Controversy surrounds delay of influential, $6 million study of American Jews

Posted: Thursday, November 28, 2002

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- It was supposed to be an important moment in American Judaism.

Jewish leaders from around the country had booked themselves into a posh hotel near Philadelphia's historic district for the week before Hanukkah, expecting to hear results of a $6 million, yearslong study of U.S. Jews.

The findings could be critical, shaping how tens of millions of dollars will be spent to keep Judaism alive in the United States at a time when many Jews are marrying outside the faith.

Then, just before its release, the report was withheld.

The survey's technical advisers now are in a bitter public fight with the nonprofit agency directing the project, and critics are wondering if the group is trying to bury bad news.

The agency, United Jewish Communities, insists its National Jewish Population Survey is on track and will be made public -- though it won't say when.

''There's no smoking gun here,'' said Stephen Hoffman, the agency president. ''Based upon what I've been told, the study is fundamentally sound.''

But some say the delay has undermined the credibility of the report even before it's out.

''They've inflicted a major blow to themselves,'' said Egon Mayer, academic director of the North American Jewish Data Bank and a technical adviser for the study. ''It boggles my mind.''

The survey tracks key trends including intermarriage, links to Israel and observances of religious rituals. The report is perhaps best known for its 1990 finding that 52 percent of Jews marry non-Jews.

The 2000 study originally was supposed to be released more than a year ago, but researchers said it was hard to find people willing to participate. The date was pushed back and speculation grew that the survey was in trouble.

Some preliminary results were released last month, including a finding that the U.S. Jewish population had dropped over the last decade, from 5.5 million to 5.2 million.

Then, a week before the United Jewish Communities General Assembly and announcement of the remaining results, an angry Hoffman said he had learned that ''critical data'' had been lost and he was postponing the release until he could assess the damage.

He said the information apparently had gone missing two years ago in the offices of Roper ASW, the firm that conducted the field work, but Hoffman had only just been told.

Vivian Klaff, one of the top technical advisers, accused Hoffman of overreacting and insisted the data was not critical.

Klaff said the missing information was coded material that had been collected to see if someone qualified to participate in the survey. Just a portion of that data was gone and adjustments could be made to compensate for the loss, he said. The respondents' answers to questions remain intact.

Klaff said he sent Hoffman a letter saying ''please don't do this,'' and asking him to release the report on schedule. But Hoffman said he had lost confidence in the leadership of the technical team. He has appointed a task force to investigate.

Roper ASW won't discuss the mishap, but the battle between Hoffman and his advisers and the last-minute delay raised suspicions at the assembly last week that the missing data was the least of the study's problems.

''I'm hearing people asking, 'What's really going on?''' said Eva Goldfinger, as she worked a booth for the International Federation for Secular Humanist Jews, which has criticized the survey for too narrowly defining who is a Jew. ''Why did they suddenly hold it back? Did they not like the results?''

Hoffman denies that. But Barry Kosmin, who led the 1990 study, said United Jewish Communities left itself vulnerable to such claims by not asking an independent, academic institution to conduct the survey.

Hoffman's agency raises and distributes millions of dollars for Jewish community work and there are interest groups inside and outside the nonprofit whose funding depends on the outcome of the study, Kosmin said.

That puts the agency in the middle of an intense debate among Jewish leaders over whether money is better spent to reach out to Jews on the fringes of religious life -- or strengthen links with those already active.

''I'm not suggesting any conspiracies,'' said Kosmin, director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London. ''I'm saying if you did it at arms length, it would be less likely that anyone would say that the leadership would use it to justify what they're doing.''

Mayer said all doubts will be put to rest when the agency releases the data, so demographers can use the information to develop their own independent reports.

Until then, speculation surrounding the survey will persist -- something Hoffman said he can live with because he's confident he did the right thing.

''I felt there were questions that needed to be explained better that we couldn't explain on short notice,'' Hoffman said. ''In the world I live in, these kinds of questions can undermine not just the survey, but the credibility of management.''


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