The cost of being a Jewish family: It’s time for a reckoning
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OpinionGuest columnist

The cost of being a Jewish family: It’s time for a reckoning

One in 10 young adults (ages 18-34) in our community say they are nearly poor or poor.

Kosher meat is just one added expense for Jewish families living in Pittsburgh.  (Photo by Jim Busis)
Kosher meat is just one added expense for Jewish families living in Pittsburgh. (Photo by Jim Busis)

No one likes to talk about money, but let’s face the facts.

First, the middle class is no longer what it used to be. The cost of living keeps rising. Wages continue stagnating. Debt keeps accumulating (average student loan debt is the highest it has ever been). Taken together, this is a sobering trio of factors. It is life-changing even for a double-income household.

Second, the financial ramifications of the pandemic are outlasting the public health crisis and are impacting even more people than the virus. Some segments of our community — women, single mothers, minorities and Orthodox families with multiple children — who were already economically fragile will face even steeper financial challenges. There’s no vaccine to protect against the ravages of the pandemic and inflation on our bank accounts.

Third, all of this is compounded for Jewish families, who face additional expenses. I’ll use some round numbers from my own experience: Annual synagogue membership is about $2,500. I won’t factor in the additional costs of participation that can add up over the course of a year, like youth group dues or shul dinners. Day school for two school-age kids in Pittsburgh runs about $32,000. Overnight summer camp costs more than $8,000 for two kids (for just three weeks). JCC membership is about $100 a month.

This does not account for donations to any of these or other institutions, nor for the higher cost of kosher food.

This calculation puts the annual price tag of a family’s involvement in Jewish life at about $44,000 per year. The area median gross income for a family of four in Pittsburgh is $84,800. So hundreds of Jewish families in Pittsburgh need to reckon with forking over somewhere around half their income for participating in religious life and a Jewish education for their children. For the 37% of households that indicated in the 2017 study of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community that their income was less than $50,000 a year, that price tag is even scarier.

One in 10 young adults (ages 18-34) in our community say they are nearly poor or poor. Is an annual $44,000 price tag what we want waiting for them after they have children?

And what about the less frequent but still expected (or desired) additional expenses of being Jewish, like the cost of a child’s bar or bat mitzvah. A pair of tefillin and a tallit alone can cost hundreds of dollars. What about sending a teen to Israel or going there as a family?

Of course, there are scholarships for school, camp and synagogue dues. Every institution will respond that they would never turn away a family because of inability to pay and that they offer generous scholarships. But what does it feel like to have to approach two, three, four institutions explaining over and over that you can’t afford them? What is our community saying to families when the number on their tax return determines their access to Jewish programming for their children? And what do we deny these families by expecting them to spend most of their disposable income at Jewish institutions?

The Cohen Center at Brandeis University reported in its 2017 Pittsburgh Jewish community study that of those who indicated no one in their household was a member of a Jewish congregation, a quarter said they did not join because of the cost of membership. Recently, a parent planning a bar mitzvah for her child told me she was admonished by a kosher caterer for not putting meat on the menu. Many Jewish communal professionals have shared dismay that their entire salary goes toward child care or day school tuition.

It is time for a reckoning. With the economic challenges of our moment confronting all of us, this is an opportunity to reevaluate. If we value making Jewish life accessible, we must commit to making it affordable. The solution is not offering more ways to request dues variances and scholarships, but pricing services so people do not need to ask for help.

That means making hard choices and considering bold collaborations:

1. Schools, synagogues, camps and community centers must move beyond the silos of their individual budgets.

2. Three of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s main goals in its recent strategic plan are: being a community convener; facilitating impactful philanthropy; and addressing communitywide challenges to create more equity. The Federation needs to activate these strategies to help solve the economic challenges for Jewish families.

3. Perhaps another part of the solution rests with foundations, such as Pittsburgh’s Jewish Community Foundation, whose website notes its purpose as laying “the groundwork for the next phase of Jewish Pittsburgh.” The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s One Happy Camper grants are a great example of a foundation offering meaningful relief from high expenses, but unfortunately it only applies to one year of camp.

4. Community members themselves must avail themselves of the financial resources that are available. JFunds — comprised of the Jewish Assistance Fund, Hebrew Free Loan, SOS Pittsburgh at the JFCS Food Pantry, and college and Israel scholarships — offers robust grants and loans that can help families offset large expenses while shouldering the costs of Jewish education or camp. These programs are not for “someone poorer.” Given the strain on the middle class, these organizations want to serve more double-income families. Moreover, JFunds offers a free financial coach to partner with families who are shouldering costs like day school tuition or overnight camp.

If our schools and shuls want to survive (and these institutions only will survive if people can afford them), they and community conveners need to find a way to subsidize more of the costs.

I don’t have all the answers, but the questions are clear: What is it that we, as a community, value most? Do our pricing structures reflect those values? If not, are we ready to think in new, maybe uncomfortable ways to change the status quo?
As the health crisis of the pandemic is outshadowed by the financial crisis, it’s time to answer these questions and alleviate the economic burden on Jewish families. PJC

Aviva Lubowsky, MSW, is the director of marketing and development at the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Pittsburgh.

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