For over a decade and a half, Jewish communal leaders have relied on a 2004 population study to tell them what Twin Cities Jews do, think, and look like.
Though criticized for the method of surveying Jewish-sounding names in phonebooks, and likely inaccurate with age, the 2004 study has been the only comprehensive community-wide snapshot available.
Now, it’s time for a big refresh.
A new population study of the Twin Cities Jewish community – facilitated by the Minneapolis and St. Paul Jewish Federations with research consulting by Brandeis University, and funded largely by the Harry Kay Charitable Foundation – is on its way.
Why now? “Because we’re  years too late,” said Marisa Gage, the research manager for the Minneapolis Jewish Federation.
“Data is a snapshot in time. The more pictures you have, the better story you can tell,” Gage said. “The more that we can get people interested and foster conversation around what our community looks like – the more open we will be, the more welcome we will be, and the better the community will be for it.”
Others, like St. Paul Federation board member Aaron Biel, agree.
“It’s incredibly valuable to have reliable data to inform our Jewish agencies, and our Jewish communal organizations, in their strategic planning,” he said.
Over the next few weeks, membership lists and contact information will be collected from the gamut of Jewish institutions and organizations in the Twin Cities.
The contact information will then be compiled into a master list of Minnesota Jews – kept on secure Brandeis University computer servers, where no Twin Cities organization will have access to it – and used to survey a representative sample (roughly 1,500 people) of the Twin Cities Jewish community.
After data processing during the winter, a full report of the study results will be published in March of 2020. For security and privacy reasons, the study’s master list of Minnesota Jews will then be wiped from Brandeis servers.
Not all necessary funds have been raised yet. TC Jewfolk is told that both Jewish Federations, along with private donors, will also be contributing financially to the study.
Dr. Janet Aronson, associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, has been commissioned as the lead researcher for the study. She previously directed Jewish population studies in Boston and Washington, DC, among others.
In a series of meetings on May 29 and 30, Aronson introduced the population study in more detail to Jewish professionals and lay leaders. She clarified methodology and explained why some longtime community benchmarks, like synagogue and denominational affiliation, aren’t so relevant anymore.
“Denominations, which have been very useful for a long time, are becoming less and less useful…up to half of people say they have no denomination,” Aronson said during a presentation at the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis.
In fact, denominational affiliation doesn’t always explain how Jewishly engaged someone might be.
“People who say they are Reform might be doing Shabbat every single week. They might be a member of their Reform synagogue and go every week. [Or] they might never set foot in a synagogue and not be a member of a synagogue, but they say that they’re Reform.”
Instead, the population survey will focus on specific attitudes and trends. Questions will be asked about everything from involvement in Jewish organizations, to whether or not survey participants eat Jewish foods, read Jewish books, follow news about Israel, and talk with friends about Jewish topics.
“What we’re trying to get at is these different patterns of Jewish behavior that are based on what people actually do,” Aronson said. “This also is a way to provide new language to think about the multiple dimensions of Jewish engagement, and not just a binary ‘you’re affiliated, or you’re not affiliated.’”
During the presentation, concerns were raised about how much the study will reach, and be able to accurately reflect, trends among sub-groups in the Jewish community like Jews of Color, LGBTQ+ Jews, and Russian speaking Jews. All three sub-groups tend to be less affiliated with, and under-represented in, the mainstream Jewish community.
Speaking with TC Jewfolk after the presentation, Aronson stressed her confidence that the study will reflect the community’s reality.
“Let’s say we estimate that 10% of the community is completely unengaged, and not doing one Jewish thing,” she said. “And it turns out, it’s actually 13%…That doesn’t change the story. The numbers are not going to change the story. I’m confident we will get the story right.”
Gage, the Minneapolis Federation’s research manager, doesn’t doubt that survey results will be a meaningful snapshot of the community. But she is concerned that communal institutions won’t take full advantage of the updated knowledge.
“That’s why casting a wide net and inviting as many organizations and participants into the study is crucial,” Gage said. “If we go through this exercise, and folks don’t feel empowered to use these results, or if they don’t feel that the results are representative of their experience, then they are less likely to use this valuable data going forward.
“We know that data and quantification can help us plan better, can help us be more responsive, and can help us address needs as they come up,” she said. “So I hope that this is the beginning of a data movement in the Twin Cities. I hope that we don’t have to wait 15 years for another one of these studies to come out.”