How much does it cost to be Jewish?

I grew up thinking Jews should work in social change,
but only investment bankers can afford a Jewish life
Jewish Women Watching

I was at the Blue Ribbon food store on Ave. J in Brooklyn the night before Rosh Hashana.
“Store closing! Store closing!”
blue_ribbonI wandered around, people rushing past me. Yogurt? Should I buy yogurt? Cheese? Tuna fish? There were no prices on anything. I had been putting off food shopping until the last minute, and I was paying for it. Blue Ribbon was the last place open that late erev Rosh Hashana.
I had to think pretty quickly. This particular year, I was going to have three days to fill with food. Imagine coming up with a 3-day menu for one on a budget…when there are no prices on anything. And I had to buy something.
I hastily went over to my safe zone–the challah rack–and picked up a round challah and a pack of six rolls, deciding which would be a better buy. Could the round one really be cut into six equally substantial pieces? People were pushing up against me while the “Store closing!” character kept bellowing somewhere in the depths of the store.
I picked the rolls. They’d last me about two days. A $4 choice, cash only.
The fact that there were no prices said to me that I was the only one worrying about the cost of things. Figuratively, though, everything has a price tag. Who knew that Jewish living could have so many material trappings?
On Yom Kippur, I heard enough pledges to the shul in the amount of $613  (or “eighteen times three,” very clever, guys) to last me a lifetime.
And Sukkos made completely transparent what had been perhaps inadvertently hidden. My street was lined with people selling esrogim and tinsel and bird cages. There was a sukkah store competing with another sukkah store across the street. And of course Eichler’s was right there, too. You got the sense that if you wanted to participate, really participate, in Jewish life, you had to be ready to shell out a whole lot of money for the requisite commodities.
The 2001 NJPS study shows that the median income of Jewish families was about $54,000 (compared to the $42,000 national average), with over one-third of households having an income of over $75,000. I can’t be certain, but I think my own family’s income growing up probably hovered around $25,000. The basic line is that “the Jewish working class has all but disappeared,” but that’s not true. Unfortunately, the Jewish community seems to be set up as if it is. Of course there is aid available; yeshiva stipends and gemachs and the like. But being the recipient of such aid, just like in secular society, puts you in the periphery of Jewish life. In other words, if you’re constantly eating in someone else’s sukkah, you’ll never have a sukkah to call your own!
Most of the discussion has centered around the costs of synagogue membership and day school. Indeed, the required costs of day school etc. for a family with children is estimated to be about $30,000 a year. But the costs go well beyond this into everyday life–particularly where it can. You can wear a hair covering or you can wear a $2,000 sheitel. You can buy your clothes at department stores or you can buy them at the special fancy $30-per-one shell store. I’m sure there is community pressure, at least I sensed it by living off Avenue J and trying to walk down to the subway with my ripped denim skirt from Goodwill when everyone else got their nice new clothes from Tznius Princess or who knows where.
Same with food: I could buy it at Blue Ribbon aka No Listed Prices R Us, or I could go all the way down to the secular store in Union Square instead. Oftentimes, a regular, national brand would be missing from the kosher store in favor of its more expensive Israeli counterpart.  I can’t afford a $16 lasagna just because it has a special hechsher from Israel. I can’t afford to be selective with hechshers! If that’s not some kind of community pressure I don’t know what is.
But I knew if I had wanted to participate, really participate, I’d be buying those Israeli brands, not going to Union Square.
So how much does it cost to be Jewish?* Here’s an answer:
Another dimension to be measured is the cost of Jewish living as a percentage of total income. The members of the Orthodox Jewish community, which comprises about 10 percent of the total Jewish population, have on average accumulated less wealth and earn less money than other Jews. Nevertheless, they remain steadfast in their commitment to day school education, trips to Israel far beyond the frequency of other Jews, and, to a lesser extent, Jewish camping experiences. At the same time, they have more children per household than other Jews, keep kosher with its concomitant higher costs, buy special clothing free of shatnes, and, for the Ultra-Orthodox, purchase wigs for women’s hair covering. Given all these additional expenses, the Orthodox or traditional practitioners spend 25 to 35 percent of their available income for Jewish living, often at a sacrifice of more adequate housing, a more comfortable lifestyle, and the acquisition of savings.
-“The Costs of Jewish Living,” 2008
The community sets the standards.

