As the Jewish community continues to debate strategies as to how best to secure its future continuity, one critical question relates to the cost and affordability of Jewish communal programming and services. To be sure, some argue that cost is simply not a factor-Jews will choose the highest-quality programming regardless of price. Such advocates point out that American Jewry easily comprises the most affluent Jewish community in history, and that Jewish parents continue to choose highly expensive options for the welfare of their children, e.g., insistence upon quality higher education.

Such thinking, however, appears shortsighted in several respects. First, higher education generally is a route to upward economic mobility, and so many parents approach it as an investment critical to long-term professional success. The same cannot be said of Jewish education, trips to Israel, or summer camping. Secondly, while Jews certainly wish to make choices on the basis of quality, not everyone can opt for expensive choices. Single-parent or multi-child homes may, of necessity, limit the choices that Jewish parents can make. These subgroups naturally form the appropriate targets for Jewish social policy initiatives to make intensive Jewish experiences available to a broader cross section of American Jews.

Moreover, beyond the fact that not all Jews have the discretionary income necessary for intensive Jewish experiences, two additional considerations mandate paying heed to the cost of Jewish living. First, assuming that the issue is one of making Jewish choices compelling, are we not in turn punishing those most committed to leading a creative Jewish life? In other words, when Jews do opt to enhance the Jewishness quotient of their lives, they may be making considerable financial sacrifices to afford such experiences and should not be penalized for making "Jewish" choices. Secondly, still others may refrain from considering enhanced Jewish living because of an unwillingness to make the required financial sacrifice.

In short, the communal debate as to whether cost or the values we live by form the critical ingredient in Jewish involvement is by no means clear-cut. Without question, Jews, like other Americans, make choices every day buying a car, choosing a residence, selecting schooling, taking vacations, etc.-and, for many, the question is what Jewish experiences are worth to them when compared with other perfectly desirable items, e.g., owning a luxury vehicle. Yet not all Jews fit the upscale economic profile, and the community needs to encourage Jewish choices by making them more affordable. This is especially true given continuing communal opposition to governmental assistance to sectarian Jewish services. In other words, assuming continued Jewish communal opposition to governmental vouchers or tuition tax credits-and there are certainly good reasons for maintaining traditional church-state separation on this score-the Jewish communal treasury rightly needs to be challenged to ensure that Jewish living remains affordable for all.

A useful model may be drawn from the experience of Orthodox Jewry. Orthodox Jews are by no means more affluent than other Jews and often have larger families. Yet precisely because Orthodox Jews consider Jewish education a nonnegotiable issue, Orthodox leaders and institutions have established the principle that Jewish education is the right of all Jews rather than a privilege, and no Jew should be barred access to quality Jewish education for reasons of expense. Similar models need to be created within non-Orthodox institutions so as to secure a more committed, vibrant, and intensively involved Jewish community.

Ten years ago the American Jewish Committee first raised the issue of cost in a paper by Aryeh Meir and Lisa Hostein, in turn based upon an earlier Philadelphia communal study. Although now outdated in its cost estimates, The High Cost of Jewish Living by Meir and Hostein (1992) did help to break the barrier of silence within the Jewish community concerning affordability of Jewish services. Professor Jerry Bubis, founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service of Hebrew Union College and a long-term observer of Jewish life, here revisits this topic after a decade of communal preoccupation with "Jewish continuity." Bubis estimates that today's Jewish families require $25-$35,000 of discretionary income for intensive Jewish experiences-a sum often beyond the reach even of upper-middle-class Jewish homes. The cost of Jewish living (which might include, for example, synagogue dues, Federation donations, day school and summer camp tuition, and the premium paid for kosher meat) may make moderate- and low-income households feel that the Jewish community is neither affordable nor welcoming. Moreover, Bubis suggests several possible avenues for communal social policy designed to lower financial costs per family.

