Why is it so expensive to live a Jewish life? Since Jewish continuity and vitality are such communal priorities, and since the great majority of Jewish students today are not getting a Jewish education, why has the Jewish community not done more to help in this area? And what could it do to change that?
These are some of the questions explored in "The High Cost of Jewish Living," a lengthy, brilliant and depressing article this month in Commentary magazine. The article's author, Jack Wertheimer, a history professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and one of the leading lights of the Conservative movement, dissects the problem and comes to some pretty downbeat conclusions.
First, there's the numbers game. It's just really expensive to lead a Jewish life. Add it all up, Wertheimer says, and "an actively engaged Jewish family that keeps kosher and sends its three school-age children to the most intensive Jewish educations can expect to spend somewhere between $50,000 and $110,000 a year at minimum just to live a Jewish life."
This problem might be more acute today, but it's hardly new. Wertheimer quotes from an address to the General Assembly of Jewish federations almost two decades ago, when Jacob Ukeles spoke about the idea that "living Jewishly shouldn't force people into poverty." But, as Wertheimer says, "The message fell on deaf ears ... and there is little evidence that the problem is drawing more attention today."
There are many reasons for this, he explains, not least the fact that the financial resources of Jewish organizations are "severely limited." But more important than money is the question of attitude: "The prevailing attitude of too many in positions of authority is that affordability is a private matter. If families want to live an observant life, they alone should bear the costs. Why privilege day-school families? Most Jewish children attend far less costly part-time Jewish schools or receive tutoring. Let those who want more pay for it themselves."
What this cold calculus misses, Wertheimer says, is "any recognition that Jews well-versed in their religious culture are adding to American Jewish society. A disproportionate number of leaders and activists have been shaped by the most immersive forms of Jewish education. As for the rank and file, we would expect a community that places a great value on general education for all to ensure a comparably high level of literacy in Judaica."
He bemoans the lack of "a principled appreciation for the responsibility Jews must assume for building Jewish social capital so that there will be a vital Jewish community in the future. A proud and self-confident community would do all in its power, or so one would think, to prepare its youth for active participation in Jewish life."
This widespread Jewish illiteracy across America has made it easier for Jews and philanthropists to gravitate toward what they know best and what they feel most comfortable with: that is, the idea of tikkun olam, about which Wertheimer quotes Cynthia Ozick's "dead-on" observation that "universalism is the parochialism of the Jews."
He writes: "The measure of Tikkun Olam's authenticity, it would seem, is that it be solely a Jewish mission to the Gentiles," and then wonders why "this effort to repair the world cannot also extend to aiding fellow Jews." He notes that this shift of attention away from our own community has had severe fiscal consequences, to the point that "insufficient resources are available to meet the basic needs of the American Jewish community."
Wertheimer has the courage to take on a sacred cow -- tikkun olam -- but he does so in the service of something just as vital: building Jewish literacy and connecting Jews to their tradition and their people. He lays out several ideas to advance this cause, from getting funding from government agencies to creating volunteer-based programs like a Jewish Teach for America.
Above all, he makes a passionate case that the advancement of Jewish literacy ought to be a communal enterprise.
So, what can the Jewish community do to help? Well, I think one way to approach this -- and attract more philanthropic interest -- is to make the advancement of Jewish literacy more of a mainstream project like Birthright Israel. If a journey to Israel is a Jewish birthright, shouldn't a journey to Judaism also be?
The idea would be to create a fun, free and adventurous "Birthright Judaism" program that would introduce thousands of unafilliated Jewish teens to the Jewish tradition.
The program would borrow from the classic camp experience, but would be more focused on advancing Jewish literacy. Birthright Judaism wouldn't really address the question "How can I afford to live a Jewish life?" but it might answer an even more important one: "Why should I want to?