By Lee Chottiner
In a move that should produce a valuable tool for planning the community’s future, the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence (JHFE) and the Jewish Federation of Louisville have commissioned a comprehensive population study.
Preliminary work on the study, which is being done by the Maurice & Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, is already underway, but the actual data collection won’t start until October. It should wrap up around February.
“The numbers and ideas that emerge will empower local organizations to make decisions, determine strategic priorities and allocate resources over the next decade,” said JHFE President & CEO Jeff Polson. “As the community’s makeup continues to evolve, this research will help organizations confidently and effectively respond to the needs of individuals and families … and to be even more inclusive, welcoming and engaging.”
The study will be the third community assessment to be done of Jewish Louisville over the past two decades. Demographic assessments were carried out in 2006 and in 2009 – both of which are now considered out of date.
The findings should be presented to the community by June 2022.
“We’re trying to estimate the size and characteristics of the Louisville Jewish community, however that is defined,” said Matt Boxer, assistant research professor at Brandeis. “We’re looking at six or seven counties in Kentucky or southern Indiana, where your organizations have people who are participating in their activities.”
The study also will estimate the number of unaffiliated Jews.
“We are trying to find the Jews in the woodwork as well,” Boxer said. “You can’t come up with an accurate population estimate unless you also go out and find those completely unaffiliated Jews.”
An accurate assessment of affiliated and unaffiliated Jews is necessary to get a true picture of the degree of interaction with the community, he said. “You don’t want to end up estimating that 80 percent of the households in a community are synagogue members. I’m not even sure that’s true in Monsey.”
To help with the count, community agencies, synagogues and schools have been asked to share data with Brandeis: membership lists, school enrollment numbers and mailing lists of donors. Other techniques will be used to gauge the unaffiliated population.
Though the data collection begins in October, the Brandeis team already is working on the project, including designing the survey, Boxer said. “The advisory council [in Louisville] is actually reviewing a draft of it at the moment.”
The members of the advisory committee are Alan Engel, Jasmine Farrier-Frockt, Abby Glogower, Craig Goldstein, Dr. Jon Klein, Amy Landon and Mauri Malka.
Brandeis will compile two samplings for the study: a representative sampling, whose participants will be randomly selected by a computer, and a secondary sampling – not representative – that is meant to supplement the results, particularly for young adults, intermarried couples and people living in outlying counties.
Those selected for the random sampling should expect to receive letters in the mail, emails and phone calls asking them to do the survey. The second group should receive an email reminder every seven to 10 days.
Both groups will be given contact information for Brandeis’ call center at the University of New Hampshire and/or for a local representative.
“We want to provide information so people can confirm that this is legitimate,” Boxer said.
Besides data collection, the study process also involves “weighting,” a mathematical set of procedures the team uses to account for people who are more or less likely to respond to surveys.
“People who are deeply engaged in the Jewish community are more willing to respond than people who are Jewish but aren’t so involved,” Boxer said, “So, to avoid biasing your results, there are complex things that you have to do to make sure that you are not giving too much weight to those who are very involved in the Jewish community and too little to those who aren’t.”
According to Brandeis, the results of the study can be used in communal planning, allocation of resources, needs assessment, following population shifts, planning for construction and hiring.
Even with an up-to-date study, though, outside factors that the Jewish community can’t control, like economic conditions, can affect the results.
Boxer mentioned a 2017 study he did for the Pittsburgh Jewish community, which at the time was in the running for Amazon’s second headquarters – a prize that could have meant a massive population influx.
“I remember telling them that if you get Amazon’s headquarters, you’re going to go from a community of around 50,000 Jews to a community of around 70,000 Jews almost overnight,” Boxer said. Pittsburgh did not get the headquarters.
The Maurice & Marilyn Cohen Center conducts population studies for Jewish communities across the country. Currently, it is working on seven to eight other projects.
“We only want to report numbers that are accurate,” Boxer said. “We take great pains to make sure that our estimates are as accurate as we can possibly make them.”