Federation plans demographic study of local Jewish community

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

For the first time in nearly two decades, local leaders are gearing up to create a comprehensive demographic portrait of the Jewish community in the Gateway City.

“The purpose of the study is to help our agencies, organizations and congregations to do the work that they do best by combining the data that they need to understand the needs of the community,” said Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater St. Louis.

While an exact timeline remains in flux, Rehfeld said, the initiative should take about 15 to 18 months to complete, during which roughly 1,000 Jews in the community will be surveyed by telephone. Results of the effort could be reported as soon as the fall of 2015. 

About one-third of the $300,000 study will be bankrolled by seed money from donors Harvey and Terry Hieken. Rehfeld said he is optimistic that an undisclosed foundation will supply another third. He said the Federation is still considering funding options for the remainder.

While the price tag is substantial, Rehfeld said the money should be seen in light of the fact that the community hasn’t done a study since 1995.

Rehfeld said the cost would be approximately one-half of 1 percent of Federation’s  annual allocations to local agencies over a period of 10 years. 

In December, Jewish Federation inked a contract with Jewish Policy and Action Research (JPAR) to head up the effort.

The Federation’s decision comes on the heels of a major national study that has been making waves among Jewish communal leaders coast-to-coast. Released in October by the Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” painted a stark picture of a community that, while maintaining many aspects of Judaic practice, was increasingly divorced from communal organizations. Though many respondents still identified as Jewish and engaged in activities such as seders or fasting, just over one tenth attended services weekly.

Laurence Kotler-Berkowitz, senior director of research and analysis and director of the Jewish Berman DataBank at the Jewish Federations of North America, said the results do show a community increasingly polarized between engagement and noninvolvement but cautioned against “doom and gloom” analysis.

“Certainly, there is some of that but I don’t think that’s the majority of the story,” said Kotler-Berkowitz, who has been consulting with the Federation in setting up the St. Louis study. “We can talk about the Jewish population as a whole, but the truth is there are very different parts and we need to understand that in-depth. I suspect when the Federation does its study here, we’ll find similar trends locally.”

Yet, he also says that the effect could be less extreme here than in other cities, such as Chicago or New York, where studies were also conducted relatively recently. 

Rehfeld agrees, pointing out that St. Louis’ demographics may skew the playing field a bit since much of the secularization seen elsewhere was driven by Generation X while the local population here remains older.

“On the other hand, that means we have more work to do in engaging, attracting and building that under-45 group,” Rehfeld said. “The specifics of that and how it will help guide our work is one of the reasons that we want to get into this. We need that data to go forward.”

The 1995 survey found about 60,000 Jews in the St. Louis area, but Susan Scribner, senior planning and allocations associate with the federation, noted that that figure could be far out of date. Most communities conduct such surveys every 10 to 15 years.

“We’ve moved at the Federation towards a model of more strategic program grants, and we’re asking our agencies to develop programs where the need is greatest and prove the impact,” she said. “Frankly, we don’t have a complete picture of where the need is greatest because we don’t have any recent population figures or behavioral and attitudinal data.”

Scribner said that the old study revealed a generally higher affiliation rate than was usually found nationally, as well as a stronger Reform presence.

 “We have no idea if that is still the case,” she said.

Exact questions in the upcoming survey have yet to be determined, but the process is being led by an advisory committee that will request suggestions from agencies and set up at least one forum to collect ideas for what to ask.

Scribner said that the basics in such studies usually cover family size, income, need for social services and giving patterns as well as questions on practices and affiliation.

“In speaking with other communities that have done recent demographic studies, they can point to very specific programs and initiatives that have developed from the findings,” Scribner said. “Sometimes they might have an inkling that something was needed and the data really proved it. Other times, they might say ‘Gosh, we had no idea this was a problem.’ ”

Kotler-Berkowitz said questions might also examine community needs such as transportation or behaviors such as volunteerism.

Rehfeld said demographic data can be particularly important to see if Millennials are moving back in with parents, as is happening in some areas, or if younger people are departing the community, leaving more “orphaned seniors” in the area.

“In that case, we need to do even more work with our NORC and with providing quality housing at Covenant, Crown Center or other facilities for older members of the community,” he said. 

Rehfeld said he looks forward to collecting ideas for questions even though not everything suggested can be in the finished survey.

“I want to set realistic expectations but still encourage people to be exhaustive, even though obviously there are only going to be a few things we can ask given the limited time,” he said.

Kotler-Berkowitz said that much of the expense in such surveys springs from the need to locate Jews who, at only 2 percent of the country, are considered a rare population. Simply going off of Federation donor lists or synagogue organizational documents would bias the sample. Instead, random digit dialing will be used and will include both landlines and cell phones to get a full picture of the community. 

Cleveland, where the Jewish community is often compared with St. Louis in terms of size and region, conducted a similar study in 2011. It took more than 85,000 telephone calls to locate 1,044 Jews. Just over 80,000 Jews were estimated to live in the Ohio city, a number very similar to what was found in an earlier 1996 study conducted there. 

Dahlia Fisher, director of marketing and communications for the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, said that the survey found significant economic vulnerability among Jewish households. Almost one-fifth were living below 200 percent of federal poverty standards.

“It’s my opinion that the study has been instrumental to us as a community in informing not just the federation but our partner agencies of what our community needs are,” she said. “It’s helped us in decisions about research and planning for the future so we can be more prepared as our community grows and changes.”

Today, Fisher said, they understand more than they did before about the population of the area and what the federation can do.

“Now, we know for certain how vital this incredible work is for our community,” she said.