American Sociological Association: United Jewish Communities. 2003. National Jewish Population Survey, 2000-01. New York, NY: United Jewish Communities [producer]. Storrs, CT: North American Jewish Data Bank [distributor].
Bayme, Steven. Bubis, Gerald B. The Costs of Jewish Living: Revisiting Jewish Involvement and Barriers. American Jewish Committee (AJC). 2008:
*I know, “How Much Does It Cost to be Orthodox” is more accurate, but it doesn’t sound as good.

30 thoughts on “How much does it cost to be Jewish?

  1. Could the massive costs of Jewish education be addressed by supporting school choice legislation? Open question to anyone in the know.

  2. So, why isn’t this a legislative priority for JFNA? Think about the communal millions being spent to subsidize Jewish education, which could be repurposed if state/federal education dollars were to follow students to Jewish schools. Not only would this make Jewish education affordable, but it could be used to raise the salaries/standard of living of teachers employed by Jewish institutions (where pay is sometimes embarrassingly low).

    1. Why isn’t it a legislative priority for JFNA to legalize robbing banks? There are BILLIONS of dollars in bank vaults – imagine how much Jewish education that could buy!

  3. This was a great article, and truly speaks to one of the greatest challenges facing committed Jews. Frankly, it’s the reason I have a job, managing the Jewish Day School Affordability Knowledge Center at the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (a shared program with the OU). There’s no one answer to this challenge, and it manifests differently in every community. In smaller communities, for example, day school tuition can be less than $15,000. And there are new schools cropping up in LA and the NY area that cap tuition at $9k.
    As to why this isn’t a communal priority…I would guess because it’s hard. Unbelievably so. It’s a systemic challenge that would require a communal strategy, and those take time and money.
    This goes to Victor’s question about communal priorities. Frankly, sometimes “Jewish life” loses out to more immediate problems like poverty or senior services – either locally or overseas. Government funding in particular can be a dicey conversation – see, e.g., BZ’s disdainful sarcasm. JFNA sets priorities that are clear (establishment) communal values – supporting Israel, helping Jews in need all over the world, creating vibrant communities in North America. Government funding for Jewish day school, an experience accessed by a fairly small population, just hasn’t garnered sufficient bandwidth to be a national priority.

  4. BZ, I fail to see how your response does anything but project an immature and juvenile face on your position in a very relavant debate.
    Victor, as a teacher in a Jewish day school I often envy the English system where secular teachers in parochial schools may be paid with money that follows students.

    1. Victor didn’t ask whether it was a good idea; he asked whether the costs of Jewish education could be addressed that way. The answer is yes (but it’s a bad idea). But if making day school more affordable is truly the most important value, what is the argument against legalizing bank robbery?

      1. Is the Jewish community too much in the thrall of “universal values” (such as not robbing banks, even when it’s perfectly legal) to care about our own Jewish concerns?

  5. Charles:

    Government funding for Jewish day school, an experience accessed by a fairly small population, just hasn’t garnered sufficient bandwidth to be a national priority.

    I mean, that’s one way of looking at it. Another way is that we have this thing called, you know, the First Amendment. Using public money to subsidize religious education is problematic for obvious reasons. I’m certainly aware that this is a debated issue, but Charles, you’re the one who looks immature by ignoring the legitimate issue of constitutionality and pretending this is just a question of “communal priorities.”

  6. So much of the total cost is day school. And when I talk to the day school parents I know, some of them choose day school for the Judaics, but an awful lot of them are choosing day school for the small class sizes, the escape from standardized testing, the fear of public school kids, and the desire to be part of an intentional community that includes very prominent parents. Those are LUXURIES, not essentials–and the non-Orthodox day schools are caught in a vicious cycle: they need to be luxurious enough to attract the wealthy families who will be generous donors, but attracting these families requires that they provide luxuries, raising their costs for everyone else.

  7. renaissanceboy,
    There are several states that already fund parochial education – Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Wisconsin are the first that come to mind. A few of these programs have been upheld in court when their constitutionality has been questioned (including by the Supreme Court – see Zelman v. Simmons-Harris).
    So while there may be philosophical concerns about advocating for government funding (there are several, and they are legitimate), legally the idea passes constitutional muster.

