I’m spending a year in Israel, a country in which you can have a low-income job and still afford to live in a Jewish community. As my husband and I are looking for housing in America close to Jewish day schools for our children and a synagogue for our communal life, we’re finding that we can’t afford any of the homes. I was checking out a certain town in New Jersey and found that the synagogue is only within walking distance of multi-million dollar homes. Million!
To raise your kids as strong Jews in America is an extremely expensive endeavor. If we want our kids to speak the language of their people and be literate in their own history and culture, we won’t only have to find housing, but also how to pay for Jewish day school that can cost as much as college. On top of that, kosher meat is twice as expensive as non-kosher meat, leading my own family to embrace a more vegetarian style. Synagogue membership is a couple thousand dollars and Jewish camp cost thousands a summer. Many Jews don’t visit Israel, their homeland, because they can’t afford it. One orthodox father anonymously reported his success in affording “being Jewish” with under $40,000 a year — but not every family can afford even this amount. Before his recent undertaking, he had been spending $150,000 a year!
One solution? Move to Israel, where Jewish education is free and the cost of camps is negligible. Or move away from the Jewish community and give your kids a mediocre Jewish education, where your grandkids will likely be posing in front of a Christmas tree.
How did this happen? And how can we reverse it?
We need to realize that the future of our children depends far more on education than on a synagogue building. We should be building schools, community centers and camps rather than elaborate places to pray once a week.
A place to gather daily and get educated should come first — not a building that most people only use once a week.
A community school building could then double as a place to hold Shabbat services and weekday minyanim. This would restructure our community around our daily lives — the place our kids go to school, do after-school activities, have before or after-school daycare, where I might work-out daily and where minyanim all gather to pray could all be the same place. We should eliminate “pay to pray,” and our services should be open to everyone. In the summer, a day camp can be run out of the building. The big multipurpose room could serve as a prayer space on Saturday mornings, like it does for Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun at the Ramaz School in Manhattan, or like it does in the Katz Yeshiva High School in Boca Raton, Florida. In short, our buildings need to meet the needs of providing both community and education.
We also need to let go of our barriers within smaller communities. We should have different minyanim within the same a building, all building community together. Why must Orthodox, Reform and Conservative groups always be separate? While they may not agree on how to lead prayer services, community events should include everyone. A Lag B’omer bonfire could turn into an opportunity for building community — just make sure the marshmallows have reliable kosher certification! A Purim party after separate megillah readings can be combined, and many educational lectures and discussions can be combined. Yes, it will take compromise and respect. The kitchen may have to be supervised and a sign might need to be posted asking that community members refrain from touching the light switches during Shabbat. However, I think it’s worth it in order to repair fractured smaller communities.
If you want an affordable Jewish life, quite frankly, at present, there are only three real options: move to Israel, accept that your grandkids may not be raised Jewish or individually and communally figure out why being Jewish is important to us. Then, start the hard work of rebuilding our communities to make Jewish education a standard, not a luxury.