Moving well beyond the anecdotal data

Moving well beyond the anecdotal data

Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest launches a study of community needs and attitudes

Jessica Mehlman, left, Sheryl Pearlstein, and David Saginaw
Jessica Mehlman, left, Sheryl Pearlstein, and David Saginaw

When the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest merged with the Jewish Federation of Central NJ in 2012, a new entity emerged. But that new entity needed to evolve, to grow, to stretch, and to reinvent itself in meeting the challenges and dynamics of its status as the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.

The merger certainly meant that there were more professionals, more religious and lay leaders, and more agencies under one rubric. But what about the beating hearts and souls of the people served by the enlarged enterprise?

It’s been eight years since the merger and the federation now is making a concerted effort to unlock the answers to that question. It has launched a deep dive into the community — an introspection if you will — to profile the estimated 150,000 Jews in a multicounty catchment area, gauge their needs, and see if the agencies and offerings under its umbrella match the expectations of those served in a timely and seamless manner.

The vehicle for this effort is a community study that the federation commissioned early in the year and launched this month under the direction of a research team at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and its call center at the University of New Hampshire. The 2020 Greater MetroWest Community Study originally was scheduled to begin just as covid struck, and it was put on hold until several weeks ago. (The delay actually allowed the center and the federation time for a dress rehearsal of sorts on a smaller study. But more on that later.) Letters, phone calls, and emails now have been initiated and are continuing in an effort to harvest information and suss out the characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, and needs of those in the Jewish community to help guide future strategy and programming.

Jessica Mehlman, Federation’s chief planning officer, noted that the last complete community study conducted in MetroWest was in 1997, and in the Central NJ Federation it was even longer ago. “Think how much the world has changed in 23 years,” she said. “The exciting thing about this study is that it will tell us not just how many people live in our community and where, the questions are designed to help us understand patterns of Jewish life and what individuals want and need from our community institutions in the modern world. We want data on the engaged, the unengaged, and everybody in between. This is not just a federation study.

“All we had to understand about the current makeup and needs of our community was anecdotal data,” Ms. Mehlman continued. “The survey will take us beyond that. We estimate that there are 150,000 Jews in the GMW catchment area, but we really don’t know. We just don’t have the data to be able to say for sure. That is why we need a study. We understood that if we are really going to understand what Greater MetroWest looks like, and plan and fundraise effectively, we needed real data. As chief planning officer, I’m passionate about that.”

To insure that it was not just a federation study, but a broader community-wide assessment, Scott Krieger, the federation’s immediate past president, asked Sheryl Pearlstein to head a committee of rabbis, synagogue lay leaders, executive directors, agency executives and presidents, and preschool and religious school directors. Ms. Pearlstein is a member of the federation’s board of trustees, a past chair of the governance committee, and a past president of the Golda Och Academy. She brought the team from Brandeis to meet with this cross-section of representatives and listen to what they wanted to learn. The Brandeis team then drafted survey questions, which were edited and finalized by lay and professional GMW leadership.

“The Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies has been a wonderful partner for our 2020 community study,” Ms. Pearlstein said. “They came to us with a wealth of knowledge and an outstanding reputation for developing and implementing large-scale studies in Jewish communities across the country.”

GMW and the Brandeis Center won’t go into specifics while the survey is underway to help insure the randomness of the study sample. But, Ms. Mehlman said, “If someone has young children, they will get a bunch of questions about Jewish education and summer camp. If you are an older adult or if you are someone with special needs, you will get questions to help us better understand what services you need. There is also a series of questions that help us understand how people are engaging in Jewish community, how they are using technology, and what they care about philanthropy.”

The Brandeis team was close to a final draft early in 2020 after questions went through many rounds of edits. As the launch date neared, the covid pandemic struck and all parties agreed to put its implementation on hold. But this seemingly bleak situation offered a hidden opportunity when the Brandeis Center asked the federation if it wished to participate in a smaller study on how the Jewish community was coping with the crisis. It was called the Building Resilient Jewish Communities — BRC for short.

The federation embraced the opportunity.

“Some of the data from BRC was surprising and some was confirmation of anecdotal data,” Ms. Mehlman said. “But real data gives us the information we need to make decisions based on fact, not what we think is fact.”

The federation’s president, David Saginaw, also is eagerly awaiting the survey findings. “Prior to covid, we knew Greater MetroWest would benefit from up-to-date community data,” he said. “This study could not have come at a more opportune time. We learned so much from the Building Resistant Jewish Communities study with Brandeis. I am confident the 2020 Greater MetroWest Community Study will provide the data we need to move forward in a position of strength.”

Both the federation and the Brandeis Center expect the study to yield top-line data by February; the findings and full report are due in March. When GMW members get calls for the survey, the caller ID will show up as University of New Hampshire Survey Center (603-397-0660). Letters to a GMW survey participant will come from Brandeis University, Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, 415 South St., Waltham, MA 02453-2728. Email messages will originate at Brandeis University.

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