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Measuring Jewish Identity – What’s the End Game?

Wendy RosovFilmed at Wexner Institute

Everyone is talking about Jewish identity. We are, each in our own ways, trying to cultivate it, transmit it, enhance it, ensure it…. and measure it because we want to know if we are making a difference. So, what kinds of things have we, are we, and should we be measuring that would tell us - that would be evidence for helping us understand - the extent of our programmatic success and our philanthropic ROI in this massive communal endeavour?  Listen to my talk and you will hear tell of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the efforts over the past 50+ years to do just this.

Wendy is the Founder and Principal of Rosov Consulting, LLC, a strategic consultancy helping foundations, philanthropists and Jewish communal organizations meet their goals, assess progress, and enhance impact. By working at the nexus of the funder-grantee relationship, Wendy and her talented team help foster and support partnerships that yield powerful results.

Over the past 20 years, Wendy has served as a research and evaluation consultant, workshop presenter, facilitator and strategist for an array of grantmaking and operating foundations, including: the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Jewish Community Endowment Fund of San Francisco, the Legacy Heritage Fund, the San Diego Jewish Community Foundation, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, The Koret Foundation, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, the Covenant Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation. Wendy has also worked closely with many of the grantee-partners of these philanthropies including: Repair the World, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, ROI Community, the Israel on Campus Coalition, BBYO, Inc., and the Center for Leadership Initiatives. Recently, Wendy and the firm have begun working closely with the Jewish Agency for Israel on a number of research, evaluation and strategy consulting projects.

For nearly a decade, Wendy was a member of the senior staff at JESNA -The Jewish Education Service of North America – where, as the Director of the Berman Center for Research and Evaluation, she grew the Center’s visibility, scope, and revenues exponentially. Before joining the JESNA staff in 1999, Wendy served as Associate Director of the Conference on Rabbinic Education. She taught for more than 15 years in all types and at all levels of Jewish formal and informal education and identity-building programs, giving her a deep “insider” understanding of both the content and context of these fields. Wendy holds a Ph.D. in Education from Stanford University, an MA in Jewish Education from the University of Judaism, and a B.A. from Barnard College, Columbia University.

Wendy is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program. Wendy, her family and her firm are based in Berkeley, California.

The title of my talk today is called; measuring Jewish identity – what’s the end game?

So first of all, raise your hand if somewhere, anywhere in the mission, vision, value statement of any Jewish communal organisation you’ve ever worked for or volunteered in, the phrase ‘Jewish identity’ does not appear. Ok, I got one. That’s good.

Face it; everyone is talking about Jewish identity. We are, each in our own ways, trying to cultivate it, transmit it, enhance it, ensure it and yes, measure it; whether scientifically or anecdotally. It’s the thing that everyone is after and we want to know if we’re having any success. This brings us, of course to the question of measurement; what kind of things are we or should we be measuring that would tell us, that would be evidence for helping us understand the extent of our success in building, enhancing, transmitting this thing we call ‘Jewish identity’.

And here’s where our story begins: Once upon a time, Jewish identity used to lie in the purview of demographers and was pretty easy to measure. Back in the 1950s when the early identity studies were conducted, identity was about religion and ritual. If you scored high on the ritual package; lighting Shabbat candles, attending a Pesach Seder etc., you scored high on Jewish identity, period. Indeed this was the prevailing situation for quite some time, arguably through the late 1980s. This is what we call the “How Jewish Are You?” Paradigm of Jewish identity measurement. The focus in on what and how much you know and what and how much you do, measured against some normed, static, external criteria. Some folks began asking “You mean that, if I don’t keep kosher or if I only go to synagogue once a year, if at all or it I don’t have a strong Jewish educational background then I’m somehow deficient in my Jewish identity?” And indeed, according to the 1990 NJPS, revolutionary in many ways, according to some, gave the community new protocols for looking at the question of Jewish identity. For the first time we asked the question on the NJPS as follows; “What do you mean when you say that you are Jewish?” Granted, respondents were only given four choices; nationality, ethnicity, culture and religion. But importantly some 70% chose; “I am Jewish by culture.” While this and the infamous intermarriage rate may have been two of the primary data flashpoints that touched off the continuity firestorm, an intensive, programmatic and philanthropic effort to stem the tide of assimilation and what some called “the ultimate demise of the Jewish people”, it also laid the ground work for profound shift from measuring identity only in terms of “how Jewish are you?” to measuring identity in terms of “How are you Jewish?” This was a boon but also a bust as the malacha of Jewish identity measurement just got exponentially more complicated.

