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Demographic study of Western Mass. Jewish community moving ahead

By Stacey Dresner

Stewart Bromberg

WESTERN MASS. — Leaders of the Jewish community in Western Massachusetts knew that it had been a long time since a demographic study of the area’s Jewish population had been done.

But they didn’t know just how long.

“We thought the last demographic study was done in 1969,” says Stewart Bromberg, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Western Mass. 

But they discovered that the past study was begun in 1966, was concluded in 1967 and published in 1968. “So it hasn’t been 50 years — It’s been 52 years since the research was concluded,” Bromberg said.

Obviously, things have changed tremendously in the last 52 years, especially for the Jewish community.

Now Bromberg and the Jewish Federation are ready to go full steam ahead with a new Community Demographic Study that will determine the makeup of the local Jewish population and in turn help the community plan for its future.

“Things like a strategic plan you can’t do based on anecdotal information,” Bromberg explained. “You have to know who our community is, where they are, what they are looking for in programs and services, where they want to do those programs and services, and who they would like to do them with. And a lot has changed. We know that without even doing the study.

“Every Jewish community in North America is changing,” he added. “There is not one that is not changing. And that is why communities often do new community demographic studies somewhere between 10 and 20 years. It’s been 52 for us. It’s time.”

Moving forward

On March 27, more than 30 people from Federation constituent agencies – and from some organizations that are not Federation agencies – gathered to hear from a representative of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center of Modern Jewish Studies, one of the research organizations that has sent in proposals to run the study.

Now Bromberg has invited those who attended that meeting to serve on a new demographic study task force that will co-chaired by Dr. Ben Falk and Seth Goodman.

The first task force meeting will be on Wednesday,  April 24.

“We are moving forward,” Bromberg said. “The task force will review the other proposals we’ve received and then will make a recommendation to the Federation board on May 29. Then we could start [the study] immediately.”

The Jewish Federation of Western Mass. had begun working on a demographic study five years ago, when Meredith Dragon was still executive director.

A task force was formed and a research firm was chosen — although no contract was signed – but the study didn’t get off the ground once Dragon left for the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester.

Current co-chair Ben Falk also served on that first task force.

“We started this in 2014 when Meredith Dragon appointed me and Linda Minoff [former director of the Jewish Endowment Foundation] co-chairs. We brought the project to a point where we were ready to sign a contract. Then the leadership changed and transitioned to the extent that we were put on hold,” Falk recalled. 

“I was disappointed but I knew this project needed to have a CEO in charge of the Federation as well as, from our interviews with other communities, to have a marketing director to work with the lay leaders, and that is Josh Vogel. It was too large of a project and too expensive a pursuit to not have the [appropriate] professionals as well as volunteers lined up. One of the key, driving reasons to bring in Stew Bromberg was that he had experience doing this type of demographic study,” Falk said.

Bromberg had worked on a demographic study in conjunction with CJP in Boston in 1995 when he was strategic marketing director of the Leventhal-Sidman Jewish Community Center in Newton. 

“Stew knew what was required,” Falk said. “He also knew that he didn’t have all the skills to do it and that he would need the help of an outside agency to really produce a study that is going to have far-reaching effects for our community.”

When restarting this new effort, Bromberg contacted the firm that the first task force almost hired several years ago as well as a few other demographic research firms asking for updated proposals.

He is hoping the task force chooses a firm during the April 24 meeting.

The Federation had already budgeted a certain amount of money when they began the process back in 2014 and through the years has been putting money in escrow to pay for the demographic study. 

“We want to move it forward because if we decide on somebody at this meeting on April 24 and decide to contract with somebody we are still looking at not having a final report until March of 2020,” he said.

The study will be seeking how many Jews are living in Western Mass., who those Jews are, and what they are looking for in their Jewish community.

Survey participants will be asked things like “the makeup of the household – the number of children and what are their ages? Are there multiple generations living in a house not counting children? What services in the community are you using? What services would you like to see? What services do you miss that used to be offered – these are my questions,” Bromberg said. “Whoever we contract with, my expectation is that they will meet with agency representatives, both lay leaders and professionals, and find out what we are looking for. I am willing to bet most of our agencies will have similar questions but some might have some more specific questions.”

Ellen Frank, executive director of Lander-Grinspoon Academy, the Jewish day school in Northampton, attended the March 27 meeting. She said she was impressed with the presentation and is excited that the community will be getting started on the demographic study.

“In a lot of what we do, we are operating in a little bit of a vacuum of information and frequently find ourselves saying, ‘Well, if we only knew where the young Jewish families were, for example, we could gear programming toward reaching those families.’ But we are operating on guesswork to a large extent, given that the last community study was so long ago,” Frank said. “So we want to know who are the families, who are we possibly missing when we are sending messages out and also, of the families who are out there…what are they looking for?”

With the closing in 2017 of Heritage Academy, a Jewish day school in Longmeadow, these may be questions had by many in the organized Jewish community. And hopefully, the demographic study will be able to answer them.

“Do we even know there is a need for a day school? And if there’s a need for a day school, what should it look like? Because even day schools are changing,” Bromberg said. “Yes there are changes in demographics. We don’t know exactly what they are, but there are young people living in this community. There are young families living in this community, but who are they? What do they want? We have a very large number of PJ Library families in our community who are being engaged in programming through PJ Library, but I don’t know what else that they may be interested in that might also engage them.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Susan Halpern, vice president of development and communications at JGS Lifecare, is concerned about how to plan the future for the local health care system that serves the senior population. She also attended the March 27 meeting.

“We know that as the baby boomer bubble continues to age, increased demands will be made upon senior care services. Gaining demographic data and insight into what the Jewish subset of that demographic increase will be looking for in eldercare services will help us plan for the future,” Halpern explained. “How do you define a meaningful life as a senior?  What senior care services are you looking for in our community?  Do you have the resources to age in place?  Do you think you will be accessing residential healthcare services? How important is it to you to age in a Jewish environment? How important is Kashruth? How important do you feel it is to support Jewish aging services in the community and would you offer your support? These are some of the questions we hope to gain insight to that will help inform our strategic planning.”

Ben Falk said that should be the goal of everyone in the Western Mass. Jewish community.

“For over 50 years we have been trying to make forward-thinking decisions based on anecdotal evidence of what we believe the community is,” he said. “We were making decisions in a vacuum without clear evidence and data. As a result we have seen changes happening without the long-term framework that should exist. I’m referring specifically to the future of Jewish education for our children in the community and the future for our synagogue participation in the community.”

Falk encouraged members of the Jewish community to participate in the study.

“I want community members to take the call and to follow up on any email requests to participate because this is our opportunity to shape the community that our forefathers and mothers started. It’s up to this generation to be sure that our agencies stay vital and serve the community for the next generations.”

Bromberg agreed and stressed how much the demographic study means to the entire Jewish population of Western Mass.

“I had somebody ask me back in October why I took this job. My response was that when I was doing my research of this position what I found was a history of a very strong Jewish community in Springfield,” Bromberg said. “At that point I wasn’t sure what was here, but I think we have a community that wants to get strong again and we can’t get strong again until we know what the community needs and wants. That is why this study is so important.”

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