|From left, Nachum Segal, David Greenfield, and William Rapfogel discuss the high cost of an Orthodox lifestyle in the opening session of the OU national convention. Josh Lipowsky|
Day-school tuition: At least $13,000 a year per child.
Kosher chicken: $2 to $3 more per pound than non-kosher chicken.
Kippot, tzitzit, tallitot, sheitels, and regular dry cleaning for these and other Shabbat and holiday clothes: You don’t want to think about it.
The cost of Jewish living is one of the most talked-about topics in the community, said Nachum Segal, host of the radio show JM in the AM, who moderated a panel on the subject on Saturday night to kick off the Orthodox Union’s national convention. Before a crowd of about 400 at Teaneck’s Cong. Keter Torah, Segal questioned a panel of political and communal leaders about why costs have gotten out of control and what can be done.
The problem, according to panelist Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, founder and director of the National Jewish Outreach Program, is how the Jewish community arranges its priorities, which he said, are “out of whack.” While this is the “most prosperous” and “blessed” age of Judaism, the community spends too many resources on repetitive services – he questioned the need for multi-million-dollar budgets for the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Weisenthal Center, and other organizations with similar goals – and a focus on luxuries rather than necessities.
“Do we really need kosher Kobe beef at $75 a pound? Do we need to spend $100 million a year on Pesach vacations? We’ve lost our perspective,” he said.
Margy-Ruth Davis, vice president of Perry Davis Associates, a New York consulting firm focused on community and institutional leadership, agreed. The American dream is to have it all, and many in the Orthodox community want to have what their non-observant peers have, she said.
“In some neighborhoods, keeping up with the Joneses is a blood sport,” she said.
One family Davis knows, with special-needs children, could not afford the services they needed in a day school and enrolled their children in public schools. They supplemented that education with heavy Jewish tutoring and are happy with their choice, she said, but this is not for everybody. Jewish education should be the responsibility of the entire Jewish community, Davis said.
Public school is not an option, said panelist David Greenfield, a member of the New York City Council who represents a district in Brooklyn.
“The average American family is tightening their belts,” he said. “For us as Orthodox Jews, it’s very difficult to tighten our belts in the same way. Private school is not a luxury for our families, it’s a basic necessity.”
Schools should encourage families to become politically involved and require parents to register to vote when registering their children for school, Greenfield said. Voting then has to take place with a single message from an organized community, he said; in the case of the Orthodox community, that message should be supporting yeshivas.
“In this system, whoever’s the most organized gets the most results,” he said. “Sadly, the one group that’s not organized is yeshiva parents.”
A new framework is needed, said panelist William Rapfogel, CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. He noted that more middle-class families are coming to his organization for help, and their two greatest expenses are education and housing. He urged the OU to appoint a commission to create new ideas to solve the tuition crisis and advocate for the community.
“We have to challenge the absolute wisdom of past practices,” he said. “We have to make sure that when we advocate, we advocate with a collective voice.”
“Government is not the solution but there is no solution without government,” Greenfield said, urging the community to set short-, medium-, and long-term goals.
“This is a communal crisis; everybody has a responsibility,” he said. “If people can produce votes, they can move elected officials. If a community isn’t doing the minimum possible, they’re not going to achieve their goals.”