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Statistics can be used and abused




But one key rule is, when you don’t have finite data, don’t guess, don’t use something preliminary, and don’t put down a figure and claim it to be a fact.

That may seem obvious, but it happened recently with a so-called “preliminary” figure that was attributed to the esteemed Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town.

As many of you are aware, the Kaplan Centre is busy with a brave research project to discover the trends in Jewish communal life.

It’s about time we had some concrete information about who we are.

So often, I’m told categorically who the Jewish community is, and what it wants. I may chuckle to myself, and think they don’t know what they are talking about, but I too don’t have the data to state the facts.

We all make assumptions that are not 100% accurate. We have a good idea of what and who makes up the community, but even that can be misleading. People in Glenhazel are so different to those living in Illovo and Morningside.

So, the Kaplan Centre’s project is essential and timeous.

Consider the story we ran last week about Limmud, and the Beth Din cementing the rabbinate’s decision not to allow orthodox rabbis to go to this Jewish learning festival.

As you can see in this week’s newspaper, we have been inundated with letters supporting Limmud.

Can we assume that the majority of the South African Jewish community supports Limmud, and is angry with the Beth Din for its decision?

I cannot be 100% certain. I believe the article angered many because it takes a great deal for people – who generally have a lot on their plates – to put fingers to keyboard.

However, we all know that there is a great deal of apathy in the community, and to many, this issue is irrelevant.

These people generally fall into the category of those who don’t care about what goes on in the political, communal, or even religious space. They simply get on with their lives, trying not to let peripheral information have an impact on them.

What percentage they make up in the community, I cannot say.

I also can’t testify how many people stand 100% behind the decisions made by the Beth Din, but I’m sure there are many. Again, we don’t have the data to prove this one way or another.

So, clearly the time for this research is now. And, we should all support it by doing the surveys honestly.

Interestingly, people – or should I say journalists – are so keen to get the Kaplan Centre’s information out there, a figure has emerged already. In a series of articles on South African Jewry in Haaretz, there was a claim that there were less than 50 000 of us left here. It was shocking for anyone who read this, and believed the journalist’s claim that Jews are leaving in droves.

This journalist said she got the information from the “preliminary findings” of the Kaplan Centre’s research. Others, including one of our own columnists, erroneously took the number and used it.

Where this number originated, I have no idea, but the final figures are definitely not from the Kaplan Centre because the survey is still taking place.

As Adam Mendelsohn, the director of the Kaplan Centre said, “Our survey is ongoing, and we plan to release conclusive and reliable findings once we have finished collecting, analysing, and interpreting the data.” He made it clear that no findings have been released, and cautioned against assumptions until the data has been interpreted.

I look forward to finding out more about our community when the results come out later this year.

And, while I do believe there are people emigrating, particularly making aliyah, I am not aware of a mad rush to get out of this country.

In fact, I have a sense that people are feeling mildly hopeful, what with President Cyril Ramaphosa’s moves against corruption and towards growth. But, this is my assumption based on what people around me say and do, not concrete data.

The truth is that if all of us do this survey, the final results will be accurate. I understand that many people don’t want to be bothered by something that is going to absorb their precious time, but it’s worthwhile for all of us.

So, let’s get out from under our winter rocks, and do this survey to ensure that we get accurate information about our community.

Shabbat Shalom!

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