  8. RB, regarding funding faith-based schools, so long as those schools adhere to certain secular educational requirements, I guess I just don’t see the problem. I’m a bit surprised no one has yet mentioned teachers unions, and the traditional Jewish-Democratic-Union alliance as a contributing factor to paralysis on this issue. Even Obama was in favor of making competitive changes to the education system, before he was elected, and we all know that he (and an overwhelming percentage of public school teachers) placed his children in a private school.
    But speaking strictly from a fairness perspective, I don’t understand why a family of taxpayers that sends their child to a public school can expect upwards of $15k+/year in government expenditures on their child (at least that’s how much it was 12+ years ago in my public school), while a family of taxpayers that chooses a private school gets nothing.

    1. (and an overwhelming percentage of public school teachers) placed his children in a private school
      I call bullshit on this statistic (unless you specifically mean DC public school teachers, in which case I’d just ask for your source). An overwhelming percentage of public school teachers live in places that don’t have private schools.

    2. Victor writes:
      But speaking strictly from a fairness perspective, I don’t understand why a family of taxpayers that sends their child to a public school can expect upwards of $15k+/year in government expenditures on their child (at least that’s how much it was 12+ years ago in my public school), while a family of taxpayers that chooses a private school gets nothing.
      They should have thought about that before choosing a private school.
      And even under a voucher system, what do taxpayers without children get?

  9. BTW, I happen to know that this isn’t a strictly Jewish issue. Forget the WASPs and Catholic Day Schools, or the Muslim community, for that matter… in the inner city Milwaukee, the black community has been very supportive of vouchers and school choice. I’m not an expert, but last I heard from friends active in neighborhood politics, I think there are caps on school choice enrollment, and there is a waiting list years and years long in the inner city.
    The entire subject has been neglected by Obama, despite all his promises. It’s a damn shame.

  10. More than 25 percent of public school teachers in Washington and Baltimore send their children to private schools, a new study reports.
    Nationwide, public school teachers are almost twice as likely as other parents to choose private schools for their own children, the study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found. More than 1 in 5 public school teachers said their children attend private schools.
    In Washington (28 percent), Baltimore (35 percent) and 16 other major cities, the figure is more than 1 in 4. In some cities, nearly half of the children of public school teachers have abandoned public schools.
    In Philadelphia, 44 percent of the teachers put their children in private schools; in Cincinnati, 41 percent; Chicago, 39 percent; Rochester, N.Y., 38 percent. The same trends showed up in the San Francisco-Oakland area, where 34 percent of public school teachers chose private schools for their children; 33 percent in New York City and New Jersey suburbs; and 29 percent in Milwaukee and New Orleans.

    Washington Times, Sep. 22, 2004

  11. BZ, I realize that you’re more of a “it takes a few broken eggs to make an omelet” kind of guy, but in the real world, when it’s your child, and the choice is to send them to a public school or a Jewish private one… well, feel free to make the wrong choice for your child, not for mine.
    Last I checked there were more Jewish students who wanted to get into Jewish private schools than spaces and scholarships available. That would indicate, at least to me, that this issue is or should be of concern to the Jewish community as a whole. One would think this concern should translate into communal leadership in advocating sensible legislative solutions to lower the barriers to affordable Jewish/private education, while raising teacher salaries, which are rather dismal at present.
    But I get it, you hate the notion of a particularist mindset, and I can appreciate the logic of it. If black kids on the south side of Chicago must have their futures snuffed out in horrendous public schools than all kids everywhere should do the same – fair is fair.
    I once had a progressive firebrand of a friend, a Jewish guy, very active in liberal politics. (He’s still a friend, but much mellowed out, no longer the firebrand.) When we were driving through middle class neighborhoods of Milwaukee he used to throw litter out of the car – candy wrappers, soda cans, etc. I was appalled and asked him what the flip he was doing (and demanded he stop). He responded that the inner city of Milwaukee was littered with trash; he’s simply trying to even things out.
    I was born and raised in a communist country. I understand this attitude perfectly. Instead of making things better, you choose to make things even, one child at a time. But not my child.

  12. Um, Victor? Have you ever been inside a public school chosen by a large number of Jewish families (perhaps in the in the suburbs of any of the cities you mention)? Have you read the Avi Chai statistics on the number of students enrolled at non-Orthodox day schools and the number of seats available? (hint: there are still empty spaces. In my own area, I spoke with one day school that has many more applicants than seats, and two other day schools that told me I could call them in September if I changed my mind about public school)
    Please get your facts straight before you insinuate that those of us who have chosen a public school for our very real children are sacrificing them. And please stop insulting those of us who are hard at work devoting our time and resources to building new alternatives in Jewish education for our children outside the day school paradigm.

