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The high cost of being Jewish
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The high cost of being Jewish

For struggling families, "affiliation" can seem like a luxury they can't afford

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I know this subject brings out strong emotions within the Jewish community, so I’m hesitant to write about the high cost of being Jewish. But I have a unique perspective on the matter — I can see the costs of Jewish life both through the lens of being financially well-off and where I am now since my divorce — much less well-off.

My feelings crystallized this year during the High Holidays, with the “good” seats in the sanctuary sold to full dues-paying members for $150 a seat and the aliyot to open the ark, bless the Torah and carry the Torah are auctioned off every year (although this year some were quite affordable, starting at $36; others started at $500). The Book of Honors lists whom the aliyot are honoring and who paid for that honor. Even the choice parking spots in our small parking lot are a fund-raising opportunity — full dues-paying congregants can buy a spot for $150 and have it reserved with their name on it. To be fair, the synagogue adds additional handicapped parking and also opens up a big field on the property for parking.

My overall feeling was that the High Holidays have become monetized in a very public fashion.

Even when I was married and my husband was earning a good income, it felt vaguely wrong. Wrong enough that one year I bought a seat in the sanctuary for a family friend who wouldn’t have been able to buy it for herself. But I swore the office manager to secrecy so the gift could be anonymous (after all, it was Maimonides who said that anonymous giving is one of the “higher” levels of charity).

I say this knowing full well I can be called a hypocrite. The additional fundraising during the High Holidays allows the synagogue to cover the costs that dues don’t pay for because there’s almost always a gap in income received from dues and operating and capital expenditures. For most of my childhood, my mother was the financial manager for our temple in New Jersey. I grew up hearing, “The temple is a business; it’s in the business of religion.” By the time I became a bat mitzvah, I knew that temple had a mortgage, utility bills, salaries and a leaky roof. All these things needed to be paid, and dues don’t cover all the costs.

Synagogue dues have received a lot of attention recently as some synagogues move to a dues-free model, opening the door to conversations about how dues should be structured, or even if there needs to be a formal dues structure at all. I think for the time being, most synagogues will stick with formal dues, although I’m lucky that my synagogue also has “single parent” dues.

But raising children Jewishly and living Jewishly does cost a lot of money. My kids, Hannah and Daniel, attended Jewish preschools wherever we’ve lived. This was a big luxury for me, as my husband at the time traveled extensively for work so the mornings the kids were in preschool were a very welcome break for me. I knew then and know now that the kids were lucky to be able to attend.

They’ve also attended day camp at the local JCC and Jewish overnight camp. Hannah is on the board of our USY chapter, so I just paid $300 for her to go to the fall convention (and yes, she’s super excited to go). I know that financial aid is available for camp, youth group and even for preschool. But I have to ask for it, and that means sharing tax returns, pay stubs and the finances of my divorce, all of which are deeply personal. I’m also partially disabled, so I am unable to work full-time, which always raises a few eyebrows. I have to explain to overnight camps that my local federation does not have aid for overnight camp, and no, there are no extended family members that would be willing to help defray the costs. Trust me, these are not easy conversations to have.

The bar and bat mitzvah — a joyful milestone when it’s reached — can be very costly. There’s the cost of Hebrew school and the additional cost of the tutors. Both kids’ tutors were worth every penny, but it was money that I could hardly afford to let go of, especially in the middle of my divorce when my bank accounts were essentially frozen until the finances were sorted out. And then you have to pay for the Friday night oneg and Saturday afternoon kiddush, traditionally paid for by the family of the bar/bat mitzvah child.

And the list keeps growing. While Hannah and David are currently in a private secular school due to a very generous financial aid package that makes it possible for them to attend, other families pay $18,000-$20,000 a year per child for Jewish day school.

I am incredibly grateful that my synagogue has a “single parent” dues plan so I don’t have to ask. I am grateful to the many generous people in my community who make Jewish life possible and wonderful. I’ve been told to “get over it” and to “make being Jewish a priority.” Both are probably true. I could develop a thicker skin, and I’d like to believe I’ve made Jewish life a priority for my family. But my mortgage, utilities and medical bills are also a priority. It shouldn’t be an “either-or” and for too many families, it is.

I don’t know what the solution is. But I know we as a community will never find a solution if we aren’t willing to talk about it openly and honestly, whether you’re a “have” or a “have-not.”

Kveller is a thriving community of women and parents who convene online to share, celebrate and commiserate their experiences of raising kids through a Jewish lens. Visit Kveller.com.

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