The Cost of Being Jewish

How the recession affects religion.

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.

American Jews are always worrying about the fate of American Jewry, of course. Intermarriage rates, hovering around 50 percent, are perennially cited as the prime factor in Jews’ inevitable extinction; and in The New York Review of Books last month, the journalist Peter Beinart argued that unless “establishment Jewry” made room for Jewish dissent about Israel, it would wake up to find “a mass of secular Jews who range from apathetic to appalled.” But on the day-to-day level, the high cost of the basics—synagogue membership, in particular—is troubling, both outdated as a business model and onerous to families having to choose between Hebrew school and math tutoring. A 2005 study put the average yearly synagogue membership at $1,100—but in big cities, fees can be twice or even three times as much (and, anecdotally at least, higher than churches, which often depend on voluntary donations rather than dues). At the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (italics mine) on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch says dues are “consistent with everyone else’s,” about $3,100 a year. (He, like virtually all rabbis, vows never to turn someone away for an inability to pay.)

Beinart’s piece created major blogosphere buzz, but Wertheimer’s gave chills to professional Jews everywhere. It focused mostly on the plight of the Orthodox, more likely to be poor than Conservative or Reform Jews, and who, because of their strong commitment, often pay more. 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. He argued that the fate of American Jewry rested on increased and enthusiastic support from philanthropists and activists to enable these families to live, as he would say, “Jewishly.”

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.”

It would be a mistake to assume that Jewish success depends on emulating Christians. Throughout the 20th century, as Jews became prosperous, they built massive synagogues and community centers. Many looked like churches, with stained-glass windows and organ pipes; their pews were full of Jews who had, in a very real sense, nowhere else to go. The country clubs wouldn’t have them; their community, religious, and social life revolved around the temple. Today, American Jews have all kinds of choices about where to spend time and money—Jews no longer need a Jewish pool to swim in—and the buildings have become a burden. “The bills are very high,” says Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, who paid $4,000 this year in temple dues. “People need sacred spaces, but when you’re looking at budgets, you’re looking at heat and air conditioning.”

Eisen believes that money questions will force a painful transition in American Judaism. He agrees that the “middle group is in play” and so is seeking to reduce costs to families through something like corporate downsizing: making alliances across denominations, sharing spaces, rabbis, and staff. “Jews have been around for a long time,” says Eisen. “We’ll adjust.”