Data and “Jewish Urban Planning”

[The second post in The Nuts & Bolts of Jewish Entrepreneurship series]

As Jewish innovators, when we pilot, we learn a lot about our community’s hopes and dreams as we build.  Though, ideally you’d know how many are in your target market, where they are and how to reach them, before you launch your program,  that’s not always the case. Every pilot we launch provides us with feedback and data that helps us program more successfully. In a sense, we are “Jewish Urban Planners” or trailblazers at the very least. But is that enough to be successful?

Missing Data

Often, there is no research or data available. The last formal study of my community in San Diego was in 2003 when we learned over 85% of our population was not engaged in traditional Jewish life. We don’t know why or even if it’s better or worse today. No new study has been done. There’s been no analysis of what our community at large might want. Youth K-8 Jewish education is in particularly bad shape with only 8% of our Jewish children engaged in Jewish recurring education. The latter statistic is based on data we stopped collecting as a community in 2014 when our program supporting local Jewish educators closed. The lack of data, it turns out, is not uncommon. So where can you start as you begin your research?

Consult National Studies

National and International Jewish research is available to guide your work.  Read the Pew Research Center’s  report on Jewish Americans from 2013, as a baseline and get familiar with work from at least two researchers such as  Steven Cohen and Gidi Grinstein who have studied a variety of Jewish population segments and programs. Last week, the Jewish People Policy Institute released two informative studies, too: Family, Engagement, and Jewish Continuity among American Jews and Learning Jewishness, Jewish Education, and Jewish Identity.

Dealing with Realities

The national trends reflect that huge numbers of American Jews are not engaging in traditional Jewish life and institutions and that many don’t identify with denominations; instead, framing their Jewish identity in cultural or “just Jewish” terms. The newer studies also highlight our failure to engage youth in Jewish education programs. However, the studies emphasize the need for adult programs, because young Jews in America are marrying later, having children later and fewer of them. This delay and lack of creative Jewish social circles with which to engage can lead to a disconnect from the community for both parents and their children.

Using National Data

What can a Jewish innovator learn from these studies that might help? The studies encourage building new avenues for Jewish social circles for youth and for adults. They also encourage youth participation in multiple types of Jewish experiences through youth because, for many, there is no longer a central institution – synagogue or other center – that is a preferred gathering place. Camps of all kinds, even for adults, innovative after-school programs and creative Jewish education as a family experience are all winning combinations, resulting in successful Jewish identity and community-building.

Gathering Your Own Data

National research continually shows there is ample interest and enthusiasm in Jewish America for new ways to engage. These results should inspire us to pilot, test and build. Jewish innovators are trailblazers. We listen, we pilot, take feedback, and pivot, shaping new programs as we go.  To that end, we should look to our local Jewish Federation and/or Foundations to see if they have completed local studies, but, if they haven’t, we should charge ahead, conducting small focus groups, piloting new programs, and trailblazing, gathering and sharing the data along the way.