Does Being An American Jew Cost Too Much?

This is a guest post by Emily Cutts.
There is an old stereotype that Jews carry around gold in their pockets.  If that was true, we probably wouldn’t be in the situation Lisa Miller, Newsweek’s religion editor, says we are in. According to her recent article, it costs too much to be a Jew.
Marina Tecktiel, a first year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem agrees with Miller that the cost of being Jewish is rising. She said:

“This article shows the sad truth about American Jewry right now. Being a Reform rabbinical student, the fear of congregations shutting down, cutting down staff, hiring part time clergy, etc. is very, very strong. I have seen Rabbis that I admire a lot lose jobs because of the recession and the reorganizing that the entire Union for Reform Judaism has done.”

In the Newsweek article, Miller argues that the high cost of synagogue memberships is driving Jews to secularism. She writes that a synagogue in New York called the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue is anything but a free. A family can expect to pay $3,100 a year in membership dues. In smaller cities throughout the country families can pay over $1,000 in dues. Even more shocking is that an Orthodox family with three children could spend $50,000 to $110,000 a year in school fees, kosher food, summer camps and dues. All of these expenses lead Miller to briefly suggest that we are using the wrong sort of business model to draw in congregants.
Most churches, she states, rely on donations rather than dues. On top of that, she quotes the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, saying that while churches start their courtship of congregants with an invitation to prayer, Jewish congregations start with a conversation about dues. I cannot vouch for any congregation but if that is true, it’s sad. I used the word courtship just a few lines up and that is exactly what getting new members should be like.
Imagine this: The synagogue dating game, one searching family and three different shuls vying for their membership (and their money). If this really was like dating, the shul that brought up money on the first date would lose. And the shul that took things slowly, letting the family get to know it (and getting to know the family) would win. Like dating, shuls need to draw the families in with the wonderful things that they provide to their congregants. Only after the potential members have been wooed do you have the money talk. That way, the family is already so in love with the organization they can’t imagine leaving. Just like dating!
You keep your extreme Harry Potter love on the back burner until your partner likes you so much that it doesn’t faze them to find out that you have all seven novels tattooed on your body (all hypothetical, of course).
Membership dues aside, it is still expensive to be a practicing Jew. From Kosher food, private school tuition, summer camps, b’nai mitzvah tutors and so on. These expenses translate to all facets of Jewish life and organizations. The local Jewish community center is not exempt.
When JCCs were first established, they were really the only places that Jews could hang out together as a community, play basketball, swim, whatever. Now the greater United States (and world) has become a more integrated place and Jews can join all sorts of county clubs and gyms. It is no longer a pressing need to have a Jewish pool (something that Miller mentions) and JCC membership rosters are often dwindling. So it makes sense that their financial burden is growing, especially during this time of recession.
Few of my Jewish friends and their families belong to their local JCCs. My family doesn’t belong and, while I don’t know the exact reason, I can assume that convenience was one of the main reasons. But the JCCs aren’t the only ones in a financial bind.  Talmud Torah of St. Paul is a prime example. The school was forced to cut programming for the upcoming year after almost closing because of decreased enrollment.
Miller concludes her article with a quote from Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Eisen said we “have been around for a long time” and “we’ll adjust” and I have to believe that it is true. If we as a people can survive genocide, wars and all the terrible things that may fall upon a people, we can definitely survive some financial strife. Don’t you think?
(Photo: stuartpilbrow)