In July, 2011, the Jewish Federation of North America, owners of the National Jewish Population Survey franchise, announced that they would no longer be funding the decennial count of America’s Jews.

As reported by the JTA, Joe Berkofsky, a spokesman for the JFNA said:

We decided not to be the lead agency on a new study, but we haven’t ruled out partnering or sitting at the table with others who are leading a study under the right circumstances.  NJPS was very useful for the Jewish community at large, but given limited resources we decided to focus on research that would directly benefit federations.

This is a shame because we will now miss out on all the LULZ!  All the compiling of the data (ah, those riproarious evenings with SPSS… good times… good times), the endless arguments about what a “Jew” is for the purposes of the study, and then about nine years worth of subsequent squabbling about interpreting the data.

Why is this suddenly a subject of conversation while #Occupy movements across North America are undermining the very fabric of free market capitalism?!  When the Netanyahu government is playing nuclear chicken with Iran and rochambeau with the Palestinians?!

I bring it up because more than 60 researchers and policy professionals gathered at Brandeis University last week to discuss how to study American Jews in a world without the NJPS.

How are we to understand this new post-NJPS reality?  How should we interpret the lack of opportunity for interpretation?  Does this mean that America’s Jews are in decline?  (Cue ominous music.)

David Marker disagrees!  He cites a 2010 Brandeis / Steinhardt Social Research Institute report that bean-counts 6.5 million American Jews.  That’s up from the 5.2 million tallied in the much-disputed 2000 NJPS report.

But does quantity really matter?  Leonard Saxe intimates a need for greater emphasis on measuring quality.

The religious and ethnic identity of American Jews is evolving and capturing a picture of this moving stream, though difficult, has profound implications for how we direct communal educational and cultural resources.

Hear hear!

Saxe enumerates (read: bemoans) some of the “problematic trends apparent in the community,” such as an increasingly aging population without a ready cohort of younger Jews to assume the burden of commitment shlepped by their elders and the decline in giving to the dinosaur flagships organizations and institutions that defined the Jewish community in the twentieth century.

Saxe’s diagnosis on communal weakness, afflicting most the disengaged “younger Jews,” is nonetheless undermined by a number of developments he goes on to list:  more opportunities for Jewish education, more engaged intermarried families, more Jewish start-ups, and yes, more Birthright!

So is the Jewish community ailing or booming?

It is a shame that there is no new NJPS study to serve as a lightning rod for this debate, but then again, it is a debate as old as the mountains of Gerizim and Eival.  Or, from a different, generational perspective, not a debate at all.

I think Leonard Saxe is right.  Researchers need to use different tools to understand the Jewish present.  Jewishness today is radically different than that of our parents and grandparents.  (See Part Three of End of the Jews, coming out in April 2012!)  The demise of the NJPS and the (soon-to-be) demise of the big box institutions that used to anchor North American Jewry are only a handful of potent indicators that we need new tools and new places to use them.

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