In my October 11 column, I wrote that it is not possible to maintain a strong sense of Jewish identity without a concurrent strong sense of Jewish community. Building community, however, is not the only step we must take before we tackle observance. Another is to define what Judaism means by “community.” It is not merely people living in the same neighborhood. Beyond community, we also must address a problem few are willing to discuss: the ever-mounting high cost of living a Jewish life.
We will deal with the cost issue this week.
As a community, we want – no, we need – our children to receive a quality Jewish education along with a secular one. Yet day school tuition fees have climbed beyond many parents’ ability to pay. Scholarships are limited. As a result, some parents have taken second and third mortgages on their homes to meet the obligation.
Not everyone can afford such tuitions. For too many, synagogue-based after-school programs also are no option.
Joining a synagogue can be very expensive, especially for a young family. High dues are coupled with building funds and other mandatory obligations, and some that are not mandatory but nevertheless expected.
In most cases, a parent cannot send a child to the after-school program without becoming a member, and the school itself has a tuition fee. This is a turnoff for young parents, many of whom feel they are being extorted. To send their child to an after-school program, in most instances, means having to join the synagogue, despite the cost. Is it any wonder that as soon as their children reach bar- or bat-mitzvah age, so many parents drop their membership?
A digression. The synagogue must be the center of communal life. There is no more appropriate place, yet too many synagogues are not as welcoming as they could be to anyone – young or old, married or single. No synagogue will ever admit to being cold, unfriendly, cliquish, or unresponsive to the needs of all its members, but we all know anecdotally that this is much too often the case. How many times have we walked into a new synagogue and no one – no one – takes the time to say hello and welcome to our shul?
So on top of the high cost of synagogue membership, we need to add how synagogues relate to the people who come through their doors, members and non-members alike.
Back to costs.
The rituals that are Torah-based, at least, are essential to Jewish identity, but they are not ends in themselves. They each stand for something else – the moral and ethical code that is Judaism at its most basic. They also are the ties that bind us to Judaism – in the case of t’fillin, somewhat literally so. T’fillin are a symbol of the Torah as a whole (“you shall bind them as a sign upon your arm”), a reminder that you cannot use your hands or your mind to do harm to another, and that you have a responsibility to everyone and everything around you.
The same is true of tzitzit. “And you shall see them and you shall remember all the commandments of the Lord and observe them…, and be holy to your God.” (For how to be “holy to your God,” please read Leviticus 19.)
This is what we must emphasize, but instead we make them ends in themselves and then push people to pay through the nose.
Roughly defined, “hiddur mitzvah” means enhancing the quality of an observance. Rabbinic texts emphasize the concept. Thus, for example, “Rabbi Zera taught, ‘one should be willing to pay even one third more [than the normal price]'” for t’fillin, tallitot, kiddush cups, Shabbat menorahs, chanukiot, etc. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Kama 9b.)
We misunderstand hiddur mitzvah, in part because of rabbinic stringencies and accompanying peer pressure. In the case of ritual items, hiddur mitzvah means buying the best t’fillin, tallitot, kiddush cups, chanukiot, etc., you can afford, not the best that is for sale.
Keeping kosher is perhaps the most basic tie that binds, and one of the least observed. Why? Because keeping kosher is unnecessarily overpriced, mostly because the steady addition of stringencies has made it so. The more stringencies, the higher the cost. The higher the cost, the fewer people who keep kosher.
If “kosher” meat is kosher, why push people to eat only “glatt kosher,” especially when most glatt kosher is not truly glatt in any case.
No where is this better exemplified than with Pesach foods. Unnecessary stringencies have priced most Jews out of Pesach market (and away from kashrut generally). A half-century ago, peanut oil was the only kosher for Passover oil; today, it is not acceptable. Quinoa started out as kosher for Passover; now not every certifier permits it. Do you like Coca Cola? Pay extra for the reformulated Kosher for Passover variety, with the yellow cap. The regular version has corn syrup, but no matter how you husk it, the “corn” of the Bible is not the corn of the syrup.
We are pricing Judaism out of existence, to our detriment.
In my next column, I will address defining community. Meanwhile, I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on this column and the last one.