“An actively engaged Jewish family that keeps kosher and sends its three school-age children to the most intensive Jewish educations can expect to spend somewhere between $50,000 and $110,000 a year at minimum just to live a Jewish life,” writes Jewish Theological Seminary professor Jack Wertheimer in this month’s Commentary magazine.
Is this a shocking statistic? Probably not for readers who are in the category of those who live an “actively engaged” Jewish life. Indeed, the expense of being Jewish may not be a surprise to anyone who has considered the costs of any segment of Jewish life, from education to food, from synagogue or Jewish center membership to federation giving, and holiday gifts, etc. The truth of the matter is that participating in Jewish life is expensive, and while this may not come as a piece of news, it does bear repeating.
How expensive has it become to live Jewish? According to a recent article in The Forward, it’s cheaper to move to Israel then try to make it as a Jew in America. The newspaper reports on the Gertz family, formerly of Passaic, N.J., who were paying tens of thousands to send four of their five children to day school. “All of our money was being dumped into the increasing cost of education and the increasing cost of health care.” So they decided that they could better afford an active Jewish life in the Jewish homeland.
The fact that Israel has become an economic haven for some American Jews is more than enough evidence that something has gone terribly wrong in terms of Jewish communal life. Wertheimer points to another problem with how the Jewish community thinks about promoting Jewish continuity. “The prevailing attitude of too many in positions of authority is that affordability is a private matter. If families want to live an observant life, they alone should bear the costs. Why privilege day-school families? Most Jewish children attend far less costly part-time Jewish schools or receive tutoring. Let those who want more pay for it themselves.”
Thankfully, having spoken to some of “those in authority” in the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, it seems clear that we don’t suffer from exactly that problem. Indeed, the local United Jewish Federation does provide some financial assistance to both day schools and religious afternoon programs.
Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of UJF, agrees that “for those who choose to ‘do Jewish’ it is daunting [to find the money to pay for everything]. Between synagogue memberships, day school or religious school, summer camps and of course a generous pledge to the federation campaign … it is a heavy burden. Part of what we do is to help subsidize the cost. We do subsidize day schools, [for example], but it still costs a lot.”
Bari Weinberger, chief financial officer of Community Day School, told me in our phone interview that the challenge many parents face when they consider sending their kids to day school is not how they will afford one year’s tuition. “It’s a nine-year commitment,” she explained. Currently, Community Day is as generous with financial aid as they can be, but they won’t commit to assisting any student beyond one year’s tuition. That means there are no guarantees that just because your child or children got a scholarship for one year’s tuition that the same will be available in subsequent years. And when tuition is over $12,000 a year, nine years for one or more children can seem just about out of reach, even with scholarships and federation support.
Finkelstein’s response to the question of funding Jewish education is to broaden the issue. “I don’t like talking just about the formal education side,” he told me. He prefers to think about how we can help to fund “formal, informal and experiential education” to serve the greatest number of Jews. Besides, he added, “We are never going to get most people to send their kids to day school.”
So are the best choices being made to ensure that the next generation of Pittsburgh Jews are as knowledgeable and committed as possible?
“The high cost of Jewish living is outrageous,” says prominent Chicago businessman George Hanus. “If the community wants to ensure that there will be another generation, then it needs to focus on reducing the costs.”
To that end, a few years ago Hanus came up with a scheme to do just that in his home community of Chicago. He wanted every American Jew to leave 5 percent of their estate to a superfund intended to cover the costs of school tuition for every Jewish kid in America. “Jewish education is a communal responsibility,” he told one interviewer. “If we say that each community is responsible to provide an education for its own children, then the entire concept changes — it’s no longer schooling just for the rich or the Orthodox.”
He has successfully established the superfund in Chicago, which raises $700,000 each year to be distributed to Jewish schools in the area. Hanus hopes Chicago will serve as a model that other cities can duplicate for their own communities.
And Pittsburgh would like to learn from that model. As Finkelstein explained, “we’ve been studying this issue and we want to launch an endowment here. We are in the early stages. We have raised millions of dollars for something called the Fund for Jewish Future. Our co-chairs are David and Cindy Shapira, and David believes that if we want a strong Jewish community we need to connect Jews to their people.”
Perhaps Pittsburgh isn’t yet willing to commit to free universal Jewish education but at least everyone can acknowledge the problem, and recognizing the problem is a first step toward solving it.
(Abby Wisse Schachter blogs at nypost.com/blogs/capitol and can be reached at email@example.com.)