The Jewish Federation’s census of Los Angeles Jewry
remains controversial. Even as the United States continues striving to count historically less visible demographic communities, the kinds of people whom Ralph Ellison might have called “Invisible People,” our local Jewish census-takers fail to acknowledge that Torah-observant Jews were
dramatically undercounted. The census alleges that Observant households have dwindled in the past two decades from 5.2 to 4.3 percent of Los Angeles Jewry. I refuse to be an Invisible Man in the Age of Lieberman. The “census” numbers are false. They are stuff and non-census.
First, the census was conducted by telephone interviews, demanding a documented average of twenty-six minutes per interview. Questionnaires bore as many as 291 questions, including branching and modular components. As the Los Angeles Times often has appended to its published poll results, “Poll results can be influenced by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.” Of more than 70,000 people called, only 2,640 were tallied.
Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of those reached by phone refused to sit for the half-hour interview. Population subgroups particularly disinclined to participate inexorably would have been undercounted.
Orthodox Jews with young children at home would be less inclined to sit for half an hour with a faceless phone interviewer from the Federation than would be, say, a Reform convert eager to be counted as a Jew. Similarly,
senior citizens would have more time to schmooze for half an hour; younger people would have job and familial responsibilities, skewing the generational numbers and census age median. Who Knew?
Calls were made by Interviewing Service of America, a company that prominently advertises its specialty in polling the Asian-American community. The company represents commercially that it has a unique ability to count Chinese-, Korean-, Japanese- and other Asian-American communities because it has cultivated an expertise in that subgroup’s demographic nuances, sensitivities, and in overcoming suspicious of interviewees. By contrast, when the same company polled citizens of western Tennessee in evening calls, the October 23, 1998 issue of the Memphis Commercial Appeal quoted the county transportation manager as acknowledging that “[w]e have had people call the hotline and say it is a scam and someone is just trying to find out where they live and where their children are, and similar things.” Thus, we know from a documented 1998 census taken by the same interviewers around the same time that they were
calling Jews in Los Angeles that, when they are not practicing theirAsian-American expertise, they actually can scare large numbers of potential interviewees away from the phone. Who Knew?
In the Federation census, calls were made during day and night hours. I assume that calls were not made on any weekday Jewish holy days because, otherwise, the census would be skewed ab initio. Even so, members of Sabbath-observant households do not sit on the phone twenty-six
minutes with census-takers on Thursday evenings. Every Sabbath-observant Jewish woman I know is busy on Thursday evening, and no Sabbath-observant Jewish man is going to sit on the phone half an hour on Thursday night with a Federation census taker. Just as Interview Service of America knows Asian-Americans, a different polling company more sensitive to Jewish sensitivities would have known that about Sabbath observers. Who Knew?
In addition, Sabbath-observant families average more children per household than do non-observant families. Parents in households with several young children are less inclined to sit half an hour on a phone being interviewed by a Federation census-taker. By contrast, Reform converts, for example, are more inclined to be counted. It’s fun — they get to be Jewish. Similarly, retired people have more time to talk. Thus, different groups have different motivations as to whether to participate,and motivation skews the demographic base polled by phone. Who Knew?
The census counted households, not individuals, further skewing results. The United States census does not count households. Household-counting is a methodology that structurally underreports the Torah-observant community because Observant Jews (1) number more people per household, but (2) comprise fewer households per capita. More people per household: (1) there are more children in Torah-observant homes; (2) Torah-observant Jews suffer a lower divorce rate (so there are more adults and children in the same one household); (3) more young Torah-observant adults remain with their parents longer. Fewer households per capita: (1) the lower divorce rate makes two adults more likely to comprise one household rather than two; (2) by discouraging our singles, especially daughters, from living away from parents, there necessarily are fewer Torah-observant households (because every single living alone in an apartment is a household); and (3) more conservative social practices among the Torah-observant encourage our singles to marry and unite households. Who Knew?
The census misleads further by attempting to compare today’s gerrymandered numbers with those of twenty years ago. The new census polled exurbia, places way out in the sticks where Torah-observant Jews do not roam. Therefore, it is flawed when its analysts compare 1998 demographics with the 1977 numbers that polled only Jews in urban and
suburban communities. Of course the numbers will seem to dilute Orthodox Jews. And if the Los Angeles Jewish census this time were to include Idaho and Montana, it would appear that all Jewish groups are declining in numbers. Who Knew?
The census absurdly “finds” more than 5,000 African-American Jews in Los Angeles, a group that we are told is nearly one-quarter the population size of the Torah-observant. I lived among and celebrated Judaism with hundreds of Black Jews from Ethiopia in the Hadera absorption center in Israel in 1986. Since 1988, I have been speaking atsynagogues, temples, and Jewish organizations throughout the city. There are not 5,000 Black Jews in Los Angeles. Who Knew?
