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Who are we now?

Federation’s new community survey seeks to reach all the region’s Jews

Jason Shames, left, and Dr. Idana Goldberg
Jason Shames, left, and Dr. Idana Goldberg

Who are the Jewish people in our neighborhood?

That, more or less, is the question that the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey wants to answer with its just-launched community survey, available now through the end of the month at theconversation2022.org.

The survey is designed for “adults ages 18+ who live full-time or part-time in Northern New Jersey and consider themselves Jewish or live in a Jewish household.” (Sorry, kids.)

Of course, the federation is interested not only in the corner of your town that you consider your neighborhood, but also the three-and-a-half county region it calls its “catchment area.”

It is a region that has expanded since 2014, when the federation last ran a community survey; Hudson County was not part of the federation’s ambit then.

And it is a region where, like everyplace else, what was true in 2014 may no longer be true.

“A lot has changed in a few short years,” Jason Shames, the federation’s CEO, said. “We’ve got major impacts we have to try and correlate against what we knew in 2014. One is covid, and one is the economy. A third thing is the whole social justice and racial justice issues our country has focused on.”

“We hope we reach a more diverse group than we now have,” Dr. Idana Goldberg said. Dr. Goldberg is the CEO of the Russell Berrie Foundation, which is funding the survey and has played a major role in helping shape it.

The survey is just one part of a multiyear project to create a new strategic plan for the federation. And the question of how the federation can best support its Jewish community is at the forefront of the survey.

“We looked at every question and said, ‘How do the answers to this question help us know what kind of services need to be provided?’” Dr. Goldberg explained.

In drawing up the survey, the federation set up focus groups that included representatives of its long-time beneficiaries, such as the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey and the Jewish Home Family; representatives of other Jewish institutions, including synagogues and day schools; and representatives of groups not usually seen as integral to the Jewish community, including Jews of color and LGQBT Jews.

The survey’s first page at theconversation2022.org.

When you take the anonymous survey, you can see the influence of these groups. There are questions about racial and sexual identity, as well the more traditional demographic questions about age, family makeup, and income. And there are questions about how much the respondents value the sort of services provided by the agencies, such as mental health and elder care, in a Jewish environment.

Is there a danger that the survey will show that the Jewish community no longer shares the priorities of the people who founded these Jewish communal institutions decades ago?

“Not asking isn’t helpful,” Roberta Abrams of Montvale said. Ms. Abrams, a past president of the federation, heads the committee overseeing the survey. “You have to ask tough questions because more information is always better.”

Federation officials stress that they want all Jews — or more precisely, every adult living in a household that has a Jewish member — in its catchment area to answer the survey, regardless of how connected they now are to the federation or to any other Jewish institutions.

“There’s this whole other community we do not know,” Laura Freeman, the federation’s managing director of marketing and communications, said. “They consider themselves to be Jewish, but they have no affiliation. Their voice is important.”

The federation has hired a digital marketing firm to get the word out. And insiders like Ms. Abrams are determined to spread the word as widely as possible.

“We’re asking the task force to reach into their Rolodex,” Ms. Abrams said. “As a past temple president” — of Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, which now after a merger is Kol Dorot in Oradell — “I’m going to reach out to my synagogue and ask them to push the survey. If you can get it compelling enough, you can reach out to their kids’ soccer team for people who aren’t even engaged Jewishly.”

Ms. Abrams and Mr. Shames point to the repercussions of the 2014 survey as evidence that respondents will make a difference if they take the time to answer the questions.

“We learned that donors wanted to follow their dollars,” Ms. Abrams said. “That’s when we went from 100 percent unrestricted grant making” — sending funds to agencies to do as they wished — “to 50 percent restricted. When Federation takes in money, donors say they want this to go to hunger relief, so we have been giving a lot more specifically for hunger relief.”

“The allocation model moved much more to senior nutrition,” Mr. Shames said. “We learned there wasn’t as much demand for adult education as for sending kids to camp and for college- age work. We doubled down on investment for Birthright and campus engagement. Funding to Israel became more people-based and security-based. We moved more heavily into fighting antisemitism because it was a top three issue for people who answered the survey.”

Some of the questions reflect a world that has changed a great deal since 2014. Nobody was asking about whether someone preferred to attend events in-person or online eight years ago. Questions that perhaps were asked but probably weren’t reflect the Jewish community’s cultural changes: Are you personally LGBTQ+? Have you taken part in Chabad services or activities? How do you identify politically? Do you consider yourself a Zionist?

The survey asks about both perceptions of antisemitism, and actual experiences of antisemitism.

And it asks respondents to rank a wide variety of funding priorities.

So what do the survey organizers want from the Jews of northern New Jersey?

“We want them to fill out the survey and be honest about what’s important to them and about who they are,” Dr. Goldberg said. “If you are in northern New Jersey and identify as Jewish, or live with someone who is Jewish, we want to hear from you about being in the Jewish community. Even if you think that what you want is not what other people think is important.

“We want to hear from those who are already plugged in, but it’s just as important to hear from those who just moved to New Jersey during covid, and from communities who are not currently engaged and not attending synagogues.”

“The more people who fill this out, the better our community will be for the next decade plus,” Mr. Shames said. “That’s why we need people to fill it out.”

Oh, and one more thing: There’s a chance to win one of three $1,000 gift cards. Given that the 2014 survey received only 2,815 responses, those are pretty good odds.

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