know. We had a Jew of color, a millennial, someone from the LGBTQ community, a Russian-speaking Jew, someone from an interfaith family. We had Jews from across the geographic region.
“What was great about the survey is that it came from two different perspectives,” she continued. “From our task force, and concurrently from a task force of agency leadership, the heads of communal agencies including the Kaplen JCC, the Jewish Home, Jewish Family and Children’s Services, and a number of smaller organizations.”
The outreach, though, began even before the survey was composed. “We met with synagogue rabbis and presidents or their representatives, and we had robust conversations facilitated by Rosov Consulting, who are wonderful.” (Rosov is the California-based consulting group that worked with the federation and other agencies on the study; the tagline on its website is “Enhancing decision making for Jewish communal impact.”)
“What’s special about this survey is that it is for the community,” Ms. Abrams continued. “It’s a conversation about our northern New Jersey community. It’s not only for federation to use to inform our strategic plan, although of course we are using it, but it’s also because we were able to get a number of questions in the survey that were of interest to our partners.” The other agencies were able to ask respondents questions that are specific to their missions. “We tried to make the survey broad, so that it would address the needs and concerns of everyone in our catchment area,” Ms. Abrams said.
“And the other amazing thing is that I believe that federation is the only organization that could have undertaken a survey of this size and magnitude, for the good of the entire community.
“Everyone benefitted from it. It was federation’s amazing staff’s breadth of knowledge, expertise, and community connections that made it happen. I am really proud of the federation, and I am proud to be part of something that gives immeasurable benefit to our partners, to help them make informed decisions and be stronger going forward.”
Karen Sponder of Teaneck is the director of the federation’s community strategic initiative, and she was the federation professional who shepherded the process as it went through the stages that resulted in the executive survey and the full report.
“There was lots of work that had to happen,” Ms. Sponder said. “It was a very comprehensive process.” There were 72 focus groups, as well as the 3,100 respondents. “The report is long, because the survey asked a lot of questions,” she continued. Once the answers were in, Rosov “analyzed the data, wrote the comprehensive report, and now we have begun engaging the community with it.
“It’s like a sandwich. We started with ‘What do you want to learn?’” Then there was the sandwich filling — the data collection and analysis and reporting — “and now it’s ‘What did we learn? What pieces of this can be meaningful for you in your work as a leader in a school or synagogue or JCC or one of our social service agencies?’
“All the people who are doing the important work of engaging people in Jewish life and meeting the needs of the community can use this report. It’s been quite a wonderful project.
“The report is so long because there’s a treasure trove of data in it.”
Ms. Sponder described the ways that potential respondents saw the survey. “We were very committed to reaching out as broadly as possible,” she said. “So on the one hand, we reached into all our schools and synagogues, and they reached out to their people.” But not everyone is connected to a school or synagogue. “We all have different networks. Our task force committed to inviting everyone in their networks, and we asked people to invite all the people they know on their social media. We had a comprehensive marketing plan, and we had out-of-the-box ways to reach people who hadn’t heard about it in other ways.”
When it came to people like her — not only does she work in the Jewish community, Ms. Sponder said, but she’s connected to it in many other ways as well — “I was invited so many times!” she said. “I read the Jewish Standard; I am a parent at a local day school and a member of a local synagogue, and this was just the beginning of the ways I was invited.”
When it came to the contents of the survey, she noted, without any particular surprise, that both the experience of antisemitism and an awareness of its presence had gone up.
“What most surprised me is the lack of feeling that you have a lot in common with Jews of other denominations,” Ms. Sponder said. “We are living in increasingly divisive times, but that makes it even more imperative that the Jewish community work together to find out what we have in common, and to work together to build a stronger Jewish community.”
Not only are there denominational differences, there are geographic ones as well, Ms. Sponder said, although often they go together. There are many Orthodox Jews in Teaneck and Bergenfield and far fewer in Wyckoff and Montvale.
“Northern New Jersey is a large area,” she continued. Hudson County is more urban, and varies in the ways that people engage with Jewish life. Parts of Passaic and Morris are very different from each other. Things are very different in Tenafly from the way are in Woodcliff Lake.”
Although the community seems to be prosperous, many members suffer from financial stress. The study shows that 21 percent say that they’re economically vulnerable, including 12 percent who said that they did not have enough to meet their basic needs. Covid made those needs worse. About four in 10 respondents said that financial constraints kept them from engaging in Jewish communal life in some way, including in their children’s Jewish education.
The survey was intentional in its inclusion of a range of voices, Ms. Sponder said. “We actively pursued different parts of the community, to be able to say that, for example, Russian-speaking Jews are similar to the general community in these ways, but different in these other ways.”
Because the study is not demographic, the percentage of representatives of different groups should not be taken to mean anything about their percentage in the overall Jewish population, Ms. Sponder said.
She, too, was struck and encouraged by the number of survey respondents who said they want to be part of the community. Many of the respondents already are, but many who are not would like to be. “That is very exciting,” she said. “That represents a real opportunity to try to find ways to tap into that. We either can meet people where they are, or we could meet them in other ways. Ways that we haven’t thought of yet.”
So — what did the survey find? Where will people be met?
Dan Shlufman of Tenafly is the president of the Federation of Northern New Jersey. He laid out four areas that the study pointed out as important to its respondents.
He listed — not in any particular order, he stressed — four important new directions that the strategic plan, due out in April, will tackle.
The federation and its partners “will provide access to participation in Jewish life,” he said; that’s in response to the large numbers who said that they would like such access. “We will work with community partners to increase the entry points. We want to create accessible and understandable paths. We want to utilize the connections we have to identify and welcome newcomers, to get to people who have just moved in, or who are not new but want to get involved.
“We are going to create and promote a centralized website, so that, for example, if you want to send your child to a Jewish preschool, it will be easy to find one.
