A Jewish Curmudgeon Gets Surveyed
A Jewish Curmudgeon Gets Surveyed
Every day some form of opinion poll results makes at least a news item, if not a headline, particularly in the early fall of every leap year. Nobody ever asked me my opinion for national presentation, at least not public national presentation. I have, however, been surveyed many times at work to see what those in the C-Suite need to do to make the workplace better or get a firmer grasp on where the limits of exploitation actually are. I’ve been part of many requests for feedback from polling contractors of pharmaceutical companies trying to make their magic potion the one prescription writers like me think of first when somebody’s cholesterol needs to be brought down.
The published surveys that attract my own interest have been the those exploring the quantity and attitudes of the Jewish population. I knew one of the major designers, z”l, who taught me the limitations of the data collection methods and its interpretations. There’s probably a Bradley Effect in some of these where people don’t really attend shabbat services as often as they would like the questioner to think they do or claim congregational membership even though they never receive their Rosh Hashana tickets due to financial arrears. But enough people are likely no more intentionally deceptive as the political respondents who don’t want to disclose themselves as racist outside the privacy of the polling levers.
I’ve lectured on the results, particularly the data on institutional attrition, which is pretty good at counting how many but not nearly as willing to explore why with the respondents, leaving it to pundits to explain to machers what they ought to do to fill the Hebrew School back up with eager kids whose parents can be extorted for money until the last household Bar Mitzvah. If the mathematical sciences say those people are representative of me, I cannot dispute the legitimacy of their samples. I’ve not been polled myself until now.
Two invitations arrived days apart. The first came in my email box, the second delivered by the US Postal Service, each for the same project.
Your household is invited to participate in a survey of our region’s Jewish community. This important survey will study the needs and interests of Jewish people throughout the region.
Any information you provide is completely confidential. You will not be asked to donate money. The survey is being conducted by a major university and is sponsored by the Federation that serves your area.
In the next few weeks, you will be getting a phone call from the University Survey Center To take the survey by phone, contact 1–800-xxx-xxxx the email provided. (Please have the following reference code ready when contacting the Survey Center: AA22222)
They identified the Jewish Federation as the sponsor in the introduction. This may not have been the wisest decision. To know us is to love us. I’ve been told many times that if the birds in the bush will fly into our hands just once, they will find a welcome niche. Actually, attrition and non-participation more likely reflect prior encounters more than being newcomers unfamiliar with the agency. As the sponsor in my registered in my CNS memory centers from prior encounters as a self-justifying USY Clique advanced to a Macher Clique, any suggestion that they are interested in being a resource to me comes with suspicion. I assume the level of participation in the project will reflect some previously established cumulative ill will that surveys rarely reverse. And its importance will top out among the funders and bottom out when those invited decide whether they really want to be good sports. There is no compensation incentive.
Do I have any unmet needs? None for which I would inconvenience myself in my senior years to try to create another Movement. That’s not to say that among the thousands of respondents trends will emerge that create enticing new projects or that the usual open space for individual text at the close of the questionnaire will not contain an insight that opens a new direction. It might. It’s not that I close the door to upgrading my own Jewish experience based on other people’s observations, it’s just that for the moment I’m pretty content to where I’ve stopped seeking new directions. Is the study important? You never really know that in advance. Some turn out that way, most don’t, including some of the national ones with attrition moving onward with leadership both in place and apprised of feedback. Surveys done serially measure trends already in progress, already known by the sponsors, but unable to reverse those megatrends that project institutional tzuris. My synagogue membership in my two decades of presence has not had a single year in which membership has ticked up, despite this being the focus of discussion of every monthly Board Meeting and initiatives, or perhaps schemes, that might change our financial direction without really enhancing the experience of being there. They see the challenge as money, not as people. Remedies reflect this. If the survey sets out to enhance participation of people, it might. If it sets out to enhance Federation donations, it might. But one is the intent, the other the by-product.
My own opinion, even earned cynicism aside, I may function quite well as a Jewish individual, but the community certainly has its precarious elements. We are not fractious, though probably not highly participatory either. Synagogues attract more seniors than young families with a demographic that needs some stability of our community’s Jewish Nursing Home, one of the pillars of local Jewish presence. I do not know how populated our Day School is though my own experience sacrificed a lot of my communal respect points. Might they even track and trot out for public affirmation how successfully their alumni can read Hebrew when they get to college? Or might it really function as a Macher Factory to replenish Federations wherever those children of entitlement find themselves after college. But we have one. Without one, we probably could not attract congregational Rabbis. We have a monthly publication, professionally done. However, it reads a little like my alumni magazines, cheering people on while skirting anything contentious that needs a forum for public discussion. And amid general prosperity of suburban Jews, we also have people whose lives have been disrupted, not just economically but by family instability, illness, premature deaths, and substance abuse. Our Jewish community funds an agency to address this, extending to all comers, not just Jewish, but recognizing that Jews are included among the socially displaced. So why would anyone not be fully supportive? Probably because of unfortunate encounters with those in charge. Leadership Generated Attrition with its many fair-weather friendships may be one of American Judaism’s most closeted reality.
My background and perceptions can be put aside while I respond as candidly as possible to what they ask, Questions try to elicit some combination of who I am and what I think. Past experiences did not seem part of what they wanted to know, despite that level of feedback, whether generous or vicious, deservedly so or generated by outlier experiences, would offer a part of the agency self-assessment much as we depend on the sequence of tochachahàselichaàtshuvahàmechilah to upgrade ourselves during the High Holy Days. Descriptive questions went easily. I attend shul at the second level of frequency among their multiple choice. They didn’t ask if I like attending shul. I give to tzedakah. They didn’t ask which communal needs grab my credit card or how often. I picked a slot on the religious spectrum, writing in Conservadox which better describes me than my congregational label of Traditional. They did not ask of my knowledge or my skills, which are considerable, and maybe not exploited for communal benefit in the most productive way. I have an age, educational degrees, household income. All part of demographics, all info requested and provided. I pay dues at a regional synagogue, which probably puts me in the minority of the regional Jewish cohort. I’m a Zionist but hard to categorize, which may be why the questions on Israel support were vague. I attended a public rally for a Jewish cause, not asked. But I carry baggage and attitudes, which while not asked, might still be deduced from my responses, though more likely from aggregate responses.
Eventually the University Survey Center will tabulate the results. Presumably they will work with the sponsors, who carry some elements of institutional Dunning-Kruger elements that inflate self-perceptions of their agency’s ability, importance, or reputation. What will make the difference, though, may be whether the distribution of responses reinforce that original confirmation bias, to know us is to love us. Survey interpretation requires a certain amount of objectivity in reviewing results, something the professional sociologists at the university have but the sponsors may not. Some feelings will be hurt by the data in all likelihood, if it is truly anonymously frank and reflective of not only levels of participation but trends in that participation for a variety of causes.
And there are also megatrends, those Bowling Alone outcomes, decades in evolution, that show a waning public willingness to even affiliate with many organizations let alone making them sparkle with their talent. Ultimately, Judaism has always been Kehillah or community or institutionally dependent. What has changed, maybe over a century, is the expectation that leaders can simply demand loyalty. They no longer can. They can still entice people by affirming that participants remain valuable, even when personally prickly, and that people bring talents that must be tapped for the agency to succeed. That part of Judaism has faltered during my adult lifetime. Sponsoring a survey could contribute to some reversal or it could reinforce business as usual. What happens to the results moves out of the respondents’ sphere of influence once Submit has been clicked after the final question.