At this point I am basically waiting for a barn burner focusing on the relatively new religion known as Judaism that is gaining ground and has even spawned a splinter religion called Christianity. The MSM seems to be that out of touch with developments in the American Jewish community. Earlier this month I pointed out the Jewish intermarriage story from the Detroit Free Press; that was only a few decades late. Today we get to see that even members of the American Jewish community -- in this case, Newsweek's Lisa Miller -- seem to be lost in the wilderness when it comes to Jewish trends.
It sounds like a Catskills-era joke with a Jewish lawyer in the punchline, but among Jewish leaders it's deadly serious. Why does it cost so much to be Jewish? At a time when American families are tightening household budgets, does it really make sense to continue to charge thousands of dollars to participate in Jewish life? "Sheer institutional survival now preoccupies the heads of Jewish institutions," wrote Jack Wertheimer in Commentary in March.
On the one hand, Wertheimer's comment is very, very true. Jewish institutions have lost their relevance. This has many shaken to the core -- and those that aren't, should be.
On the other hand, this is not news. It's been a real phenomenon for several years now. Even using the economic crisis as a news peg is overdue. I did that in November of 2008 (albeit for a Jewish newspaper). The focus of that story really was the downward pressure of the economy on Jewish life and charities. I only briefly referenced how expensive it was to live Jewishly. I expected more from Miller, whose article ran under the headline "The cost of being Jewish."
She mentions the exorbitant annual dues at one synagogue and that:
According to his calculations, an Orthodox Jewish family with three children could expect to spend between $50,000 and $110,000 a year on school fees, synagogue dues, summer camps, and kosher food.
What about non-Orthodox families? Is being part of the community still expensive for secular Jews? Why is kosher food so expensive? And how do synagogue dues compare to the cost of tithing?
She doesn't say. Instead, Miller quickly transitions the article -- I can't tell if it was intended to be news or opinion -- into the latter.
I would argue otherwise. In 2008, 2.7 million Americans called themselves religiously Jewish, down from 3.1 million in 1990. Wouldn't the central challenge of American Jewry be to encourage the broadest range of people (including the intermarried, like me) to identify as Jewish and to raise Jewish kids? Costly barriers to entry need to be taken away, or, at least, reimagined. "We have this very bizarre pay-to-play philosophy," says Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Christian churches, Sanderson points out, begin with an invitation to prayer; they ask for money later. "The Jewish community's first instinct is 'give us money,' instead of 'come in.'" Sanderson points to the wild success of the Chabad movement, the black-clad proselytizers who stand on street corners worldwide, extending invitations to Jewish passersby. Come pray with us, they say; come eat with us. "Chabad," says Sanderson, "is working on the Christian model."
I'm not sure what I think of Miller's description of Chabadniks, but that's a great quote. Such candor is a reason I always enjoyed speaking with Sanderson. But it doesn't really go to the high cost of living Jewishly as much as it goes to the high cost of being involved with Jewish organizations.
At least Miller's article ends a strong note. It's one I used in a story about the toll the pre-Madoff economy was taking on Jewish non-profits. In short: Jews have faced hard times before -- they'll survive.
And Jewish institutions, at least those that remain relevant, will too. But that really doesn't answer the question of why being Jewish can be so expensive and whether it's worth it.
PHOTO: A tzedakah box from Judaica Universe.