Federation’s survey of Jewish community about to begin

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The Jewish Federation of Greater St. Louis is nearly ready to begin its long-awaited, in-depth survey of the Jewish community.

“We are finalizing the survey questionnaire, and we are hoping to launch by April 1,” said Susan Scribner, Federation’s senior planning and allocations associate.

Announced in January, the $300,000 effort will be the first attempt in two decades to gauge the size, habits and identification level of the local Jewish community. The survey will be conducted by phone over several months with results expected to be announced by early next year. 

Questions were solicited from synagogues and other Jewish agencies and organizations and then culled to a manageable list. The number of questions will vary for each person because some answers will elicit further subsets of follow-ups. However, the survey is designed to be completed in about 20 minutes, with each question taking about 15 seconds. 

Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, has been working closely with the Federation to develop the questionnaire and will help present and analyze the statistics when they begin to roll in.

“We take questions that we’ve asked in other studies that have worked very well,” Cohen said.  “We listen to what the community wants and what is special to St. Louis that other communities may not care as much about.”

Cohen said a special focus of St. Louisans seems to center on engaging less-involved Jews, particularly the next generation, as well as how to retain and attract Jews to the city, two questions that often generate less concern elsewhere.

 “The community is very interested in people being rooted in St. Louis,” he said. “Do they come here? Do they stay here? That’s not only a St. Louis question, but I didn’t get that question in New York.”

The Federation’s Scribner said other topics will be addressed as well.

“I know one thing that is of interest to [Federation president and CEO] Andrew Rehfeld is the issue of orphaned seniors and how many are here with adult kids who either do or don’t live in St. Louis so that they may or may not have someone to take care of them as they age,” she said.

Cohen said the final project will consist of 1,000 completed interviews drawn from a merged group of two lists. One will be of affiliated people submitted by agencies, congregations and the Federation; the other will be a randomized sample culled from arbitrarily chosen phone numbers. Each will be appropriately weighted.

“We put these two samples together, and we have a complete, balanced sample that is representative of the entire Jewish population,” he said.

Cohen expects a margin of error of about 4 percentage points, roughly a point higher than a completely randomized sample.

Topics covered will include demographics, Jewish attachments, social service needs, charitable giving and measures of poverty within the Jewish community.

“In the past, communities have discovered things about themselves they didn’t know,” Cohen  said. “Basically, they find out about Jews whom they didn’t previously know were there, and changes that are happening that make sense after the fact.”

Cohen said a recent study that he was part of in New York found that the Orthodox population was increasing faster than expected, that Conservative and Reform identification was in decline and that intermarriage had created more porous boundaries to the community.

“All of those were revelations that were consistent with what people’s feelings were, but until you have the data, you really don’t know that these things are happening,” he said.

Scribner said the goal isn’t just to mine data.

 “It is not just what we find out,” she said. “It is how that is going to help us plan for the future.”

Cohen said the idea is to generate interest in ways in which the Jewish community might be changing so that organizations can look ahead and prepare for new realities.

“If it stimulates conversation, that will be proof that it has done good,” he said.