Sprouting up alongside the continuity commissions of the 1990s and their ambitions programmes of work was a little cottage industry that is called ‘Programme Evaluation.’ For arguably the first time the measurement of Jewish identity no longer lay solely in the hands of the demographers and the sociologists of North American Jewry. Jewish identity and how to measure it became tied to the goals, perhaps even the grandious promises, of the investors in and purveyors of those programmes and initiatives heralded by the continuity commissions to stem the rising tide of intermarriage, disaffection, the under engaged, even the cultural Jew, some would argue. And as such programme evaluators quietly began trickling on to the scene to help us answer, to measure the burning question; “are we achieving our goal of cultivating, enhancing, transmitting something called Jewish identity?”, the presumed guarantor of Jewish continuity. But our story doesn’t end here, while I will leave it to you to debate the success or lack thereof, of the continuity movement the turn of the century, well the Gregorian one anyway, gave rise to what we have all come to now call the Jewish Social Entrepreneur or DIY Movement. Perhaps what some cynics believe to be our community’s most recent attempt to stem the tide of assimilation, disaffection, under engagement, intermarriage, what have you, or what some champions believe to be our community’s incredibly healthy response to the exigent and emergent realities of a vibrant, diverse, inclusive, multicultural complex, multifaceted, you name it, Jewish community.

And you guessed it, enter stage left; our third paradigm for thinking about and measuring Jewish identity; “how relevant, salient, meaningful is your Jewish, however you define it, to you?” If the degree of difficulty and perhaps level of contestation around measuring Jewish identity had increased with the introduction of paradigm two; “how are you Jewish?” to paradigm one, “how Jewish are you?” it arguably crept even higher with the introduction of paradigm three; “how relevant, salient, meaningful is your Jewish to you?” and this is pretty much where I have spent the last 20 years of my professional career. But the story doesn’t end here either; coincident with these recent developments we have seen the increasing emphasis on, something called philanthropic ROI; We invest in Jewish identity. It is one of our biggest commodities, whether you’re a pulpit Rabbi a Jewish studies Professor, a Jewish Communal Service worker, a Jewish Educator, a Jewish Foundation professional, I’m sorry if I’ve left any of you out. We all believe that strong vibrant Jewish identities are the key to our continuity, to our community flourishing and thriving. But how do we assess philanthropic ROI when the thing that we are investing in is complex to define, elusive and now even more complicated and nuanced to measure as Jewish identity? In the business world measuring ROI is pretty easy; you have dollars that you put in to the system and then you’ve created some product, it’s a widget, it’s a this, it’s a that, whatever it is and if the number of dollars that you get out the other side is more than the number of dollars that you put in that’s deemed a successful return on investment, right? Well, guess what? Not so simple for us. We invest our capital, social, emotional, cultural, financial, intellectual, spiritual, historical, what have you, into our programmes, interventions, initiatives, just a few, designed to enhance Jewish identity. But what is our philanthropic and programmatic ROI? Happy Jewish identity filled Jews. I want to ask you here today to consider; what is your conception of the happy Jewish identity filled Jews? Which Jewish identity measurement paradigm is it being driven by? Is she the Jew of paradigm one? Is he the Jew of paradigm two? Or is it the happy Jew of our paradigm three? Or some combination thereof?

Let’s face it, we have to measure and we’re going to measure the efficacy of our Jewish identity building work. So what’s the end game? From where I sit, I believe that the measurement tail wagging the programmatic and philanthropic dog can actually help rather than hurt us here. It can push us to think critically about which of these three paradigms are operative in our work. Ask yourself which measurement paradigm you would choose to determine whether you’re achieving the impact you seek. The End.

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