There has been another op-ed published about how expensive it is to be a Jew in America. I agree with the general assessment, but the circumstances that provoked the author’s complaint – finding a bar mitzvah tutor and feeling the sticker shock – require a little closer look.
We have a tendency to think of synagogue membership as a right rather than a choice, even though we treat it as a choice rather than an obligation. We also have a notion that, unlike college tuition, milk, gasoline, denim jeans and a cup of coffee, synagogue membership should cost closer to what it did in 1975. (In 1975, people complained that it was too expensive, by the way.)
But blaming the perceptions of the consumer does not help us with the situation. Neither, by the way, does pointing out that the synagogue has floated downstream in American Jewish priorities, including for the author. At the end of the column comes the admission that baseball and sleep-away camp have spoken for discretionary funds that might have been put toward a more comprehensive Jewish involvement.
Synagogues are the victims of Jewish success in America. As we have climbed from immigrant status to middle class to closer to the one-percent, the institutions of our lives have kept pace. It is not a new phenomenon. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, of blessed memory, proposed three generations ago that the synagogue needed to expand its role from house of prayer and study to cultural and activity center. The modern exodus from compact urban neighborhoods to more expansive areas of the cities and then the suburbs brought with it a need for a building that reflected the community. And the staff of the congregation – especially rabbis, cantors and educators whose educational accomplishments and professional status matched the upwardly mobile members of the congregations – needed to earn what was necessary to maintain a comparable lifestyle with easy access to their pulpits and classrooms.
In the neighborhood where I live outside of Washington, DC, it is impossible to buy a home for less than $650,000. More likely, a comfortable home for a family of four will approach a million dollars. That’s more than twice the average home price in the same neighborhood when we moved in thirty years ago (and began living in the parsonage because we could not afford a home). The synagogue facility expanded during my tenure to accommodate the increased membership and bursting classrooms. More than twenty years later, it still carries a mortgage even as membership and revenue has declined.
The synagogue has been priced out of the housing market for young families looking for a long-time home. A tight-knit local community like the one that built on our current site in the 1950s eventually dispersed to larger homes farther away. The families that took their place, some of whom I helped to recruit during my tenure, have (like me) aged out of large homes and moved to smaller quarters, often in distant cities. Like the author of the op-ed, it is hard live where you want to pray…and that’s before the cost of maintaining an institution nestled among million-dollar homes.
I applaud the innovators who are looking for a way to make comprehensive Jewish life more affordable. The answer partly rests with relying on the commitments of Jews to maintain communities and their functions. And it is here that I wish to defend prioritizing synagogue involvement over discretionary spending of money and time.
It costs a lot to belong to the synagogue where I used to be the rabbi. Like the op-ed columnist’s former congregation, there are dues and tuition to pay, fundraisers to support and contributions to make if you want a soft seat near the front on the High Holy Days. And there is a bar/bat mitzvah fee. At the moment it is about $700.
The disgruntled parent balked at tutoring fees of up to $175 an hour to train her son to recite a few incomprehensible words in Hebrew. Once again, I agree. That’s a lot of money to pay each week for an event that will last for 26 hours, from L’kha Dodi to “That’s What Friends are For.”
But one of the reasons our synagogue has maintained itself (and charges only (!) $700) is that the comprehensive and long-term commitments that members develop as part of an intentional community. The students who study for bar and bat mitzvah, one event on a continuum that can begin in preschool and include regular instruction, youth groups, participation in age-appropriate worship and spiritual development, service projects, high school-level instruction and classroom aide opportunities, get the benefit of three months of tutoring from adult members who themselves developed a skill set (not just a performance proficiency) and three more months of attention from the cantor, who is salaried and not paid a la carte. (By the way, our tutors are paid a small honorarium for their time.)
In the process, those students, and the families that choose to involve themselves as full participants, come away with the proverbial roots and branches – a planting of perennials, if you will, rather than a spectacular but short-lived annual. Like music lessons, gymnastics, robotics clubs, soccer and other activities that nurture the incremental achievement of long-term goals, preparation for bar or bat mitzvah ought to be the reason for larger life lessons. Like algebra, chemistry, grammar and social studies, the value is not in a single test or a grade, but in the development of a comprehensive knowledge of the world that may never draw on a particular equation or Fiji custom, but better prepares a student to live up to the best that he or she can be. For a Jewish kid, that especially means being a knowledgeable Jew.
My small heresy here is that one need not participate in a ceremony at age 13 to be a competent Jew, and lots of people who do not or did not belong to a synagogue of any kind are nonetheless perfectly capable Jews. But if the ceremony and the synagogue are what you want for your kid, then it makes sense to prioritize the depth of the experience over its affordability.
I plead guilty to spending 35 years persuading people to spend more than they think they can afford on synagogue, summer camp, day school, kosher food, homes near the shul and, on top of all that, the charitable obligations of tzedakah (and not just for Jewish causes). It has cost people vacations, newer cars, larger homes, dining experiences and an active life on buy-me-dot-com. That is my personal experience, too, not just reportage.
It is too expensive to be an active Jew in a Jewish community that has schlepped its activities and institutions into the more expensive strata of society. We are not going back to being poorer, and we should not turn to minimalist experiences in the hopes of reducing the overall costs. Rather, taking a comprehensive look at the values we want to inculcate in our kids and then living them will make our approach to this dilemma more necessary, more creative and more fruitful.