  13. What alternatives in Jewish education are you hard at work developing? I’m very curious. Would I be right to assume that you have a full time job (50-60hrs/week), dual working family household, and that developing these alternatives is your committed extracurricular?

  14. The programs linked to seem like fantastic options for working Jewish parents with children aged 3-9 in need of a Jewish-themed after school childcare situation, whether they’re in public school or not. They are appear to be designed to complement a primary Jewish educational environment, not supplant one.
    Perhaps I should have read your earlier response more carefully. My interest is precisely in bolstering Orthodox/Chassidic education through taxpayer funding. I assure you, there’s no shortage of need there, at least where I’m from, and the problem is going getting progressively worse, owing to the economics of large Orthodox/Chassidic families. Maybe a middle class or even lower upper class family can afford to pay out of pocket and send one or two kids to a private Jewish school, but you’d have to be a multi millionaire to send 7-10 of them. As that population grows, even wealthy philanthropists will have trouble keeping adequate scholarship funding flowing.
    In my experience, the JDS school system has unique problems, such as having to appeal to (and appease) a spectrum of non-observant to conservative Jewish parents nitpicking every choice of faith-expression, while competing with what may be excellent local public schools strictly on academic performance. A couple of JDS schools I have been acquainted with through friends who teach there are really just secular schools with only some milquetoast “Judaica” thrown in for texture, which matches my experience perfectly. I attended a JDS for two years, until my scholarship ran out and my recent immigrant parents couldn’t afford to pay. Of course, the experience of others may vary, but as for me, leaving that academically excellent school and getting dumped in a mediocre public school may have saved my yiddishkeit. Many of the students from my old JDS class are today among the most faith-cynical and anti-“religious” Jews that I know.
    I’ve taken us off course here. The bottom line is that financial need in early Jewish education is growing, not decreasing, and one way to address this is by supporting school choice/voucher programs. It doesn’t appear to be a communal priority now, but maybe it should be, and as the wealthy Federation-type donor base on which so many of these schools rely continues to shrink, it likely will be.

  15. Victor, I completely agree with you that sending 7-10 children to a private school is completely unaffordable (and so does R. Yitzchok Adlerstein–read
    Where I disagree is with the idea that I have to send 7-10 children to yeshiva for 13-17 years each in order to live a Jewish life. If you want to send your children to day school–great! If your goal is that your children should be able to learn Talmud in Aramaic by the time they finish high school, I don’t think there’s any question that day school is the best way to produce that outcome. But when in the course of Jewish history has this been the goal for every single Jewish child? And when has the Jewish community provided that level of subsidy for that many scholars?
    You just described yourself as a public school graduate with Yiddishkeit. I’ve had the opportunity to meet many prominent Jewish educators (including day school educators) aged 30something to 70something who were themselves graduates of public schools (and strong supplemental Jewish education programs). I am sick and tired of hearing that day school is the ONLY option for producing knowledgable and/or committed Jewish children. I exist, and so do you, and so do many day school educators who did not themselves attend day schools. I am also sick and tired of hearing people who should know better write off all Jewish educational options outside day school as something that maybe used to exist, but doesn’t exist anymore, and certainly has no hope of being strengthened for the future.

  16. Thanks for posting that link to cross-currents. The issues it raises are both maddening and heartbreaking. All the more reason, in my mind, to advance legislative solutions as noted earlier.
    But when in the course of Jewish history has this been the goal for every single Jewish child? And when has the Jewish community provided that level of subsidy for that many scholars?
    Let’s separate the kollel aspect from the under 18 education.
    It has always been the goal of Jewish communities to educate our children in the fundamentals of our faith, to the highest extent possible. And yes, giving children the tools to learn gemara in aramaic is a fundamental skill set which we should aspire to teach to every child. We’re talking about basic building blocks of jewish education here – learning to read and understand gemara. Think if we put caps on how many children should be taught to read, or be taught calculus – it would be considered outrageous, and rightly so. It is no different with learning how to read gemara. I’m focusing on the example you chose, but think of it as a more general point.
    Which brings me to the second part. You know… it’s very difficult for me to really understand gemara in hebrew/aramaic. I didn’t get that skill set in secular public school, and whatever I’ve been able to teach myself later in life has had to compete with my continuing “secular” education for time and attention. I missed out in my youth, and I will never get that time back.
    You say that plenty of people come out of public schools with their yiddishkeit intact or stronger. True. We are examples. But are we the typical case, or the exceptions to the rule? Most Jewish kids I knew who went through public schools are no longer committed to yiddishkeit. I was an immigrant and social outcast who embraced a non-normative public school identity, partly as a way to cope with my isolation, even find strength in it. Again, I don’t think this is the norm; I don’t think most Jewish kids would have made the same decisions that I did. Nor do I think we should encourage our kids to bear the scars of such bitter experience for the rest of their lives, when, just a few miles away, in a Jewish school, their yiddishkeit could have be nurtured in a thoughtful, healthy way, without scars or pain.