“We will work with other successful national Jewish organizations to help us figure out things like how to increase Jewish preschool enrollment.
Second, he said, “we will work to connect and convene the Jewish community. We want to focus on matters that unite us, as opposed to those that divide us. We practice differently — we are different with our observance of kashrut or shomer Shabbes — but what does unite us is a love of Israel. We want our children to grow up Jewish, to grow up safe, and to fight antisemitism.
“So we won’t attempt anything in terms of religiosity, but we are going to make sure that we can all get together to fight BDS, oppose antisemitism, and make our synagogues safe. We will identify common values. Fighting hunger is a Jewish value, so a food drive is something we can focus on.
This year, the federation is planning to celebrate Israel’s 75th birthday with big programs that will appeal to the entire community, Mr. Shlufman said. “That’s an example of how we try to convene the community on things that we all agree on.”
“Third, we will strengthen our community’s safety and security in our various institutions.” The community’s already begun its work there; Mr. Shlufman pointed to the FBI alarm that was issued in November, and how rapidly the community responded to it. He also talked about the siege in Colleyville, Texas, which was broken by the quick thinking of the level-headed rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker, who had been trained in synagogue security tactics.
It is important to build relationships with other besieged groups so that we can come to each other’s aid, Mr. Shlufman continued; the federation has shared meals and plans with East Asian, Indian, and Black American groups. The friendship is good on many levels, including but not limited to mutual safety agreements.
The federation and other Jewish communal agencies will continue to work on their relationships with government officials and police departments; those relationships already are strong. It’s striking that “today’s antisemitism is bottom up,” he said. “Throughout our history, it has been top down. But today government officials are our friends. They protect us. That strong relationship is important.”
Fourth, he said, the federation will “continue to do what we traditionally have done, meeting the community’s needs, working with kids, doing things locally, for Israel, and for Jews around the world. We will continue to lead the communal planning and allocations programs, to identify and meet community needs, which change constantly, and to evaluate our impact.”
Lee Lasher of Englewood is the federation’s immediate past president.
This survey shows that “we don’t need wholesale changes in what we do for the community,” he said. “It’s what the emphasis is. We have to do studies and strategic planning every 10 years or so. Now we have a roadmap, marking our priorities.”
One change is the new emphasis on mental health. “It hadn’t been a federation priority, but now it is,” he said. “We will focus on it.”
As a lifelong and deeply committed Zionist with a second home in Israel, Mr. Lasher is deeply moved by his community’s continued ties to Israel. “If you look at all the doom-and-gloom surveys about Israel — this was really nice to see.”
Mr. Lasher was concerned about the level of financial insecurity the survey uncovered. “If something like one in five people are feeling financial insecurity about living a Jewish life, that is a big problem,” he said. “I don’t have the answer to it, but we are working on it.” The federation is trying to enlarge the Jewish education endowment, he added.
“I also liked that there are people looking for more ways to connect to the Jewish community,” Mr. Lasher continued. “The beauty of it was that we worked very hard to get some new voices into the mix. As someone who believes in the unity of the community, it was very good to go beyond just the federation and the JCC and the other agencies to bring more of us together.
“It’s very good to talk about unity, but if there aren’t actual, real, meaningful ways to connect on a one-to-one basis, it won’t happen. People are busy. They go to their own synagogues. There have to be more opportunities for people to get together.”
As to the form those opportunities might take, “the survey is a gift to the community,” and it would be wise to follow its lead. It tells community leaders “what constituents and consumers want. These are their priorities.
“We can’t dictate priorities to the community. The community has to dictate priorities to us.”
Idana Goldberg is the CEO of the Berrie Foundation.
“The foundation has been a funder and partner of the federation, and we’ve been in conversation with Jason and the team there about how to understand the community and how to provide for it for many years,” Dr. Goldberg said. “We understand that you can’t do that without data, so we funded the survey so that we can use the data for decision making about what to fund.
“The results are not surprising,” she continued. “Northern New Jersey already is a highly engaged Jewish community, and many other communities would be envious of the survey’s results. Synagogue attendance is high, day school attendance is high — and at the same time the survey shows us a lot of opportunities to work with the under-engaged. Families with small children, people from Russian-speaking communities, from the LGBTQ community, Israeli Jews, Jews of color — the study reports that members of each group want to be more connected to the community.”
Like everyone else, Dr. Goldberg was struck by the lack of a sense of overall connection that many community members feel, encased as they are by the seemingly thick skin of their own denominational and geographic bubbles. But she is encouraged by the desire for connections, and sees gaps in services where connection could be helped along. Empty nesters, for example, are looking for Jewish educational programs, and that is a way deeper into the community.
Although it’s true that the community, across its divisions, supports Israel strongly, “we did ask questions about to what extent people feel comfortable saying everything that they want to say about Israel,” Dr. Goldberg said. “People talked about not necessarily being comfortable saying what they want to say. And the survey shows a growing number among the young people and non-Orthodox who are showing less attachment to Israel. There is a percentage of people who say they are not always supportive of the Israeli government’s policies.” (The survey was completed long before Israel’s government proposed the changes to its supreme court and basic laws that have caused widespread dissension in Israel.)
“Overall, the community is strongly supportive of Israel, but the survey shows that there is perhaps some nuance to be aware of,” Dr. Goldberg said. “This isn’t anything dissimilar to what we see nationally. The younger generation asks different questions.”
Overall, she concluded, survey respondents want “access to Jewish life and participation in it to be easier. We can bring people together with things that unite us rather than divide us. And safety and security matter — and it’s much easier to work on institutional security than on personal security. It’s easier to be safe going to shul than when you’re going for a walk in the park.”
The federation encourages community members to read the survey, and to continue — or to increase — their engagement with the community.