The Search for Vibrant and Affordable Jewish Life in America

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June 1, 2003
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By Lisa Freund Rosenblatt and Deborah Hirsch Mayer

We met last summer at the National Havurah Institute, the annual gathering of the National Havurah Committee; married women attending the weeklong program with our children and without our spouses. Deborah and her young daughter were attending their third consecutive Institute; enjoying for a week the kind of Jewish community that Deborah yearns for the rest of the year. Lisa had come to her first Institute with the goal of networking with as many as possible of the 300 or so participants – who came from all over the United States and Canada — about the ongoing odyssey she and her husband had embarked on in search of an appropriate Jewish community for their family.

Conversing, we realized that we were both searching for ways to live vibrant Jewish lives in places that pose significant challenges to doing so. We began an ongoing dialogue that we hope will expand into a public conversation within the national Jewish community; the subject is one that is essential to Jewish continuity and vitality.

At Judaism.about.com, the article “The High Cost of Living in America,” states that currently the greatest obstacle to the survival of the American Jewish community is assimilation. Money or the lack of it is cited along with intermarriage as primary forces causing American Jews to assimilate.

Professor Gerald Bubis, vice chair and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Center for the Study of Jewish Communities, recently completed a comprehensive study of the costs of living Jewishly in the US. In his report, published by the American Jewish Committee, Professor Bubis estimates that today’s Jewish families require $25,000-$35,000 of discretionary income for Jewish experiences–a sum often beyond the reach even of upper-middle-class Jewish homes. The cost of Jewish living (possibly including synagogue dues, tzedakah, school and camp tuitions, trips to Israel and premiums paid for kosher meat and ritual objects) may make moderate- and low-income households feel that Judaism is neither affordable nor welcoming.

According to Bubis, the high cost of Jewish living poses the biggest challenge for those families whose income is not low enough to qualify for income support. Families who earn $60,000 – $125,000 a year face the worst burden. Educational costs are among the highest. Jewish institutions serving the 90% of American Jews who are not Orthodox, have not found ways to make Jewish education affordable to all who want it.

Currently, Jewish life in America requires living in an urban center with other Jews. Surprisingly, only about 5% of American Jews live in small towns or rural areas. For many families, finding a neighborhood with Jewish neighbors, a synagogue and kosher groceries adds considerably to their living expenses. For Lisa and Deborah, the issues of affordability and accessibility of Jewish resources are central to their quests to create the Jewish lives they seek for themselves and their families.

At one time, Lisa and her husband, Avi, dreamed of raising their daughters in Israel. The outbreak of the intifada caused them to reconsider that plan. Inspired by Wendy Mogel’s book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children, Lisa and Avi undertook a two-year process of extensive research, travel, and reflection, to determine and locate what they wanted in terms of a Jewish community. Lisa articulates their mission: To find an affordable place, near family, preferably in the northeast corridor of the United States, where we could live within walking distance of multiple Jewish congregations including a progressive, down-to-earth, modern Orthodox synagogue; an egalitarian minyan, a Conservative synagogue and a Reform Temple. A pluralistic Jewish day school with strong commitments to Israel and to teaching Hebrew is essential.

Fortunate to have portable professions, Lisa and Avi started their search in New England. None of the smaller, more rural enclaves that attracted them supported the critical mass of Jewish population and institutions they required to live the kind of socially interactive and Israel-oriented lifestyle they wanted for their family.

Avi’s mother suggested that they consider Chicago, a city where both Lisa and Avi have family and friends. They visited twice and were touched by the warm outreach of the many Lakeview area Jews with whom they shared their vision of a vibrant and unpretentious Jewish lifestyle. Rabbis, day school parents, Jewish program directors and synagogue members all took the initiative to offer assistance with job and housing searches. Finally, the understanding of the Chicago Jewish Day School’s (CJDS) financial aid committee in considering the impact of the family’s relocation plans provided further motivation for their decision to move to the Windy City.

This summer, Lisa and Avi will leave behind their two-car, suburban Washington, DC home and begin a new life as a one-car family of apartment dwellers living in a building with other synagogue-attending families whose children go to local Jewish day schools. They will be within walking distance of a variety of synagogues, kosher groceries, and the Jewish Community Center. Their daughters will attend two innovative schools: the multi-denominational CJDS and the Moadon Kol Chadash Hebrew Immersion Preschool. Their new environment will be conducive to continuing their daughters’ bilingual education as English and Hebrew speakers.

Life in the Lakeview area Jewish community is more affordable than are some of the other Jewish communities that Lisa and her husband considered. Yet, it is still not as affordable as are some of the smaller, more rural New England cities and towns that she and Avi were initially attracted to because of their location and more reasonable cost of living.

Deborah and her family live in just such a place, a university town in New England that is becomingly increasingly expensive, yet is still in an entirely different affordability bracket than the large metropolitan areas of the East coast. Despite the presence of local Jewish life far richer than in many rural places, the area where Deborah lives lacks the ingredients necessary for a vibrant Jewish life.

Some of the many obstacles: buying fresh kosher meat, most kosher wine and kosher l’Pesach food requires over an hour’s drive. Numerous civic and professional activities are often scheduled in conflict with major Jewish holidays, even when Jews are involved in the planning! Birthday parties and sports activities are inevitably on Shabbat. Over the years, a few families have tried commuting a minimum of an hour and a half round trip to provide their young children a day school education in a tiny Jewish school across the border of a neighboring state. None of them managed to stay the course throughout their child’s schooling. Hebrew speakers are rare. There are no Jewish bookstores, social service agencies, senior residences, or community centers.