  17. I’m not suggesting the public subsidize religious education. However, funding that portion of the curriculum devoted to core secular subjects doesn’t seem so unreasonable. I also think doing so would help encourage faith-based schools to teach core secular subjects more competently in an effort to qualify for such funding. The quality of secular academics isn’t a problem in every Jewish school, but… I’ll just leave it there.
    So, the public interest would be doubly satisfied. Not only would tax-derived public education dollars be more equitably distributed, but the secular educational curriculum product would be strengthened, to boot. Everyone wins.

  18. They already subsidize the core secular subjects. It’s called going to public school during the day and then getting one’s Jewish education in the afternoons, evenings, and weekends. It’s what Jewish education in America and many other places looked like for 50+ years. The question is why an education that was good enough for our ancestors is no longer considered palatable.

  19. Our “ancestors”? 🙂 One or two generations of American Jews, mostly Reform and Conservative Jews, does not “our ancestors” make. The chassidic and orthodox communities (i.e. all normative Jewish communities two hundred years ago, and the substantial and growing communities of today) have always put Jewish education front and center, with secular subjects reserved for the “afternoon, evenings and weekends”.
    You’re not really addressing the points I’m raising. All I’m getting is this passive aggressive defense of public education.
    1) Public schools are not acceptable places of the education of Jewish children for large and growing segments of American Jewry. This is reality.
    2) The present system, whereby public education dollars are not equitably distributed among all children for the learning of core curriculum subjects, which is a general public interest – not a particularist interest of any one community – is fundamentally unfair, yes, but also detrimental to the common good.

  20. Yes. Our Ancestors. For the vast majority of Jewish history, as soon as they were old enough, many (most?) Jewish children worked so that their families wouldn’t starve. Except for a few short periods of history in a few locations, universal full-day Jewish education was for the intellectual elite or the rich. Even in the famous exception of the 19th Century Lithuanian Yeshivot, I’m fairly sure they were not even close to universally attended by the Jewish children in those communities. Perhaps some others here can provide more numbers to this.
    Even the US Orthodox world, was dominated by afterschool Talmud Torahs for the first half of the 20th century. The imperative of universal day school education, even among the Orthodox, is relatively recent. Look at the 2000 Jewish population Survey: slide 17. In 2000, 91% of current Orthodox children (aged 6-17) were in day schools. For the previous Orthodox generation (aged 18-34 in 2000) it was 81%. Ages 35-44 was 67%, ages 45-54 was 56%, ages 55-64 was 45, and ages 65-74 was 19%. These are just the numbers within Orthodoxy. The idea that every Orthodox child must be in day school wasn’t even standard in the 1970s and was a minority view before the 1940’s.
    In response to your (1). Why are public schools not an acceptable place? They used to be. If Jewish leaders in these communities wanted to find ways to make public schools acceptable again (with appropriately rigorous Talmud Torahs), for a portion of their communities, they could. This is a less radical stance than asking for a complete rethinking of what public schooling is in the United States.
    In response to your (2), money is distributed. Most districts in the US give families the freedom to not take their share of the money by sending their children to private schools or homeschooling. For good reasons, some families would rather reject that money and give their children an education they can’t get in a public school, but that is a conscious choice. I’ll also note that anyone comparing even public schools across districts or even in neighborhoods knows that money isn’t evenly distributed. Money in every district goes to public education, but the amount per student varies widely with high poverty areas often having less money to publicly educate their children. No, this is not fair and it is detrimental to the common good, but subsidizing private schools would probably make that economic disparity worse.

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