To be sure, there remains considerable truth to the view that money is by no means the critical obstacle in Jewish life, so much as the paucity of compelling ideas to make Jewish living worthwhile. Therefore, in the final analysis, we need to devote communal attention to two very different but overlapping fronts-lowering the cost for those prepared to make Jewish choices and enhancing the attractiveness of those choices to make Jewish life more compelling.

Steven Bayme, Ph.D.
National Director, Contemporary Jewish Life Department
The American Jewish Committee


The William Petschek National Jewish Family Center

The William Petschek National Jewish Family Center was created by the American Jewish Committee in 1979 as an expression of its commitment to the family as the indispensable social institution for maintaining and enhancing Jewish identity, communal stability, and human fulfillment. Its goal is to promote research on family problems, help clarify family values, and stimulate the development of innovative programs to help meet the needs of parents, would-be parents, and their children. It also strives to encourage an awareness and responsiveness to those needs in the Jewish and general community.


Biography of Gerald B. Bubis

Gerald B. Bubis is the founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service and Alfred Gottschalk Professor Emeritus of Jewish Communal Stud-ies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, where he taught from 1968 to 1989. Currently he is vice chair and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as adjunct professor of social work at the University of Southern California and as visiting faculty for the United Jewish Community's continuing education program and the Wexner Graduate Fellows Program. He did his graduate work in social work at the University of Minnesota. Before entering academia, he served in executive positions in camps, Hillel, Federations, and Jewish Community Center settings.


Steven Bayme has been my friend and colleague for over twenty years. I thank him for letting me revisit this much-addressed subject once again. (This paper was com-pleted before the articles in the most recent issue of Agenda: Jewish Education, Issue #14, Summer 2001, but I hope to touch upon matters not reviewed there.) His friendship has been a source of great strength to me. Ellie Klein was a marvelous aide in doing research for this article. I hardly could have completed this piece without her help, and she has my thanks. Roselyn Bell was a most demanding and critical editor in the best sense of the word. She performed this task with great professionalism and was of inestimable help to me. I thank her greatly. As always, Sarah Felman continues to decipher my chicken scratchings and makes sense of many unforgivable grammatical errors. My wife Ruby's searching eyes and wise counsel continue to probe, question, and guide me. My continuing thanks to her as always.


Gerald B. Bubis

The Yiddish saying "Shver tzu zein a Yid" ("It's hard to be a Jew") over the centuries has referred to the enormous difficulties Jews have faced from discriminatory legislation, pogroms, residential and occupational limitations, and personal prejudice. Today, however, when the Jewish community faces fewer external threats, the expression could be used to connote a totally different kind of challenge: the difficulty of being an affiliated and fully participating Jew due to the high cost of Jewish living. The costs involved include, among others, synagogue affiliation, intensive Jewish education, camps, Federation and other Jewish charitable donations, and memberships in Jewish Community Centers and Jewish communal organizations.

Some problems seem both eternal and infernal. The high cost of Jewish living may not be an eternal issue, as Jews can proudly claim to have introduced the concept of universal Jewish education (at least for males) two millennia ago. More recently, the cost and underwriting of Jewish education have been the focus of much communal discussion and hand-wringing. Many Jews have never experienced communal life in which cost was not a perceived barrier to participation. As a result, there has developed a sense that this problem is infernal. We need to parse this dilemma to discover whether it is strictly a matter of money or if other dynamics are involved.

After examining the data and conclusions of others who have written about the problem, this paper will expand the dimensions of the discussion and bring to the fore some underappreciated issues. The relationship of cost to communal involvement is complex, and there is no one explanation for sociological behaviors.

Over the past two decades a number of authors-Bubis, Geffen, Kosmin, Wertheimer, Winter and Levin, et al.-have discussed the issue of the cost of Jewish living as an obstacle to participation in Jewish life. Some have seen price as a bar to many who want access to the full panoply of Jewish services and activities. Others have argued that attitudes, not dollars, most frequently determine the level of participation in Jewish institutions. Some have seen a mix of both factors.

