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The High Cost of Jewish Living in America

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Oct 22 2008
Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, lived around 1800 BCE, according to Jewish tradition. The Jewish people have managed to survive, against great odds, for almost four thousand years. Today it is estimated that there are about 15 million Jews in the world. Given our old age and our small size, it is no wonder that Jews are continually focused on ways to ensure their future survival.

Past obstacles to Jewish survival have included war, exile, forced conversions, discrimination, slave labor, pograms and death camps. Today's greatest obstacle to Jewish survival, particularly in America, is assimilation.

There are approximately 6 million Jews in the United States. Intermarriage, which has been occurring at a rate of approximately 52% in America according to a 1990 survey, is both a cause and effect of assimilation. Money, or lack of it, is another reason that some American Jews are choosing to become less affiliated or even completely unaffiliated with their Jewish heritage.

The Expense

In 2002, Professor Gerald Bubis, Founder and Professor Emeritus of the School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, researched the cost of Jewish living in conjunction with the American Jewish Committee. Professor Gerald Bubis estimated that American Jewish families today require $25-$35,000 a year of discretionary income for intensive Jewish experiences. Intensive Jewish experiences refers to synagogue membership, Jewish Center membership, Jewish day school and camp experiences, Federation donations, kosher food and more.

Bubis estimated average costs for an American Jewish family with two school-age and camp-age children:
  • Synagogue Membership = $1,100
  • Day School (two children) = $22,000
  • Day Camp (two weeks, two children) = $1,200
  • Resident Camp (one month, two children) = $5,000
  • Jewish Community Center = $500
  • Minimal Federation gift = $200
  • Total (not including cost of kosher food) = $30,000
Costs of Jewish living can be lowered dramatically by sending children to after-school programs instead of day school programs. Jack Wertheimer's study of Jewish Education in the late 1990's found that out of approximately 1.1 million Jewish children in America, about 180,000 attend day schools and 260,000 attend after-school programs.

Costs of Jewish living can be increased dramatically if there are more than two children in the family.

Living a Jewish life in America also requires living in an urban center with other Jews so that local Jewish institutions can be supported. Only about 5% of American Jews live in small towns or rural areas.

For some American Jews, finding a home in a neighborhood in which other Jews live and in which there is a synagogue can also add to the cost of living Jewishly in America.

The Income

The 1990 National Jewish Population Study found that the median (50% are above and 50% are below this point) income of American Jewish families with two children is $75-80,000 a year.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that living Jewishly in America is expensive.

There are two groups of "buyers" of intensive Jewish experiences: 1) those who put such great value on Jewish living that they are will make the sacrifices necessary to afford it no matter what their level of income, and 2) those who are so well-off financially that the costs do not require signficant sacrifices.

Orthodox Jews in America, comprising about 10% of American Jewry, have accumulated less wealth and earn less money than other non-orthodox American Jews. Nevertheless, orthodox Jews in America send their children to Jewish schools (and they have large families), pay synagogue fees and keep kosher. It is estimated that orthodox Jews in America spend 25-35% of their income on Jewish experiences. This leaves them less income for housing, cars, clothes and savings. Orthodox Jews are willing to make these sacrifices because they place great value on Jewish living. Orthodox leaders and institutions have succeeded to find ways to help make Jewish education affordable to those in their community.

For the other 90% of non-orthodox American Jews, cost can be a barrier to Jewish experiences. The high cost of Jewish living imposes the greatest burden on those families whose income is low, but not quite low enough to qualify them for income support (such as scholarships). Families who earn between $60-125,000 a year are the hardest hit by the high cost of Jewish living in America. Unlike in orthodox Jewish communities, Jewish institutions in non-orthodox Jewish communities have not found ways to make Jewish education affordable to all who want it.

It is the "potential buyers" of intensive Jewish experiences that needs to be the center of focus of Jewish communities that strive to fight assimilation and achieve Jewish continuity. Using a business model, this group can either be reached by finding ways to lower the costs of intensive Jewish experiences for them (such as Birthright Israel trips) or finding ways to raise the value of Jewish living in their eyes (via adult Jewish education).
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