Why does it cost so much to be Jewish? At a time when American families are tightening household budgets, does it really make sense to continue to charge thousands of dollars to participate in Jewish life? “Sheer institutional survival now preoccupies the heads of Jewish institutions,” wrote Jack Wertheimer in Commentary in March.
American Jews are always worrying about the fate of American Jewry, of course. Intermarriage rates, hovering around 50 percent, are perennially cited as the prime factor in Jews’ inevitable extinction; and in The New York Review of Books last month, the journalist Peter Beinart argued that unless “establishment Jewry” made room for Jewish dissent about Israel, it would wake up to find “a mass of secular Jews who range from apathetic to appalled.” But on the day-to-day level, the high cost of the basics—synagogue membership, in particular—is troubling, both outdated as a business model and onerous to families having to choose between Hebrew school and math tutoring. A 2005 study put the average yearly synagogue membership at $1,100—but in big cities, fees can be twice or even three times as much (and, anecdotally at least, higher than churches, which often depend on voluntary donations rather than dues). At the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (italics mine) on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch says dues are “consistent with everyone else’s,” about $3,100 a year. (He, like virtually all rabbis, vows never to turn someone away for an inability to pay.)
Beinart’s piece created major blogosphere buzz, but Wertheimer’s gave chills to professional Jews everywhere. It focused mostly on the plight of the Orthodox, more likely to be poor than Conservative or Reform Jews, and who, because of their strong commitment, often pay more. According to his calculations, an Orthodox Jewish family with three children could expect to spend between $50,000 and $110,000 a year on school fees, synagogue dues, summer camps, and kosher food. He argued that the fate of American Jewry rested on increased and enthusiastic support from philanthropists and activists to enable these families to live, as he would say, “Jewishly.”