Nearly 10 years ago, the American Jewish Committee issued a report that should have shaken the foundations of Jewish life. It was not about the neo-Nazi movement in America, or the Arab-Israeli conflict, or interfaith relations. It was about the high cost of Jewish living.
To live an active Jewish life in the United States – the AJCommittee reported in 2002 – cost a lot of money.
The range of money required for basic Jewish services – belonging to a synagogue and a JCC, sending two children to a day school or yeshiva, making minimal donations to the local communal philanthropy, and so forth – ran somewhere between $25,000 and $35,000 a year, the report said. Median income for Jewish households was $50,000.
Obviously, people earning $50,000 or less could not even begin to participate in Jewish life.
“Indeed,” said the report, “it is unlikely that households whose gross incomes are under $125,000 could manage such an amount. After all, most families pay a mortgage, save for college, drive cars, give to other charities, and even choose to go to concerts, take vacations, subscribe to magazines, and the likeâ€¦”
By all indications, the cost-of-Jewish-living price tag has gone up in the last decade, in some cases dramatically. The median income level also has risen, but unless you are absolutely committed to an observant lifestyle – even if that forces you into poverty – being actively Jewish was not an option in 2002 and is even less of an option today. Worse, as the foreword to the 2002 study put it, “The cost of Jewish livingâ€¦may make moderate- and low-income households feel that the Jewish community is neither affordable nor welcoming.”
As the two op-ed articles on page 16 should make clear, Jewish education is the number-one problem that must be addressed by the entire community.
To be sure, parental responsibility for the education of children is built into the very fabric of Judaism: “And you shall teach them to your childrenâ€¦.”
Yet collective, communal responsibility is also built into the fabric of Judaism. If “all Israel are responsible one for another,” as the Talmud says, then we as a community are responsible for the morality, the ethics, and the actions of the individuals within our community. The best way to meet that demand is through education.
When children are born, they are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge and understanding. Children acquire that knowledge and understanding from their parents, but also in many other ways, including from the nature of the society around them, and from the nature of the people who make up that society.
That is why Jewish law requires collective, communal responsibility when someone takes the wrong path. It is because the community collectively shared in the upbringing of that person, in the filling-up of that empty vessel.
And that is why Maimonides, in his code of Jewish law, states bluntly: “If it does not employ teachers, the [community] deserves to be destroyed.”
While there have been efforts in the past to resolve the so-called “tuition crisis” (it is so much more than that), those efforts have been half-hearted at best and lacked the sense of urgency the problem deserves.
There was no huge outcry, for example, when the recently renamed UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey virtually eliminated its Jewish Educational Services because of a lack of money. There was an encouraging but lukewarm response to creating and maintaining a communal fund to help bring down tuition costs.
The time is long past due for the creation of a board of Jewish education for our community with both the mandate and the power to make those decisions and enforce them.
If we continue to ignore this problem, we will not need Maimonides to tell us we deserve to be destroyed. We will have destroyed ourselves.