My family spent Shabbat with close friends in Connecticut a few weeks ago. I told them a little bit about our journey to become debt-free and my obsession commitment to save money in order to stay that way. Out of these discussions, a few things became clear to me. And one of them is this:
It’s not enough to haphazardly save a few dollars on your grocery bills or household expenses. Living a debt-free life requires a total commitment to evaluating every choice your family makes. And when you are a religious Jew, those choices stack up quickly – and expensively.
In a July 8 column in Newsweek entitled The Cost of Being Jewish, Lisa Miller references a piece by Jack Wertheimer in Commentary in which he calculates that “an Orthodox Jewish family with three children [like ours] could expect to spend between $50,000 and $110,000 a year on school fees, synagogue dues, summer camps, and kosher food.”
That number is staggering. Even at the low end, $50,000 is more than the average American family takes home in a year! And yet, that’s what the average Orthodox Jewish family is spending just on being Jewish!
When my husband hears this, he says the solution is clear: Move back to Israel. Jewish schools are free in Israel (not entirely, I argue, but certainly nothing like $20,000+ a year for elementary school!). There is no mark-up on kosher food. In fact, the treif food is more expensive there.
In Israel, synagogues are subsidized, in some cases entirely, by the government. It kinda stinks for secular Israelis to have to pay their taxes to fund religious life, but for the shul-goers, it’s great. Even an expensive congregation in a fancy Anglo neighborhood is a fraction of the cost of shuls in North America.
It sounds great, right? But it’s not so black-and-white. After living in Israel for 13 years, I know that life there can be extremely expensive. Income taxes hover at 50% and cars cost 4-5 times what we spend in America.
Plus, at least for the time-being, I am grateful to live in the United States, where I have the support and help of my family. That’s something that money can’t buy… but if it could, it would certainly cost more than we could afford!
And yet, when I see that figure of $50,000 – $110,000, I am both astonished and dismayed. I wonder and worry about lower income families who feel cut-off from community because they think they can’t afford it (they’re probably right). I also feel for higher income families who may look good on paper, but are drowning under day school tuition bills (not to mention their own student loans).
For my own family, I am thankful for our school’s reduced tuition initiative — just under $7K per year per child, from kindergarten through 12th grade. And yet we have wonderful public schools in the area and even though they aren’t what I necessarily want for my children, they are in our budget. Would going that route be the more responsible choice?
I also worry about how we will pay for college when every educational dollar is going to day school.
Beyond schooling, I struggle to adhere to my frugal grocery budget while still being able to welcome guests on Shabbat in a mechubad way.
I forgo membership at the JCC (we most certainly don’t have an extra $120 in our budget every month) and join the neighborhood pool ($100 for the summer) instead. Swimming with Jews doesn’t make my kids Jewish, I ration.
When I look at my lovely budget Excel chart, I am struck with how little wiggle room we have. I do a quick calculation and realize how much more room there would be if we didn’t have to pay the “being Jewish” tax. It’s not a tax I’m willing to give up, but it means the rest of our life is lived in the margins.
We all have different family and financial situations, but I know many of you must be able to relate to what I’m talking about. And I’d love to hear from you. How is your family handling the struggle to stay ahead of the high costs of being Jewish in America?