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The challenge of the Jewish middle class

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THE CJN PHOTO
THE CJN PHOTO

They’re not considered low-income, but a growing number of families are finding that Jewish communal life is a luxury they can’t afford


Leila (not her real name) and her husband are working professionals in their 30s. They live in Toronto with their two young children, and, according to Leila, the couple would likely be classified as being on the “higher end of middle-income.”

And yet she says that although sending one child, their oldest, to Jewish day school has been “semi-manageable” thus far, sending both kids simply won’t be feasible.

Leila and her husband applied for a tuition subsidy at their son’s day school, but they were considered too high-income.

“We’re left with these choices: do we pull our older kid out after Grade 4 so the younger one can have the same opportunity and go to day school for a few years or do we throw the baby out with the bathwater and drop Jewish day school altogether for both, or do we sell our house, move somewhere cheaper and try to send both kids to day school?” Leila wondered, before adding resolutely, “But that’s not going to happen. It’s not worth that much to me.”

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Of those in her peer group, she noted, “Everyone I know is pretty much in the same boat… and most of us see Jewish high school as completely out of reach, as the tuition jumps significantly.”

Leila and her family are among a growing number of Jews across Canada who have never been considered – or have considered themselves – low-income, but say they’re increasingly finding that participation in Jewish communal life is a luxury they can’t afford.

Many of them are squarely middle-class according to benchmarks set by Statistics Canada, but others are, by all other standards, considered to be among Canada’s most affluent people.

Daniel Held articulated this phenomenon in a way that likely resonates for many people like Leila: “A lot of middle-income Jewish Canadian families… are givers in the rest of their lives – they pay synagogue membership, make donations to Jewish federations and other charities, etc., but, because of the cost of day school, they are forced, often for the first time, to ask for help. That transition from giver to asker is really hard.”

Held is executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s educational pillar. He said it’s part of his job to “look at who’s under-engaged in Jewish life, at who, even if their incomes surpass what Statistics Canada classifies as median, isn’t able to have a fully robust Jewish life.”

Indeed, Statistics Canada data from 2013 reported the median total income in Canada as $22,800 for a single person and $76,550 for families consisting of a married or common-law couple living at the same address (with or without children) and single-parent families with at least one child.

“Say you’re making that $76,000 in income and want to belong to a synagogue, send your kids to Jewish day school and Jewish camp and buy housing in a Jewish neighbourhood – you won’t be able to do all that without support from the community. Even someone who makes $120,000 is going to have trouble doing all that without some kind of support,” Held said.

He emphasized that the Jewish community needs to do more to make services such as Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp more available to those who, while not considered low-income, face barriers to access.

UJA Federation offers subsidies and scholarships to low-income families for day school, supplementary Jewish school and Jewish summer camp, Held said, but over the past decade in Toronto, flatlining household incomes have converged with rising housing prices and day school costs to produce a situation in which many Jews earning incomes well above those defined as low are struggling to participate in Jewish life.

“A key part of the Koschitzky Centre’s strategic plan for the next five years is to develop interventions to help middle-income families afford Jewish day school, and we need to do that same work across all areas of Jewish life,” Held stressed.

On June 14, the centre announced its new Tuition Cap Pilot Program for the upcoming school year, part of efforts to increase the long-term affordability of day school education for middle-income families.

Parents with children at two pilot elementary schools and an annual household income of between $150,000 and $300,000 are eligible for a family tuition cap tied to a percentage of their income.

The problem of accessibility is by no means restricted to Canada’s largest city.

READ: WE MUST MAKE DAY SCHOOL AFFORDABLE FOR THE MIDDLE CLASS

Across the country, people who are neither among the Jewish community’s top earners nor struggling to make ends meet say they feel increasingly squeezed when it comes to affording the cost of Jewish life.

Most troubling is that even Jewish households with incomes that rank among the highest in Canada – and would almost certainly fall outside the eligibility requirements for financial subsidies – are more and more feeling they must choose between expenses such as day school, Jewish summer camp and paying a premium to live in neighbourhoods with Jewish amenities.

