Expensive, lonely to be Jewish

Expensive, lonely to be Jewish

The two most urgent priorities of the American Jewish community are making Jewish life more affordable and fixing the broken Jewish dating scene.

This recession has reinforced a conclusion that many came to before, that’s it’s just too expensive to be Jewish. Yes, we Jews have paid a far higher price, than money to hold on to our traditions. So it’s ironic that an economic downturn may end up knocking countless Jewish families out of the possibility of Jewish practice.

The cost of Jewish day-school is a killer. Since there are precious few Jews in the world and since we are a community that shuns active proselytizing, we must rely on a high Jewish birthrate. But those, mostly Orthodox, families who have a lot of kids are hit with tuition costs that are staggering, and I know of many families who have had fewer children than they wished to because they cannot afford school tuition.

Then there is the cost of kosher food, which can average about 30 percent more than non-kosher food, while kosher restaurants appear to cost about 50 percent more than those that are not kosher. Of course, the Jewish festivals cost a fortune, with Passover especially breaking the bank for many a family mired in unemployment and recession. Jewish religious articles are not cheap either. Tefillin are expensive, with a bar or bat mitzvah being much more so, especially since keeping-up-with-the-Schwartzes has now created toxic social competitiveness in our community.

Even the cost of simply living within walking distance of a synagogue is often outside people’s reach, since Jewish communities are for the most part in upscale neighborhoods. Once you walk there, you have the cost of annual family membership to consider, which is now skyrocketing as many communities undertake large capital improvements.

The other day a woman whose husband’s salary was just severely cut and who has five young children came to see me. She grew up secular and later became Jewish. She said to me coldly and matter-of-factly, “How odd that becoming religious has put us near bankruptcy. We had savings when we got married. But now tuition fees and other religious costs mean that we’re always struggling.”

The dating dilemma is equally grave. The Jewish community seems to have two women for every man, which creates an unnatural scene where it is nearly always the women who are pursuing the men and making themselves appear desperate. This both allows men to date without committing and also undermines traditional Jewish values about choosing a woman of substance and character. Since the men have a near-harem, they end up feeling like TV’s “The Bachelor” and mostly dating women distinguished by looks. The Orthodox community is especially betraying itself in this department. Many of my colleagues in Chabad have been sharing stories with me of how mothers of eligible bochurim (student-rabbis) now call a girl’s friends for references, with the first questions often being about her size and physique. And the mothers have whole lists of girls who have been proposed as possible matches and work on several “applicants” at once.

The other night I attended a forum for parents of Yeshiva University students presided over by its distinguished and dedicated President Richard Joel. Among the first questions put to him was why the shidduch scene at the world’s foremost Orthodox educational institution has become so broken.

There are no easy solutions to these problems, but here are some important suggestions. First, the American Jewish community must make its foremost political priority, after support for Israel, the championing of school vouchers. Parents should have the right to choose which school their children attend, and parochial schools should be getting state funding, at the very least for their secular departments. In the same way American Jewry uses its considerable clout to support candidates who are pro-Israel, we must now get behind candidates who are pro-voucher.

Second, a national campaign should be launched to make kosher food mainstream for Jew and non-Jew alike. Already studies show that approximately 20 percent of Americans buy food with kosher symbols because of its high quality. Doubling that number would create an economy of scale, which would vastly decrease the costs.

The same applies to kosher restaurants. Imagine a national kosher restaurant chain that markets itself to the mainstream public, available everywhere, and accomplishing two important goals: first, the dramatic reduction of costs through millions of more customers and second, achieving the widespread availability of kosher food so that kosher travelers need not starve. If, say, a national organic kosher food chain would open, many non-Jews who avoid fast food because it’s unhealthy may well flock to it because of its higher quality.

Third, the rabbis should institute communal norms of acceptable spending on bar and bat mitzvahs, britot, and other religious celebrations so they don’t break the backs of parents. This would also get rid of the unseemly game of extravagant one-upmanship that so often accompanies bar and bat mitzvah celebrations that are more circus than spiritual.

Fourth, over the next few years the community should put a moratorium on capital projects and invest its money instead into lowering the cost of tuition and shul membership. Better smaller buildings that are full rather than mammoth ones that are empty. We must move from a bricks-and-mortar mentality to an education and programming orientation.

Finally, teaching Jewish values that pertain to dating and marriage should be mandatory in all Jewish schools and synagogues. Men, especially, need to be educated as to the holistic concepts of female beauty that Judaism has always championed rather than allowing secular notions of physical beauty to dominate the dating scene. And if they had some self-respect, the women would get on with their lives, study, get degrees, and develop their potentials rather than pursuing men who aren’t serious and just play with them. It should be the business of parents, rabbis, and friends to push Jewish men to act honorably by dating seriously and committing. Our women should not spend their lives chasing commitment-phobic men.

No doubt others have far better suggestions. But to ignore our community’s financial and romantic crisis is to watch a generation of Jews leave the fold not because they’re bored or busy but because they’re broke and alone.