October 14, 2019

The Price of Being Jewish

Karen Fiske has been teaching at Jewish schools in Southern California for 21 years, but she sends her two daughters to public school because she can’t afford the high tuition at local Jewish day schools.

Karen and her husband, Robert, who live in Long Beach, are not poor. Together they make between $50,000 and $80,000. But schools with tuitions of $7,000 per child are just out of their league, as are Jewish summer camps, Fiske said.

Once a teacher at a day school in Los Angeles, Fiske is now teaching at three Conservative Hebrew schools in Long Beach. She also tutors on the side. "I have a lot of regrets," Fiske said. "Having seen it from the inside, I would’ve loved my children to have a Jewish day school environment. But really, it was too expensive."

Fiske is not alone among Jewish communal workers in being priced out of programs they help run. According to a new study, she is also among a growing number of middle-class Jews who cannot afford the costs of Jewish living.

The study, published last month by the American Jewish Committee (AJC), shows that although the median annual income for Jewish families with children has grown to between $75,000 and $80,000, an average of $30,000 must be spent in order to cover rising fees for day schools, synagogue memberships, summer camps, Jewish community center dues and minimal federation gift giving.

The study, "The Costs of Jewish Living: Revisiting Jewish Involvements and Barriers," was written by Gerald Bubis, vice chair and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and founding director of the Irwin Daniels School for Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. The study updates a 1992 study titled "The High Cost of Jewish Living."

The study indicates that even many Jews who qualify as members of the upper-middle class cannot afford the full array of Jewish communal activities.

"Indeed, it is unlikely that households whose gross incomes are under $125,000 could manage to spend 25 percent to 30 percent of their gross income on Jewish services," the study states.

Drawing on figures from the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Study, Bubis said that an annual outlay of $18,000-$25,000 required for "intensive Jewish experiences" was beyond the means of most Jewish families. The median income of Jewish married couples with children was nearly $80,000, and for single parents with children, $51,240.

Communal experts have been warning for years that the high cost of Jewish services is holding back rates of Jewish participation. "Overall, if cost was not an issue, more people would be affiliated," said Rela Mintz Geffen, the president of Baltimore Hebrew University and a sociologist at AJC who co-wrote a 1991 study on the cost of Jewish living.

But others say that the barrier to Jewish affiliation is more complex than mere economics. That attitude is reflected in the AJC study, which discusses how the Orthodox community, "which is overwhelmingly committed to Jewish observance, no matter the cost," finds ways to make ends meet. The study discusses how families can take it upon themselves to provide some of the services, values and behaviors often provided by professionals. The study also suggests that programs can lower the barriers to involvement by making programs more attractive than they are.

Critics say that introducing other factors in a study about the cost of living Jewishly sidesteps the issue.

"It’s a mistake," said Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research. "It goes right into the trap of looking at other variables beyond the economic, and therefore clouds the economic issue."

Tobin added that pointing out the commitment of the Orthodox is "an inherent criticism of people who struggle and want to lead Jewish lives but have limited resources, and somehow they’re bad Jews."

The study also acknowledges that Jewish planners must meet American Jews on their own terms. "To make the case that the cost of Jewish living is not only economic but attitudinal is both true and pointless," writes Bubis. "The majority of Jews in America enjoy being Jewish Americans. The dreams and comforts of the ‘good life’ are entirely normative for them and cannot be ignored by Jewish leaders."

Steven Bayme, national director of the AJC’s Contemporary Jewish Life Department, also acknowledges that "the community needs to encourage Jewish choices by making them more affordable," as he writes in a foreword to the study.

However, he said, "Orthodox institutions have created models in which access to leading a Jewish life is not barred by cost. It’s not a matter of character, it is something to be learned from Orthodox institutions."

The Orthodox, Bayme said, demonstrate, privately and institutionally, what can be accomplished when Jewish education, for example, is considered a right, not a privilege. "We have two fronts: one is of ideology and values, the other is the cost of living, and I think you can’t address [Jewish] continuity by addressing one front exclusively."

Bubis, in an interview with The Journal, said he wanted to take a broader approach in looking at all the factors that go into "creating Jewish identity."

One direction his study points to is the economic utility of Jewish camping. He said that while only 7 percent of Jewish children attend a Jewish camp, studies show such experiences can be extremely effective at promoting Jewish identity. Emphasizing Jewish camping over universal Jewish education could be a much more cost- effective way of identity-building, he added.

Bubis also said the problems of affordability can be mitigated by emphasizing creative, informal ways to bring Jewish life and learning into the home.

Another option is to reach out to "mega-donors" to undertake major projects, such as Birthright Israel, which create opportunity for Jewish involvement. "Our ability to motivate [mega-donors] is not yet proven," Bubis wrote in the study.

And what can parents do in the meantime? Fiske said even though she can’t afford to send her child to day school, her daughter still has a deeply rooted knowledge of Judaism. "From our involvement in Jewish community life, we’ve been able to supplement that."

Reprinted with permission of The Forward. Additional reporting by The Jewish Journal.