A cross-country report published in 2015 by the publication MoneySense, called the All-Canadian Wealth Test, divided the population into five groups according to annual incomes for unattached individuals and families of two or more people.

The report categorized 20 per cent of the population as middle income if they earned between $23,000 and $36,000 for unattached individuals, and between $61,000 and $88,000 for families.

The “upper-middle” range includes those making from $36,000 to $55,000 for individuals and between $88,000 and $125,000 for families, while those in the highest 20 per cent range earned about $55,000 and up for individuals and $125,000 and up for families.

Studies on Jewish Canadian incomes have generally focused on what’s often termed the “Jewish poor,” and a 2011 study conducted by researcher Charles Shahar and commissioned by Jewish Federations of Canada – UIA found that just over 14 per cent of Jews in Canada live below the poverty line.

While it’s unclear how many Canadian Jews would be classified as middle-income, Stuart Schoenfeld, a retired York University sociologist who’s studied the Canadian Jewish community, noted, “There are likely different perceptions of what’s middle class in the Jewish community as opposed to the regular population, since the Jewish community has, on average, higher incomes than the rest of the Canadian population.”

Leah Berger is a senior planner in the strategic planning and community relations department at Federation CJA in Montreal, a city with higher overall poverty rates than other major cities in Canada, both among Jews and non-Jews.

Federation CJA has long provided tuition assistance to low-income families who want to send their children to day schools, Berger said, but only in recent years has the organization created a targeted initiative to address financial barriers for middle-income earners.

Four years ago, it launched the Generations Fund, an endowment that’s raised close to $70 million and includes the CAPS Program, which makes day school more affordable through tuition ceilings for families with gross household incomes ranging from $75,000 to $195,000.

The fund also encompasses the CAMPS program, which provides grants to subsidize Jewish overnight camp fees.

“To ensure the continued vibrancy of the Jewish community, we have to make sure things are affordable,” Berger said.

In Vancouver, the Jewish community is facing a challenge that’s directly tied to the city’s skyrocketing housing prices.

Ezra Shanken, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, cited results from the federal government’s 2011 National Household Survey, which found that close to 50 per cent of Vancouver-area Jews live outside the city proper.

More and more Jewish families can’t afford to live in the city, he explained, and in moving to areas outside Vancouver, they must “sacrifice Jewish community life.”

For those who can afford Vancouver housing, participation in Jewish programming can be difficult: 54 per cent of students attending a Vancouver Jewish day school are currently subsidized, Shanken said.

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He stressed that in the past five to 10 years, applications for scholarships and financial aid have shot up.

“These asks are not just from people at the bottom of the bottom, but people at the top of the middle [class]… I’ve seen scholarship applications from a family of two doctors. That’s scary,” he said.

The Vancouver federation is responding with its newly formed Regional Communities Taskforce, which is starting its work by assessing the needs of Jews in municipalities around Vancouver and will proceed from there to explore outreach strategies.

“Land is at such a premium here. We have a few small agencies operating in some regional areas, but we haven’t yet gotten to the point of talking about whether [building] bricks and mortar [institutions] in these places is really the answer,” Shanken said.

Rachel (not her real name) is a 20-something single professional in Vancouver who considers herself middle-income.

Though she doesn’t necessarily see money as a barrier to her participation in Jewish communal life at the moment – “probably because there are other barriers that are likelier to inhibit my participation prior to the finance piece, such as interest, time, etc.” – she said that if she ever has children, she would like to be able to send them to Jewish summer camp, and possibly also to day school.

But the high cost of living in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland is worrisome as she looks to the future.

“I absolutely feel that finances could present a barrier to one or both of these,” she said.

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  • Blcarey

    This was exactly our situation when we lived in Toronto. It really didn’t matter how much money we made, most of our net income went to schools, shuls, transportation and food. The only way we were able to deal with this was by finding the cheapest possible accommodation costs within a “Jewish” area. I believe that when your tuition bill far exceeds your occupancy costs, there is a structural problem in the system and until that gets figured out, the “Jewish middle class” and the day school system will suffer. Non-jews who send their kids to private school pay a lot more than for Jewish Day Schools, but they also have higher household incomes (otherwise they’d send their kids to public school).