The (high) cost of living Jewishly
Anybody who shops for groceries is well aware that there’s a premium attached to kosher food.
Gerald Bubis, vice president and fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affair
At one midtown grocery store, kosher lean ground beef was nearly twice the cost of the non-kosher variety, while kosher chicken nuggets were more than double the price of an equivalent non-kosher brand, and strawberry yogurt in the kosher section was almost 100 per cent more costly than the non-kosher brand only a few aisles away.
Over the course of a year for a family of four, that can add up, but it’s likely not even the biggest premium that a Jewish lifestyle will exact.
Add on tuition fees at Jewish day schools, which start in the $10,000 to $11,000 range in kindergarten and soar to more than $18,000 for high school, then factor in Jewish summer camps, synagogue memberships, trips to Israel, club/organization memberships and donations to Jewish charities, and it starts to look like being fully involved in Jewish life is something limited to families earning at least six figures.
One researcher in the United States has put a dollar figure on the cost of living Jewishly. Gerald Bubis, vice president and fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and adjunct professor of social work at the University of Southern California, determined in 2002 that for a family with two children in day school, the economic cost for Jewish services would range between $25,000 to $35,000 (US) per year.
Given that the median income for American Jewish households at the time was $50,000, “it is clear that this figure is untenable,” he wrote. “Indeed, it is unlikely that households whose gross incomes are under $125,000 could manage to spend 25 per cent to 30 per cent of their gross income on Jewish services. After all, most families pay a mortgage, save for college, drive cars, give to other charities and even choose to go to concerts, take vacations, subscribe to magazines and the like.”
Bubis reported his findings in a report titled The Costs of Jewish Living: Revisiting Jewish Involvement and Barriers, published under the auspices of the William Petschek National Jewish Family Center of the American Jewish Committee. The $30,000 average cost included $1,100 for synagogue dues, $22,000 for two children in day school, $1,200 for day camp for two kids, $5,000 for sleepaway camp for two children, JCC dues and a federation gift of $200. Sending children to supplementary Jewish schools could substantially cut into that cost, bringing it down to the $5,000 to $8,000 range, he stated.
In a telephone interview from Los Angeles, Bubis said Canadian and American Jewish households share the same concerns about assimilation and continuity – and the cost of services that address them – although the process of assimilation is more advanced in the United States, largely because Canadian Jews are one or two generations closer to their European roots.
A native of Winnipeg who has lived most of his life in the United States, Bubis said for a Jewish family to enjoy various institutional offerings – everything from a day school education to summer camp – would now require incomes of $130,000 to $150,000 (US).
The median income for American Jewish households is currently (prior to the economic meltdown) $80,000 (US).
In Toronto, UJA Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto has recognized that parents who enrol their children in Jewish day schools are making a financial sacrifice.
“That’s why we provide tuition subsidies of nearly $8 million annually to parents who can’t afford full fees,” said spokesperson Howard English. “No other North American Federation subsidizes tuitions to this extent. In addition, UJA Federation is matching a $1 million grant from Henry and Julia Koschitzky to Toronto day schools, providing an additional $2 million to the day school system. The amount that a school receives is based on the number of subsidized students enrolled at the school.”
Altogether, federation commits $14 million per year to education, “the largest allocation of any North American Jewish federation,” English said. That “signifies a deep commitment to assisting day school parents, an incentive for parents to choose a Jewish education for their children and an investment in a thriving future for our Jewish community. The funds that we have set aside for Jewish education represent roughly 35 per cent of our domestic allocations. It’s the largest single domestic allocation in our budget.
“The connection between Jewish education, Jewish identification and involvement in Jewish life is indisputable. Jewish education anchors a healthy Jewish community,” he said.
In his U.S. research, Bubis found that only about 25 per cent of higher income families send their children to day schools, and fewer than 10 per cent in all income brackets attend day schools. Fewer than 10 per cent of children attend Jewish-sponsored camps.
While the full panoply of services is out of the price range of the median-income family, “of those who can afford it, most choose not to use those services,” he said. “If they choose private school, they choose a non-Jewish private school.”
Bubis agreed that affordability is a problem for many families, but subsidies aimed at correcting that create their own problems. If the number of children increased thanks to community allocations, that would mean a greater need for buildings, staff and other infrastructure investments, making the cost balloon even more, he said.
“It’s a very complicated issue,” he added.
Bubis suggested another way of looking at continuity and Jewish identity besides cost. As he sees it, it comes down to determining whether the community wants to promote Jewish knowledge – the ability to parse text, analyze commentaries and speak Hebrew – or promote Jewish identity – the identification with the Jewish people, history, culture and Israel.
Many of the “external appurtenances” of Jewish life are not particularly expensive, he said.
Jewish artwork, mezuzahs on doors, Jewish books, magazines and newspapers are within reach of most families. Parents concerned about instilling a Jewish identity, if not Jewish knowledge, can do so outside the day school system, he suggested. There are youth groups, camp experiences, trips to Israel, supper table talk, marking events in the Jewish calendar, that are much less costly.
But, based on his study of American Jews, “with all the availability of these less expensive things, most Jews don’t take advantage of it,” Bubis said.
Even for the most expensive item, the relatively low participation numbers in day schools point to a lack of interest more than affordability. “Of those who can afford it, most choose not to use those services. If they choose private school, they’ll choose a non-Jewish private school,” he said. “People make choices not connected with money.”
Rabbi Charles Grysman, spiritual leader of Zichron Yisroel Congregation of Associated Hebrew Schools, agrees with Bubis, up to a point. Rabbi Grysman, who is also a native Winnipegger said, “I have encountered people who have chosen not to give their children a Jewish education because it related to issues of lifestyle. Sometimes it’s not affordable… For some, it’s lower on the priority list,” he said.
“The financial stress in Toronto is 10 times greater than anywhere else,” he added, pointing to the absence of government funding for religious schools.
Rabbi Grysman noted that some who might qualify for a community subsidy cringe at the thought of having their entire financial situation picked over with a fine-toothed comb. Some see it as a kind of “humiliation.”
But even on the less-costly aspects of Jewish life, such as eating kosher food, he said he has found that “peripherally identified Jews will forego kashrut because of costs.”
In the end, it’s “an issue of priorities,” he said.
While the U.S. and Canadian situations are different, Bubis said Canada will soon emulate the American experience.
Focusing on making a Jewish lifestyle “a desirable choice for those who can afford it” is key for the community, along with helping those who can’t afford it, he added.
“Everybody today is a Jew by choice,” Rabbi Grysman said. If the key issue is one of continuity and identification, these can be addressed in new ways that appeal to today’s young people.Jewish television shows [his son is involved with the Jewish Television Network, a non-profit, Los Angeles-based multimedia provider], music and literature are ways of building that identity, while employing new technology such as e-mail, Facebook and other Internet applications are ways of delivering it, he said.
A lecture series at the local JCC can attract perhaps 400 people. On the Web, thousands could tune in. In the United States, more than 20 million people watched a PBS show that featured prominent American Jews talking about being Jewish and dealing with the temptations of assimilation. The Jewish Television Network’s programs are carried by more than 90 PBS affiliates nationwide and reach 80 million American homes.
“Until the Jewish community tries new technology, using old tools for the new world won’t work,” Rabbi Grysman said. “Unless the new ways are used, it won’t resonate with young people.”