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?
Great conversation . . .
I’m curious what you also think about the costs for a single person, who doesn’t have children . . .
and/or whether there are emotional “costs” as well for families that aren’t two male/female parents with school-age children . . .
I also challenge the claim that anyone who isn’t affiliated is “secular” . . . I think there are likely many Jewish folks in the world who are committed Jews who for a variety of reasons have chosen not to affiliate. Your thoughts on that?
I think that there are definitely costs for a single person. I think that while financially it may be less expensive (no kids to put through summer camp or private school) it doesn’t mean that it isn’t emotionally taxing. I think that single people may feel more pressure from the community around them to get married and have children. When I use the term family, I don’t mean a mom, dad and two children. I mean family as group of people who love each other, married or not. Thus, all families have costs.
Here’s the link to the original article:
The online summaries don’t do it justice. It’s interesting but too preachy. Sanctimonious types, who say you have to go to day school or jewish summer camp or Israel to be committed or connected, turn me off. Same for high holiday tickets. WTF is reserved for “religious” jews who go to a kasher l’pesach resort for passover – did they forget the “meaning” of the holiday??
Jewish education is a good way to grow jewish adults, but it is no substitute to living a jewish family life in your home. I see too many young adults who are handed too much without earning it and consequently do not appreciate what they have. Giving of yourself to jewish causes says more about you than money does.
Amy said: I also challenge the claim that anyone who isn’t affiliated is “secular” . . . I think there are likely many Jewish folks in the world who are committed Jews who for a variety of reasons have chosen not to affiliate. Your thoughts on that?
I couldn’t agree more. Worship and prayer happen all the time without paying dues for the privilege. And while participation is down in paid memberships in mainstream organizations, there are so many new ways and spaces in which to be Jewish and build Jewish community that I’m still optimistic.
This is indeed a critical discussion, and one I plan to address during these upcoming High Holidays in a sermon.
I am interested to hear from others both 1) How the high cost of Jewish affiliation has limited your participation; and 2) What productive solutions you have found that has allowed for connection.
I would like to use these examples to inform my thoughts for the sermon. (If I use specifics, I will not use any names or personal details.)
Thanks very much.
Temple dues are only the beginning of the costs. The other parts include the Jewish Community Center and then Jewish Federation, or whatever name it is going by now, any other Jewish Agencies and then Isreal. How does a child from working family gain entrance into the Jewish community.
This strawman works and does not have the availablity to meet with the director or committee member to defend the ascertion that his family cannot afford the price asked. Pride and dignity may prevent this strawman from asking, and elect to be unaffiliated.
But let us look to the future. The number of affiliated Jews (or Jews by Choice) is declining. A declining population does not need more Rabbis, more Cantors and more Jewish educators. As demand declines we need a mechanism to reduce the output of people with this training and reduce the size of the mechanism that produces them. Yes, this is an argument for smaller seminary classes. This would be a step to reduce the burdensome overhead.