It’s not just the kosher food. Being Jewish is expensive.

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?

Comments

comments

Comments

  1. Yep, those tuition prices played a significant role in our decision to start homeschooling our daughters. You’re right — it’s a constant commitment.

    • @ WG – So both girls will be home this year? Good for you! I toy with the idea of homeschooling, but I fear my extremely tenuous grip on sanity would be completely lost. When you have a free moment (hahahahahhaha), I’d love to read about what you’re planning and how it’s going.

  2. It sounds to me like this husband of yours is on to something. He sounds like a pretty clever guy!

  3. You can’t believe how much we are struggling with this very topic right now. My husband lost his job after we committed to another year of day school – where the tuition goes up dramatically between K and 1st (where our son will be). We waited anxiously all summer to see if they would be able to give us more aid, and part of me sort of hoped the answer would be no – it would be nice to have those extra thousands of dollars to fix things when they break (and give us that wiggle room you mention) if he went to public school. But the school came through with all of the extra assistance we requested – so it must be beshert – how can we not send him?

    • Chaya – I’m so sorry to hear about the struggles that you are going through right now. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to prioritize while your husband is out of work. I hope that he finds something soon and that you find a little breathing room. xo

  4. Hey Mara,

    Well, you know we aren’t Jewish (although I love your blog!), but I definitely feel the same strain of living within a very small margin due to choices we make for our children and our overall family. Sending our children to a smaller school that aligns with our gentle, community-minded values is EXPENSIVE – even with massive financial aid. However, I feel the payback will be tenfold and am willing to make that sacrifice. Yes, it stinks when I waltz by the pretty home furnishings at Target or stretch my already questionable haircut a few weeks more, but I know there is a bigger payoff waiting in our future. : )

    • I hear you on that already questionable haircut, Amy. I’m so glad that you will be sending your kids to that school and I agree — the dividends will repay your family in ways you can’t even imagine now.

  5. Interesting post. We made aliyah right after our wedding and can’t imagine living any other place than Israel. As tough as life is here financially, it would have been much worse in the states.

    • @Batya – Welcome! My husband would definitely agree with you. Of course, since I’m the number crunching geek in our family, I see that on paper we have a bit more margin here. Of course, ultimately, where we live isn’t going to be about that margin, yk?

  6. LeaMichal says:

    Keep in mind that if the family has a special needs child, they will spend about 50k a year for that one child in yeshiva tuition. My heart goes out to those families that have several children like this. Add to that kosher food costs and the expense of living within an eruv and you could seriously go into debt. As a parent of a special needs child, I constantly thank Hashem for consistently providing for our family.

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