Five Ways to Explain Grim Surveys About Jewish Life in the U.S.

Need to write a sermon, article or Facebook post on the Pew report? Here's how to build your very own "Is It Good/Bad for the Jews" commentary.

If you work anywhere near the Jewish nonprofit world, you know that the release of a study on Jewish identity can launch a thousand op-ed pieces, even if the findings themselves are not entirely surprising. The latest deluge began again a couple of weeks ago, as the Pew Internet and American Life Project released a new study about Jewish identity.

The arrival of such a study can elicit excitement or flat-out panic, and reactions swirl together violently into an intellectual and emotional froth. To help you, the Jewish professional, communal leader or interested observer, navigate the plentiful statistics to build your own "Is It Good/Bad for the Jews" commentary, here are some guidelines to help you in writing your response, whether it's an academic article, a sermon or a Facebook post. These are tried and true methods that will enable your treatise to resonate - but don't use them all in one place.

1. Read the summary instead of the original report. Seriously. Who has time to read a full report? Only demographers. That's why there is a summary. That's why there are graphs, and interactive tools. So read the summary, and let your ideas spin out from there. Why mess with the substantiation of the actual survey methodology or data? You're not a demographer! (Unless you are; then skip those last two sentences, and we never had this conversation. But if you find something in the long version of the report, please, by all means write another summary so the rest of us know it's in there.)

2. Identify a central premise that's controversial. This premise must be strong enough to generate conversations both pro and con, and should include one of the following elements:

A question that's largely rhetorical, because to answer it would render the conversation dead. ("Will America know what 'Jews' are in the year 2035?")

A prediction that's wildly unprovable in your lifetime. ("By 2050, there will be no Jewish religious denominations - only people lighting an eight-branched candelabrum without any idea why.")

A statement that supports the work you do every day (and even promotes it), regardless of what the report says. ("As a Jewish educator who trains adult bar and bat mitzvah students in Minneapolis through my nonprofit organization/speakeasy, Mitzvah Bar, I know the value of Hebrew. But trends indicate that future generations will not.")

The invocation of technical or innovative terms and buzzwords. ("In the digital age, innovation in the expression of contemporary global Jewish peoplehood and identity is often erroneously ascribed to the NextGen demographic.")

Use of language designed to activate Jewish panic sensors. Pepper your piece with words like "grim," "sobering," "dwindling," "disconnected," and "unaffiliated," and other language designed to emotionally manipulate your reader into depression, or anger leading to some sort of commitment to action. But if you're really serious and want your readers' attention, there's only one historical oppression to invoke. ("[Singular extrapolated fact from the survey] indicates that assimilation is on the rise, a sobering statistic painting today's disconnected and unaffiliated Jews as, de facto, resulting in a cultural Holocaust that unintentionally slopes toward finishing what Hitler started. Education and outreach are the only liberating armies that will free U.S. Jewry from its downward spiral.")

3. Promote your message. Send it to at least one person in the "pro" camp as well as one in the "con" camp, to ensure that sparks - and conversations - fly in a way that seems spontaneous and robust, instead of manipulated and self-serving. Post to social media with a teaser that brings back your strong central premise. (@Jewishsurveysays: "Jews: Extinct by 2035? Weigh in at [awesome URL here]".)

4. Use language that always keeps them guessing as to the purity of your motives. Too confident, and they'll hate you. Too self-deprecating, and no one will care. Best practice: Alternate over-confident language that establishes your credibility/platform ("in my decades of experience in Jewish education") with seemingly self-deprecating, yet secretly elevating language ("of course, I'm only one underpaid Jewish nonprofit worker who publishes occasional commentaries because I care passionately about Jewish life...") that makes people believe you're the right person to be writing it, and also feel like you're doing it as an act of conscience.

5. be sure to point out how many of the "findings" are flawed and why. Is geography not considered a factor? What about age and marital status? How many of those responding "unaffiliated" or "no denomination" were working with or volunteering at a Jewish organization but didn't actually pay membership dues at a synagogue? What is affiliation, anyway? What is the essential nature of each denomination in a world that's increasingly non- or post-denominational? Why do people switch paths between denominations?

With the release of every set of statistics, every survey that yields findings, those of us who engage in this world find ourselves in an essential bind. We desperately crave information to support us in our work; findings that validate our actions keep us moving apace, but findings that diverge from our understandings or assumptions rarely push the pause button on actions already in motion. It is challenging to alter our course of action based on survey findings. We understand - and sometimes use it as an excuse to stay the course - that while the community as a whole may reflect the reported trends, localized trends may be different, or even opposite.

As my friend and colleague Jonathan Woocher (tip #6 - namedropping and quoting experts, sometimes without their permission!) wrote in the JEDLAB Facebook group,  "surveys inherently leave many questions unanswered [...] This is one input into our efforts to understand what is happening in American Jewish life today. It is by no means the whole story. surveys are simply limited in what they can tell us."

As people continue to read the (full) report and parse the data, new observations may arise. But in the interim, the one thing we do know is that many of these numbers may sound more shocking than they are. We should not treat new information (or technology or ideas) with panic, but with great and hospitable interest, absorbing it, letting it infuse us with new energy, and enabling us to view the daily grind with perspective that is fresh and inspiring.

Esther D. Kustanowitz is a Los Angeles-based writer and consultant who specializes in social media. A consultant to the ROI Community, she recently became a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America. She blogs, tweets, and is working on a book, Nothing Helps (But This Might Help): A Guide to Loss and What Comes After. 

A longer version of this opinion piece can be found on her blog here

Larson Harley