Most recently, certain Jewish philanthropic families-Bronfman, Schusterman, Steinhardt, et al.-have responded to the problem by underwriting programs to ease access to Israel experiences, synagogue life, and participation in other Jewish institutions. These philanthropists have often partnered with Federations, Jewish community centers and synagogues, and even the Israeli government to make participation more affordable.

Data from the 1990 National Jewish Population Study and from Jewish population studies in most major cities of the United States1 agree that the median income of American Jewish families with children is $75-$80,000 a year. This number is a midpoint, meaning that 50 percent of families are below it and 50 percent above.

The costs associated with Jewish living range from dues to activity fees to contributions to Jewish causes. I will "guesstimate" the dollars spent on various communal institutions, and differentiate the income provided by the consumers of their services from the contributions provided by their philanthropic underwriters. I believe that the decreased giving to Jewish Federation drives can be accounted for in part by the significant sector of less wealthy individuals who are already disproportionately supporting Jewish institutions through their user fees. These dollars for services represent a significantly higher percentage of their incomes than does the money received from major donors to community campaigns.

In addition to analyzing the data, I will look at the premises that shape Jewish identity, the sense of being part of the Jewish people. Identity is a psychological term addressing the extent to which a person sees him/herself as part of a group. Identification encompasses the sociological descriptions of how, when and where a person manifests that identity.

Thus an analysis of the barriers to Jewish involvement must take into consideration both the variety of costs involved and the multiplicity of ways in which families manifest their Jewish identity. But to understand our present situation and the high level of emotion generated by the subject of Jewish living costs, we must look to the past and place our dilemma in a historical context.
The Past

While Jewish education is today a major ticket item in the cost of Jewish living, this was not always the case. Looking to the past, we recall a norm based on the premise of the availability of Jewish education for all. In reality, within the Eastern European Jewish experience, from which most contemporary Jewry springs, formal Jewish education was available only to boys, beginning at age five, and by age eight many of these boys were working. The educational system was, in fact, quite pyramidal, with the great bulk of Jewish youngsters in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe finishing their formal schooling at age thirteen.

Those who were seen as the most promising students and those most desirous of a higher Jewish education went on to yeshiva study, supported by a communal system that minimized their out-of-pocket expenses. Students were assigned to various families on a rotating schedule of essen teg (eating days) for their meals and were given modest housing by members of the community. Thus no great economic barrier existed to those determined to get a yeshiva education. The high valuation put on education made it sometimes part of a marriage dowry, with the father-in-law agreeing to support his son-in-law for a number of years of study.

When the great wave of Eastern European Jews came to the United States beginning in the 1880s and through the early 1920s, the bulk of the immigrants were not highly literate. A fifth of the men and a third of the women were illiterate. Talmud Torahs (community-supported Hebrew schools) developed, and truly flourished in the Midwest, while yeshiva education on a more full-time basis reached a nadir. Private teachers (lehrers) eked out livings teaching Hebrew and basic Jewish literacy, surviving on the coins and small bills provided to them by families. In both America and Eastern Europe, economic level was not a bar to Jewish education. However, an objective or perhaps cynical observer might conclude that it was the teachers and rabbis who truly subsidized Jewish education, because they were paid so little for their labors.

The cost of Jewish living for the Jewish immigrants at the end of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth encompassed much more than the cost of education. While statistics do not exist as to what percentage of the arriving immigrants observed the Jewish dietary laws, anecdotal evidence suggests that the numbers were substantial. The significant minority of "Orthoprax" Jews declined as the decades unfolded.

Synagogue affiliation was often defined by "old country" ties or by occupational groupings-the Romanian shul, the bakers' shul, the shoe-makers' shul, etc. The buildings in which they met were modest, often storefronts or rooms in walk-ups. Their designation and style of prayer remained Orthodox, regardless of the personal practice of the members.