The census invited interviewees to self-define their and their progenitors’ Judaism. Thus, it reports that, among respondents who affiliate differently from their parents, 42% of children from Orthodox homes switched, and 10.8% switched to Reform. The census inherently fails to recognize that lesser educated, non-observant interviewees often erroneously characterize their progenitors’ practice as “Orthodox” when it was not.
During ten years as a practicing pulpit rabbi in New York, New Jersey, and California, I often encountered young people who told me about their “Orthodox” parents or grandparents – describing people who had one set of dishes and flatware at home, ate shellfish, drove on Shabbat but who attended an Orthodox synagogue two hours on Yom Kippur and perhaps sent their children to an afternoon Talmud Torah Hebrew school run by an Orthodox shul. When such interviewees tell Interviewing Service of America — specialists in the Asian-American community — that they are Reform children of Orthodox progenitors, the statements are sociologically interesting but demographically irrelevant. Who Knew?
The census reports that twenty percent of the Los Angeles population is over 65. Many of our senior population arrived in Los Angeles as pioneers before Torah observance established institutional roots and a critical mass in the late 1970s and 1980s. The pioneers primarily were non-Orthodox. They arrived before mechitzah partitions were demanded and installed in several prominent Orthodox synagogues. Before the establishment of dozens of yeshivas that now dot Los Angeles. Before the explosion of a plethora of mikvahs, kosher restaurants, pizza stores. Think “Frisco Kid.” Certainly, many of those abandoning Orthodoxy a century ago descended from Torah-observant grandparents from the “Old Country.” Think “Hester Street.” That twenty percent includes a disproportionate number of Reform residents who indeed come from Orthodox households. They are
sociologically important, the era of Irving Howe’s “World of our Fathers.” However, such numbers utterly are irrelevant for charting demographic trends, and they mask the burgeoning impact of youthful Orthodoxy’s birthrate in Los Angeles. Moreover, the Orthodox of twenty years ago qualitatively were less educated Jewishly, less pious, more willing to
worship without a partition and to eat in halakhically challenged establishments. Today’s Torah-observant community, educated at any of the booming yeshivas that burst at their seams and that continually expand into
newer, bigger buildings — Emek, Yavneh, Hillel, Toras Emes, West Valley, YUHSLA, Valley Torah, Shalhevet, etc. – will not compromise on seating partitions, and they demand and patronize rabbinically supervised establishments. Who Knew?
If the quantitative number of Reform homes is lower now than twenty years ago, any effort to project denominational shifts from Orthodoxy to Reform necessarily is skewed because a perceived proportional increase of Reform Jews coming from observant homes more logically reflects the quantitative decrease through assimilation in the Reform population base of those coming from non-Orthodox homes. Do you see why?
The fewer quantitatively left from one group, the proportionally greater the presence of the other. Thus, if there used to be 100 Reform Jews, five from “Orthodox homes” and 95 from Reform homes, those from “Orthodox homes” would comprise 5% of the Reform group. If 50 of those from Reform homes have disappeared, marrying out and assimilating away, the same group hailing from “Orthodox homes” suddenly becomes 10% of the Reform group. But it is not that there are more Reform Jews coming from “Orthodox homes” — just fewer people from reform homes staying in the fold. Who Knew?
Census calls were made as many as six times each to nearly 70,000 households. Of the 2,640 respondents who sat half an hour to answer their share of the 291 questions, 41% (1,080) were identified by random-digit dialing. Wealthier homes with more phone numbers available for modem, cellular, and multi-line communications would have been numerically overcounted beyond those with more modest spending on phone lines; Torah-observant Jews typically have tighter access to discretionary income. The other 1,560 respondents (comprising three-fifths of the poll database – 59%) were obtained from Federation lists. Under this “dual-frame sampling” process, the census numbers undercount discrete communities that participate less heavily in Federation-list organizations. By comparison, if 59% of the United States census were projected through dual-frame sampling from lists culled from those maintained by the United Way, the numbers would undercount certain discrete and insular minority groups who do not participate as cohesively in those charities. Who Knew?
And for explicit religious reasons, Orthodox Jews abhor being counted and consciously evade people-counters, whose efforts they deem repugnant to halakha, much as certain American population groupsevade census-takers in mistaken fear that information as to their whereabouts will be shared with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Who Knew?
The census grossly undercounted Torah-observant Jews, demonstratively so, but its camouflaged flaws nevertheless offered an intellectually interesting opportunity to pinpoint. Sort of a “Where’s Waldo” for the statistically curious. The same problems, in one form or another, have marred census efforts undertaken by other Federation counters in other cities. Until the Torah-observant community evolves the sophistication to recognize that the numbers consistently are skewed, that the methodologies inherently are faulty, that the skewing is part of a subtle agenda to steer away Federation funding from services and programs that serve the Torah-observant community, and that the solution for Orthodoxy is not rhetoric but statistical analysis and input not from Orthodox political scientists and medical doctors but from trained statisticians, the non-census will continue for another millennium.