Sunday, November 20, 2005

Measuring intangibles

Michael Steinhardt writes an impressive piece about the lack of proper statistical research in /on the Jewish community. He is establishing a new research institute to correct this (and to provide further information, for example, on the highly fraught question of how many American Jews there actually are) and to provide some real information and 'objective assessment' about which of our programmes is actually successful, so that money can be invested in a more informed manner (his birthright is, I believe, one of the most closely-followed-up and studied programmes in the Jewish world). Among the questions the Steinhardt Social Research Institute will look into:
  • First, the percentage of Jewish dollars going to the Jewish world has declined regularly since the middle of the 20th century. This represents a slow-motion but ultimately fatal bleeding away of our capacity to function. How can we halt and reverse that decline?
    One of the projects the SSRI might focus on is philanthropic giving. Such a study could include profiles of philanthropists; research into the shift toward non-Jewish causes; and analysis of what factors, if any, are able to change priorities back toward Jewish giving. Our objective will be to reinvigorate Jewish giving, particularly in the areas that matter for the Jewish future.
  • Another area that calls for attention is Orthodox outreach. I would estimate this to be a $2 billion a year industry. What is the yield per dollar? The returnees appear to be less than 1% of American Jews - if one can trust the National Jewish Population Studies. I would like to see a serious, disciplined study of many such programs to establish whether this is true medicine for our demographic decline, or is it, in the end, just a vast WPA for the Orthodox community?
  • Another area of potential research concerns the sacred cow of Pluralism - the orthodox religion of the liberals and secularists. Well, how about some disciplined research on what behaviors pluralism nurtures? Does it have a dark side? Is pluralism in fact an invitation to nebulous ideas and a marker of I-don't-really-care loyalties (as I suspect)? Or does this type of inclusiveness inspire people on the periphery to come closer? Again - let the chips fall where they may. I hope that we can get some facts for a change to help us make some true judgments on this powerful dogma.
  • The problem with some of these things -- eg. his research on the 'Orthodox outreach' -- is that it is incredibly difficult to measure their intangible effects. If Lubavitch gets someone to put on tefillin in the street and creates a warm fuzzy feeling, and three years later this results in their registering for a Jewish class in university, how do you measure that? Can it be measured? The full 'returnees' that Steinhardt talks about are not the whole story and measuring these efforts in 'yield per dollar' makes me somewhat uncomfortable. (I am also, incidentally, astounded by the $2b. estimate and assume that includes a lot of Lubavitch's budget). In short, a lot of what Steinhardt wants to 'scientifically' measure is actually highly subjective and difficult to nail down. Which is not to say it isn't a highly worthwhile project -- we'll simply be watching closely to see how his institute actually measures these things and deals with these problems.

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