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Orthodox Union launches data collection and analysis center

It will focus its research on how Jews learn to live Jewish lives, the diverse journeys they take in that process and the ways in which Jewish communal institutions influence behavior and sentiment.

Matt Williams, director of the OU Center for Communal Research. Credit: Courtesy.
Matt Williams, director of the OU Center for Communal Research. Credit: Courtesy.

The Orthodox Union created a new internal and external research arm, the OU Center for Communal Research, which will put forward an effort to collect and analyze data from the Jewish community. The founding director of the center will be Matt Williams, a researcher who has been studying the field of Jewish communal outreach in America at the Berman Jewish Policy Archive, part of Stanford University.

Mixed methods will be employed in OU studies, meaning that both quantitative and qualitative research will be used for everything from surveys to deep ethnographic work. “The idea here is that every phenomenon requires multiple means, lenses, to explore and triangulate, to the best of our ability, what actually goes on,” said Williams.

The recent use of web-based, opt-in surveys have been quick to identify general trends, but are more difficult to understand statistically. In such cases, “we don’t really know and can’t theorize the relationship between the respondents and the larger population with that particular instrument of data collection. In those cases, we might get passion responses, the loudest voices or perhaps those with the best access to social media. In Orthodox communities, the last one should be taken seriously,” said Williams.

“If your goal is to theorize whether a phenomenon exists, you might be able to use a web-based opt-in survey. What is tough to claim is what you are noticing is representative of an entire population,” he added.

The OU will focus its research on how Jews learn to live Jewish lives, the diverse journeys they take in that process and the ways in which Jewish communal institutions influence behavior and sentiment. Williams’s past research, which will most certainly influence his work at the OU, was on the history of Orthodox outreach in post-war America, during four specific time periods he referred to as “keyholes” that one gains significant information by “peeking through.”

The first was Yeshiva University in the 1950s and on; the second was Chabad of California. The third was Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis and the Hineni organization, “which is more about the ascension of female spiritual leaders in outreach and in American religion generally in the 70s.” The fourth was “Aish HaTorah in the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s, specifically looking at the development and impact of its Discovery Seminar,” explained Williams.

‘Spotlight women’s voices’

Turning to questions that will most likely be posed on behalf of the OU, the first survey undertaken by Williams will focus on “the economics” of Jewish life. In order to explain why the topic is central to the OU, he asked the following questions: “Why do Jews choose to live where they do? What sorts of considerations go into that decision-making process? How might items like proximity to child care, property tax, one’s mortgage, the affordability of [day-school] tuition relative to cost of living or compensations available in the area—inform such decisions?

“We’re in the early stages of more clearly defining our research questions, but America’s socio-economic conditions are essential to the lexicon of Orthodox Judaism—how it’s lived, where it’s lived and who gets to live it,” said Williams.

A second planned study is a survey of Orthodox single women, specifically those over the age of 30. Why this group? “There’s a popular sense that there is a disproportionate number of Orthodox single women who may or may not want to marry, might not be able to find a spouse (which may not be their ‘problem’), that there’s this demographic pyramid produced by birthrate and earlier age for marriage that disadvantages women, and that some Jewish communal institutions stigmatize women for being single in ways they don’t stigmatize men.

“All of these claims—for me—deserve investigation because they make up a kind of consensus that community rhetoric often pools around. Further, I’d like to spotlight women’s voices as they deal with Jewish communal expectations—for good and/or ill—as that all relates to their own Jewish lives and experiences.”

In addition to these larger studies, the new center will conduct ongoing internal evaluation of OU programs; collect and make available existing research from external sources; produce publications; and convene symposia and other events on pressing communal issues.

“In a constantly evolving world,” said OU president Moishe Bane, “it is imperative that we consistently re-evaluate the realities and challenges of the community, so that our programs and efforts will be most relevant and effective.”

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