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Saturday, October 25, 2014

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Are we buckling under high cost of Jewish life?

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This painting of a watchmaker in Vitebesk by Yuri Pen, 1914, captures a time in Jewish history when the cost of communal Jewish life was much easier to bear. [Wikimedia Commons]

Those of us who have been vocal in promoting fair funding for Ontario Jewish day schools must ask ourselves: how effective have we been? Although there have been small gains, such as a trickle of funding for special needs cases, and although UJA Federation of Greater Toronto allocates a greater percentage toward day school funding than any other Jewish federation in North America, tuition fees continue to rise beyond the rate of inflation, more parents are feeling excluded, and increasing numbers of those earning otherwise comfortable incomes are feeling their lifestyle being significantly constricted due to the cost of educating their children.

Although the tuition crisis is well known by our communal leaders, our efforts have not resulted in any significant effort or action on the federation’s part to help solve the problem. This may be due to a lack of activism by the community at large on this issue. Some in the community are not supportive of the issue at all. Others who do not feel the pain themselves may not see the issue in the broader sense as a barometer of the health of our community. Vested political interests within the community’s leadership may have also militated against stronger action to solve the problem. In any case, the tuition crisis remains and continues to eat away at the well-being of the community at large.

In this context, it’s worthwhile to ponder whether the possible closure of The CJN – and we have no definitive news at this juncture that the closure will be reversed – is an isolated incident or is indicative of a small but growing trend within the Ontario Jewish community. Over the past years, we have witnessed the following:

• The closure of several full-service kosher restaurants in the GTA. As was noted by the proprietors of one of the long-standing restaurants that recently closed, those who are not fully committed to kashrut no longer necessarily choose a kosher restaurant as an option, whereas kashrut observers are feeling the increasing pinch of the tuition crisis have cut back on eating out.

• A Jewish community centre that has been torn down, but whose reconstruction has been delayed for many years.

• Empty pews in many of our larger synagogues. Some of this is due to an increased search for the spirituality and intimacy of smaller shtiblach. However, some of it very well may be due to families cutting back on expenses, including high synagogue dues, because they’re burdened by the tuition crisis.

• A trend in some segments of the Orthodox community for the younger generation to balk at setting down roots in Toronto due to the high cost of living here. When this trend works in favour of Israel, it is commendable, but when it works in favour of Baltimore and Lakewood, N.J., it may be indicative of an unhealthy trend in the community.

When factored together, we may have evidence that our community is beginning to buckle under the high cost of Jewish life, much of which is caused by the tuition crisis. Although our community is graced with many people of substantial means and the communal services, charitable causes and other trappings of a vibrant Jewish life seem to be running smoothly, it could be that we are witnessing a community that has seen its peak, and will slowly begin to implode under the extreme costs of Jewish living. This is not unique to Toronto. As a simple Internet search will verify, this concern has been noted in other communities as well.

It’s time for our community to do some serious thinking at all levels on this subject.

Have we engaged the political process in the most appropriate way? Do we appreciate the current trends and challenges of the community, or are we stuck in the mindset of previous decades? Are we, as individuals and as a community, allocating too great a proportion of our charitable funds to causes outside the community or to non-Jewish causes within the community? Of course, we cannot think only of our own parochial issues, but perhaps we are slowly reaching the point where the shoemaker has no shoes and a correction in priorities is due.

Our community may be admirably fulfilling the adage of the sage, Hillel: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” However, it may be time to ask ourselves the second part of Hillel’s famous iteration: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” And we should certainly ask, “If not now, when?”

Jerrold Landau lives in Toronto.

 

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