When Price Is an Obstacle

Jeanine Ho, 28, sits near her dining room window and adjusts the stroller’s visor so her baby doesn’t get too much sun. She rubs the stomach of 2-week-old Maxwell and he sighs. Ofer, her 29-year-old husband, smiles as he watches his family.

The Hos glow with pride, but they’re increasingly worried about the kind of Jewish life that Maxwell will have. Jeanine and Ofer are not currently affiliated with a synagogue. But they’d like to be able to provide Maxwell with the kind of Jewish experience that they both had growing up.

The couple currently lives in Alhambra, renting a small house so that they can save enough for a downpayment on a home of their own. But the trade-off has been that they feel all but cut off from the larger Jewish community. And they miss it.

They often turn to family and friends for a Jewish connection, but both realize it’s a temporary solution. Jeanine and Ofer dream of moving to a Jewish area with a congregation that meets all of their needs within walking distance.

Jeanine longs for the now-defunct synagogue she grew up in. They’ve attended the new, nearby synagogue her parents joined, but “it’s a much older congregation and they really don’t have anything for people our age,” she says.

The synagogue they’re most comfortable with is the one Ofer’s family belongs to in Tustin, but Jeanine is against living in Orange County.

They don’t know where they’ll end up looking for a home, but they want to get Maxwell involved in synagogue life as soon as possible. And they’d rather save their money than invest in something that would require them to make certain concessions. Some might dismiss their approach as being too picky, but Jeanine and Ofer are quickly becoming the rule and not the exception.

After striking out on their own, many 20-something Jews find that living a Jewish life can be prohibitively expensive. Factor in student loans, saving up for a downpayment on a house or paying off a car, and most Jews with starting salaries might not have enough left over to cover synagogue membership, let alone a movie and popcorn.

According to the University of Judaism’s Center for Policy Options, the cost associated with a young couple joining a synagogue and making a modest donation to a Jewish organization “may well be more than their limited budgets will allow.”

Americans are more a nation of consumers than ever before and 20-something Jews are no exception. If they’re going to spend the money, they want to make sure that the investment delivers a satisfying return. Twentysomethings scrutinize synagogue programs and the atmosphere of the congregation before they consider joining. Will the Hebrew school program good enough for their children? Is the congregation friendly enough? Today, 20-somethings look to synagogue membership as a way of having their needs and expectations met, but at an affordable price.

For Michael Rosenzweig, a 25-year-old Philadelphia native who works as a talent agent for Lichtman/Salsner, membership in a synagogue is taking a back seat to home ownership. Rosenzweig rents in Brentwood and would like to settle down somewhere on the Westside.

“If you come to California,” he says, “you might as well live near or close to the beach.”

In the recent Jewish Federation Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey, Jewish single-family homes had an estimated median value of $301,000 in 1997, compared to $193,000 for the rest of Los Angeles. By 1998, that figure had risen 11 percent to $333,000, while the rest of Los Angeles increased 9 percent to $211,000.More Jews also own their own homes compared to other Los Angelenos. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey found that 68 percent of all Jewish households were homeowners. Los Angelenos check in at 48 percent.

Like the Hos, Rosenzweig is saving his money for a downpayment on a condo. After all, living on the Westside isn’t cheap. He’s careful about how he spends his money, and like other Jews his age he wants to make sure that he gets his money’s worth.

“I can’t afford $1,600 a year for dues for a synagogue when most of the time it will just be for the High Holidays,” says Rosenzweig. “That’s just not in my budget right now.”

For college graduates like Rosenzweig, used to paying next-to-nothing rates to join Hillel, the idea of paying a substantially higher fee for membership at a synagogue is a little hard to swallow. Most 20-somethings are aware that synagogues are willing to work with them on price (see page 44 for related story) and that there are low-cost alternatives, but once the issue of money is eliminated there are still other factors that 20-somethings consider before joining.

A friend of Rosenzweig’s told him about a nearby synagogue that had a low membership fee. After he attended services, he says he “didn’t like it that much.”

Trying to strike a balance between price and comfort is key for many 20-somethings, and nostalgia plays a strong role in their quest. They want to find a synagogue similar to the one in which they grew up. It must have a great rabbi, Hebrew school and classes, and a friendly congregation at an affordable price.

“I think it’s very hard to try and find a place that you like after staying with something that’s been very stable,” says Rosenzweig. “Being with the same synagogue since you were 5, I think it’s very hard to find a replacement for that. You get used to the rabbis, the service and the tunes being a certain way.”

Melissa DeVore, a 26-year-old assignment editor for KCAL 9 News, is recently engaged. She had great synagogue experiences growing up and wants to be able to provide the same thing for her children.

DeVore says she’d like to join a synagogue “that’s very family oriented. One that has a lot for kids and a young membership so parents my age can make friends. I’d like to find one with a good nursery school and a good Hebrew school program. I [also] want something that will be closer to our home.”

DeVore knows that her family’s synagogue isn’t an option because her parents’ neighborhood is too expensive. When she does find a synagogue, DeVore hopes that they will work with her family on price, especially on education costs for her children.

Rosenzweig and DeVore are each expecting to wait until they’re married and ready to start a family before they bite the bullet and pursue synagogue membership.

“When I marry, we’ll go investigate a local temple,” says DeVore. “But [even then] we’ll probably continue to go to services with my parents.”

With their first child already here, Ofer and Jeanine would like to join a congregation sooner rather than later.

“Now that he’s here, I’d like to start going to shul more often so that he’s comfortable with the services and familiar with it,” says Jeanine. “But it’s going to be hard because in order to send him to Sunday school, most congregations want you to belong. Then you have the whole issue of the cost of membership.”

While Ofer and Jeanine want to provide their new son, Maxwell, with the same memorable experiences they had growing up, the reality of their situation weighs heavily on them.

“I have a lot of fond memories of growing up at a congregation. I only hope that I can give that same good, warm feeling to my son,” says Ofer. “But as it is now, I don’t see anyplace where I feel comfortable taking him.”