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Who are we?

Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey surveys the community

We talk about the community all the time, but really, who are we?

When we at the Jewish Standard use the word community, it’s shorthand for the Jews in the catchment area served by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey – all of Bergen and parts of Passaic and Hudson counties.

But who are these Jews? How many of them are there? Where do they live? What do they want? What do they need? What can they share? How do they define themselves? What was their past? What is their present? And what will be their future?

Some of these questions are metaphysical, but most can be answered.

The federation, along with its partner agencies, is surveying the Jewish community, looking for answers. It plans to use the results to guide its efforts as it works to educate, nurture, and strengthen the community.

Jason Shames, the federation’s CEO and executive vice president, provides an overview. “It’s going to give us a real understanding of our demographics, and it’s going to give a better understanding of programs and services that our community wants or is interested in, or is willing to pay for,” he said. “It’s about identifying services that the community wants – it’s about being more supply-and-demand-oriented, market- and consumer-driven, rather than being top-down.

“And it will tell us about philanthropic interests. We will know about what people think they are interested in supporting.”

Because consumer and philanthropic trends are not the same thing, the survey will differentiate between them, Mr. Shames said. “What if day school parents feel strongly about sending their children to Jewish schools, and gladly pay for them,” he said, explaining that abstract concept in real terms. “But still they prefer that their charitable dollars go for outreach – to the safety and security of Israel and to Holocaust survivors.” The survey will explore those distinctions.

The survey will attempt to find unaffiliated Jews, but one open question in such polls always is how hard to look. “The hardest segment for us to get information from is the completely uninterested and unaffiliated, and there is an extreme cost limitation to chasing those people,” Mr. Shames said. “We will put the bait out there – but it’s not as if there is a hungry alligator out there, waiting for some Empire chicken. And the best person for us anyway is the person who already has some interest in the community. We have to maximize and home in on our known market.

“After all,” he concluded, “it’s hard to be a Jew in northern New Jersey and not have any connection to the Jewish community, or any interest in it.” One thing we already know is that the percentage of Jews here who have some tie or other to the Jewish community is much higher than in most other places. “We know that from the number of synagogues and Jewish infrastructure here.” Although the number of connected Jews is admirably high, the federation would like to bring that number up even higher.

“The last time a study was done was 2001,” Sheryl Sarin, the federation’s planning associate, said. It was done by Ira Sheskin, a well-known demographer, and provided much useful information – but that was then, before September 11 changed our world and before the crash of 2008 deformed it again. Not to mention, of course, the normal change that visits and redraws every community.

“That data is no longer useful,” Ms. Sarin continued. “So we’ve embarked on a new marketing study, to assess what the Jewish community needs, to look at services needs and gaps.

This survey is being done by the Melior Group, a Philadelphia-based firm that calls itself “a full service marketing research firm.” Melior already has completed a similar survey for the Jewish Federation of Southern Jersey, so it has experience with exactly the sorts of questions that appear on the survey.

Ms. Sarin detailed the survey.

“It’s not a purely demographic study,” she said. Instead, it is divided into three parts. The first is demographic. Among other things, “We do want to know people’s age, income, education, marital status, gender, where people are living and where they are working,” she said.

The next section addresses Jewish identity and engagement, looking at affiliations with synagogues, religious streams, day schools, afternoon schools, community centers, summer camps and other organizations, and at respondents’ ability to pay for programming, and their desire to do so. It will look at people’s attachment to Israel.

The last section will look at people’s need for social services, delving with some specificity into the kinds of situations with which people live and for which they need help.

The questionnaire is online at the federation’s website, jfnnj.org, and also at www.jewishsurveysays.com. “We anticipate that it will take about 18 minutes to fill out,” Ms. Sarin said. The federation plans on sending out email blasts about it to all the lists that it has. It also will have phone calls made to people with Jewish-sounding names.

The more information the survey-takers can gather, the more accurate the results will be.

Lisa Harris Glass, the federation’s managing director for community planning and impact, said that the survey will fill in some information that until now could only be extrapolated from U.S. Census studies. “The 2010 census tells us, for example, that we are significantly older,” she said. “The number of 0- to 4-year-olds is significantly lower in many of our zip codes. That is important information for when we look at early childhood programs and schools.

“We also suspect that more people are choosing to age in place, because of economics. That tells us something about the services we need.

“We have seen synagogues that have merged or moved or closed, so we know that there is a change in the zip codes where Jews live. That’s important for us to know – it affects all the Jewish institutions.”

All this information is anecdotal now. The federation is looking for more firm information.

“Where do we need to be?” Ms. Glass said. “What do we need to be doing? It affects all our funding decisions.”

The survey, constructed as it has been in the post-Pew Research Center report on American Jews, also looks at how people define themselves Jewishly. “In the Pew survey, they talk about the Jews of No Religion.” Those are Jews who define themselves as belonging to the community in a nebulous, culturally inflected way, but not through any religious institution. That appears to be a fast-growing group. “It’s important for us to know about them, so in the survey, we ask,” Ms. Glass said.

“Who knows what we might find? It will inform how we – not just federation, but all the Jewish institutions – invest in the community, and it will inform how we engage the community,” she said.

Dr. John Winer is the executive director of J-ADD, the local organization that began life as the Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities. J-ADD is one of the organizations that is partially funded by the federation and is supporting the survey. All those agencies plan to work with the information the survey provides them.

“It’s really important for us to know who the community is,” Dr. Winer said. “The information we use now is not quite up-to-date in terms of knowing who is in the community.

“Disabilities strike everyone, no matter who you are, and you can’t predict that. We don’t know how many people are under the poverty line, and therefore will need services from us.”

Even beyond that, he said, “we want to find out what our community’s strengths are – to learn what we can work on together. It’s a multifaceted approach that will benefit the community as a whole.

Sometimes agencies duplicate other groups’ services, he said; that’s because often one group does not know what another one is doing. “How can we collaborate with each other?” he said. “For me, that’s the nutshell version of why this is so important.”

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