The great wave of turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants arrived very poor, with an average of $25 in assets. Starting at the bottom of the economic ladder, they read the map of American upward mobility and concluded that their salvation lay in the free public school system. While higher education was infrequently pursued until the middle to late 1920s, Jews were early aware of free or almost free university education. This ultimately became their path in the climb up the socio-economic ladder, despite quota systems in the professional schools. After World War II, the G.I. Bill of Rights, providing free tuition and books to veterans, became the instrument that broke down most of the discriminatory and economic barriers to higher education.

As the Eastern European Jews prospered in America, their institutions began to reflect their increasing economic power. Most parents, regardless of economic status, still wanted some kind of Jewish education for their children. Successful Eastern European Jews banded together with already established German Jews to subsidize community service efforts for the needy. Families usually paid what they could for Jewish education, camping, and Jewish community center activities, but economic barriers rarely excluded anyone from services (Baron, 1945).

Jewish settlement houses and JCC/YMHAs flourished in the cities, and provided free or low-cost access to adult education, family and children's camps, nurseries and kindergartens. Of course, we should not paint too idyllic a portrait, for until World War II the majority of American Jews lived in very modest economic circumstances. Most were unable to provide substantial economic support to Jewish institutions. The organizations that flourished developed along ideological, political or social service lines and were underwritten by the most financially successful Jews. But the multiplicity of organizations known to us today came largely after World War II (Finkelstein, 1966).

The Jewish community responded to World War II by sending a high percentage of its men (plus a few women) to serve in the armed forces. The G.I. Bill, providing essentially free higher education to veterans, was a godsend. It was the single greatest impetus for the breakthrough of Jews into every aspect of American economic life-in the professions, academia, scientific research, and the business world.

The subsequent move of Jews to the suburbs resulted in a burst of building of great synagogues, mostly Reform and Conservative, as well as JCC campuses and Jewish camps. Most of the early grand Jewish religious structures were built by wealthy Reform Jews. In short order, the setting for the bulk of Jewish education shifted from community Talmud Torahs to synagogue-sponsored afternoon or weekend schools. Relatively few Jewish youngsters attended yeshivas or day schools. Indeed, sociologists of the 1950s predicted the imminent demise of Orthodox Jewry.

The supplementary schools that became the norm focused largely on the acquisition of Jewish knowledge. Only later did serious attention turn to Jewish identification as a desired outcome of the educational process (Schiff, 1990; Himmelfarb, 1975; Fishman, 1995). A number of studies of Jewish education in the third quarter of the twentieth century castigated the schools for their vacuous nature and poor product--with the day schools being the sole exception (Ackerman, 1969; Schoen, 1989; Murphy, 1990).

Several studies based upon the 1990 NJPS demonstrated that the more intensive forms of Jewish education were highly correlated to various indices of Jewish identification in adulthood, ranging from ritual observance to synagogue membership to attachment to Israel (Fishman and Goldstein, 1993; Fishman, 1995). These findings buttress the urgent case for Jewish schooling in the context of the debate over the cost of these services to the family and the community.

Wertheimer, in his survey of Jewish education (American Jewish Year Book 1999) touches upon the cost factor in determining the extent and nature of schooling, citing Steven M. Cohen's research on day school parents in the Conservative movement (Cohen, 1997). Wertheimer concludes that the most committed will find ways to avail themselves of the needed services, even if some personal sacrifice is required. This approach does not sufficiently deal with the wider ramifications of the cost to family and community. The rapidly increasing enrollment in day schools comes as a result of great efforts expended largely by parents to make this choice available.

The concomitant renewed interest in supplementary schools comes from the recognition that the majority of children who receive any type of Jewish education still do so through after-school classes. A combination of factors-choice, availability, proximity, and cost-intertwine to determine the reality in each American Jewish community.

Copyright 2014/2015 AJC