Examining the Variables

Examining the Variables

By Gerald B. Bubis

Jewish life, as shown above, costs too much for all but the highly motivated. There are a finite number of participants in our community, and they can be classified into four groups: those who could pay but won't; those who can and do pay; those who would if they could, but can't; and those who can't pay but would if they could.

Certainly one of the strongest variables in shaping the Jewish agenda of a family is motivation. The differences, as discussed above, are the varying priorities of life style. The literature of social psychology deals with the concept of conation or intention-what people say they intend to do and what they actually do. A recent study (Kosmin, Keyser, 2000) illustrates this concept with regard to Jewish living. The study followed 1500 b'nai mitzvah in the Conservative movement from 1995 to 1999. Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed stayed in the study through the four-year period. Among the many questions asked, three probed the intentions (conation) at age 13 and again at age 17 to (1) attend synagogue at least once a month; (2) keep kosher; and (3) continue one's Jewish education. The results are shown in Table 2.

Table 2

Behavior Intention at age 13 Actual behavior at age 17
To attend synagogue a month 65% 40%
To keep kosher 67% 49%
To continue one's Jewish education 73% 50%

A fourth finding of this study sheds light directly on our issue. Forty-one percent of teens who went on to minimal Jewish involvement felt that being Jewish was very important, while 69 percent of those who went on to Jewish youth movement affiliation or camp participation felt being Jewish was very important. Thus, for parents whose goal for their children is identification over knowledge, youth movements and camping is a less expensive avenue than day schools.

Two recent studies indicate that Jewish peer experiences and informal Jewish education are significant factors in maintaining Jewish involvement. Studies of present and former members of Young Judaea (Hadassah-sponsored Zionist youth movement) and the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (Orthodox movement affiliated with the Orthodox Union) show a high degree of positive Jewish attitudes with relatively little capital investment.

Nevertheless, capital investments related to expanded formal educational and camp services here and in Israel present formidable challenges. Investments in day schools have exploded in the last decade. Estimates suggest that more than $350 million has been committed for expanded day school facilities alone.

We have two examples of intensive Jewish experiences where cost has been totally removed as a barrier to participation.

Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, together with local Federations and the government of Israel, have sponsored the Birthright Israel program. Many of the 17,000 participants who received a totally free, ten-day experience in Israel have reported that they had intended to go to Israel but price had been a barrier. The initial research findings on Birthright suggest that some radically positive changes in attitude toward Israel and Judaism have resulted from the program. The annual subventions of $90 million provided by Bronfman and Steinhardt are due to be withdrawn within a year or so, and it is unclear how these dollars will be replaced.

Another experiment in Jewish life, a new four-year residential Jewish high school-the first non-Orthodox institution of its kind-is advertising for students tuition free. The school is geared to Jews from small towns. As the school is just beginning, there are no data on its impact on its students.

To summarize, a few facts are clear:

  • Relatively few Jews avail themselves of intensive Jewish educational experiences, formal or informal.
  • The cost of Jewish living is a complex matter that goes beyond the economic cost alone to a given Jewish family.
  • Significant numbers of Jews who could afford the economic costs are not prepared to pay the psychosocial price of "depriving" their children of non-Jewish experiences.
  • Communities and their institutions are faced with choices as to how to expend their resources.
  • Infrastructural costs to expanded Jewish education-both formal and informal-have not been sufficiently appreciated in computing the cost of Jewish living.
  • Subventions to families are not the answer, but are needed on a more extensive basis than presently used.

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