Study Guide

The benevolence of the Jewish community in committing resources to a research study that cost several hundred thousand dollars is unquestionable.

So as some have asked, is devotion of those resources to such a study, or to conducting one, say, on an every decade basis, worth it?

While it’s always important to assess major expenditures, we think there’s a much deeper and more meaningful question to answer, which is: What are we going to do with the information?

When we say “we,” the reference is not only to the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, which commissioned the study conducted by Jewish Policy and Action Research (JPAR), a group that has provided able research for a number of other American Jewish communities.


No, for the study to be a useful, living, breathing thing, all of us — agencies, institutions, synagogues and individuals — must consider what the data means for our community, and how we will each utilize it to ensure our human and financial contributions to Jews in St. Louis.

So what does it mean? After all, we’ve heard from JPAR and others how many of the results resemble those of recent studies in Midwestern markets such as Columbus, Cleveland and Chicago. And the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study of American Jews had already provided a clear overview of trends we’ve experienced in recent decades.

One thing it means for sure is that we can now rely on a timely study that employed current best sampling and statistical practices instead of 20-year-old data or anecdotal information passed around among us. Never have granting organizations, and even informed major donors, demanded quantitative and analytical support for funding choices as they do today, so having this data set validates any number of potential asks for the good of local Jews and institutions.

It also is not a bad thing to get corroboration that our community in many ways resembles others across the greater Midwest. Where there are similar results, it’s easier and more constructive to utilize best practice models that others have derived from their own studies.

Then there are the details that strike us as critically important — some for the better, others for the worse, and several open to interpretation — whether or not they replicate those in other markets.

• The dramatic, 34 percent increase in households with Jewish adults, largely as a result of rapidly rising intermarriage;

• The quarter of us who are poor or near poor;

• The encouraging connections young adults have with Israel, presumably from the successes of Birthright;

• The relatively small percentage of children attending Jewish pre-schools;

• The impacts on community engagement from adults waiting longer to marry, or from not marrying at all, and perhaps on a related note, trends suggesting Jews are expressing their Jewishness through individual and household activity more than we have traditionally done through communal connections.

There’s a lot to sink one’s teeth into, but the myriad facets suggest perhaps the most important point in assessing the study’s usefulness for planning the future: It’s not one size fits all, and no one course of action can or should be imposed onto the community, its organizations and individuals.

The Jewish Federation, for instance, can and must play an important role by encouraging follow-up discussions and supporting our better-informed future actions. It can also use the results in shaping its own fundraising and expenditures for the future; after all, it’s been five years since Federation’s last strategic plan, and this data will certainly inform its own actions moving forward.

That’s only the beginning of the analysis, though, because there are so many agencies like ours that provide direct services, and every Jewish organization’s challenges are different, based on who they serve and their constituents’ needs. For these agencies, while their current funding matrix, including without limitation Federation allocations and grants, is critical, the study can open up avenues to new explorations that can lead to relevant and helpful funding.

Let’s take the Light as an example since we know it best.

It’s our mission to inform, inspire and connect the entire Jewish community. We know from the study that 47 percent of respondents indicate they read us. But who reads in print, online or on mobile devices? Who picks up free copies? Are there ways to target those, such as the young adult cohort, who might be less engaged than previously but for whom the Light can serve as a strong entry point for engagement? How do we shape our content in ways that reflect the understandings we’ve gained from the study?

The data from the study could prove useful in shaping our own market research to ensure we’re reaching as many as possible in the most meaningful way possible. Funding requests for that kind of research are now better supported by the documented data set forth in the community study.

In similar fashion, we should support the next steps that other Jewish nonprofits need to fulfill their missions. For some it might be disaggregated data from the study. For others it might be follow-up studies or updated planning processes. For yet others there might be plenty enough in the study that direct action is the next best step. We don’t deign to know what is best for each Jewish service provider, but we think every Jewish service provider has an obligation to ask what value the study provides in best contouring its operations to meet its mission.

We know there are going to be hard choices about what merits programmatic support and funding, and what doesn’t. We encourage those discussions and expect the community to conduct them in a meaningful and respectful way. But at its most basic level, the study is a springboard for us to consider how to best keep our Jewish community vibrant and strong, in the diverse and complex ways we are able to do so. If we take that responsibility seriously, and use the creative arrows all of us have in our professional and personal quivers, then the study will have been very good money spent indeed.