Even more discouraging than the material obstacles is the difficulty of finding a compatible Jewish peer group: knowledgeable, observant Jews, including those who have chosen to work as Jewish educators and in other Jewish vocations, tend to congregate in large metropolitan communities. There are no Jewish neighborhoods in small towns or rural areas. Even when one can find a few compatible peers (often not enough to make a minyan) driving distances that are bearable in the spring and summer loom farther during the long, dark, cold and often hazardous conditions of winter.

Without a critical mass of numbers, a critical level of Jewish knowledge and a desire for a vibrant Jewish life that often stems from having experienced Judaism’s riches, there is little sense of Jewish community. In addition to the keen isolation Deborah experiences, she and her husband are concerned for their daughter. She has attended two early childhood centers in different towns. She has yet to have another Jewish child in her classroom other than those of interfaith couples who have not chosen to make Judaism their primary religious affiliation. The family knows of only one other Jewish child the same age as theirs and she lives half an hour away. Sadly, their daughter is often the only child present at the Jewish functions they attend. At this stage in her young life, their daughter is proud to be Jewish and interested in knowing which of her friends and acquaintances are and are not Jewish. How long will she maintain pride in her Jewish identity if her only Jewish peers are relatives and friends in faraway places?

While Deborah’s profession is portable, her husband’s is not. In these uncertain economic times, his job security is a comfort, but one which severely limits the family’s flexibility in choosing a place to live. They live in a modest, yet desirable neighborhood within their geographic area. If there were a Jewish day school nearby, they would probably need scholarship help to pay tuition. The cost of the 150-mile round trips they make to attend services at the Newton Center Minyan, which Deborah joined years before meeting her husband and to which the family still belongs, is offset by the fact that they are often able to stay overnight and have meals with relatives and close friends. The inability to reciprocate hospitality, the unpredictability of winter weather, the tension between choosing a quiet Shabbat at home alone as a family or packing for an overnight and making a long drive; and the numerous gatherings which are missed due to being so geographically distant from the community take their toll. They are not fully present in the Newton community or in what constitutes the community where they live.

Lisa and Deborah’s conversations led to the question: Can Jewish life become more affordable and affordable life become more Jewish?

The National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, sponsored by the United Jewish Communities, indicates that the median household income of the Jewish population in the United States is about $50,000. This figure is well below the $60,000 – $125,000 dollar range that Dr. Bubis cites as the income range for Jewish families facing the worst financial burdens in trying to live Jewish lives. The NJP survey also reported that about a fifth of all American Jewish households earn less than $25,000 per year and as such are defined as low income.

What can be done; what has been done? Among many workshops at the recent Jewish Funders Network International Conference, was one entitled “Affording Jewish Life.” Participants discussed the pros and cons of initiatives like “memberships” in the Jewish community that enable families to belong to a synagogue, send children to day school or Jewish camps, and use a Jewish Community Center for a single affordable fee. Workshop presenter, Dr. Jonathan Woocher, President of the Jewish Educational Services of North America, described the dramatic and generous effort made by the SAMIS Foundation in Washington State. From 1997-2001, the foundation enabled tuition fees for 9th -12th grade day school students to be reduced from $7000 to $3000.

A woman who relocated from the expensive suburbs of Washington, DC to less expensive ones founded Jewish Parents Educating Their Kids at Home (JPEKH). Deborah plans to explore whether her work might be applicable in her region of New England.

The winter 2002 issue of Reconstructionism Today, the quarterly journal of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, contains a wonderful article by Moti Rieber and Betsy Teutsch. “Simplicity as a Jewish Path – Alternatives to Consumerism” looks at the Voluntary Simplicity movement from a Jewish perspective. The authors have launched a website, JewishSimplicity.org. Their ideas and others like them are but a few of many that could positively affect the financial landscape for Jews aspiring to improve the quality of their Jewish life who lack the resources-Jewish or financial-to do so. We believe there are many other solutions already being employed by Jewish individuals and communities across America and many others waiting to be conceived and implemented by people, who have not yet begun thinking about the issues presented here.

How can we make Jewish life more affordable and affordable life more Jewish? We invite you and your friends to join our discussion. At this summer’s National Havurah Institute, we will offer a workshop and host an affinity group for participants who are concerned about the affordability and accessibility of Jewish life. As we carry this conversation forward to the Institute and beyond, we hope to organize a working group to promote viable, vibrant Jewish life in America. With representation from the diverse individuals and organizations that are already addressing these and related issues and by using print and the Internet, creative brainstorming and existing best practices, surely we can find ways to share the richness of our heritage with all those who yearn to partake of it. We believe this undertaking is vital to the health and well being of Jewish families and to the survival of our people.

Want to join our conversation? You can reach us, care of Sh’ma, by email to susanb@jflmedia.com or by snail mail to Sh’ma, 90 Oak Street, P.O. Box 9129, Newton, MA 02464. We look forward to hearing from you!

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Lisa Freund Rosenblatt, currently a full time family manager, has twenty years experience working with Jewish and Israeli non-profit organizations.

Deborah Hirsch Mayer provides consultation and training in mental health, early childhood education and cultural diversity. She has over two decades of experience working in non-profit organizations and institutions, providing clinical services, program development and evaluation, supervision, and administration. She is passionate about using networking and collaboration to bring people together to solve problems.

1 Comment

  1. I too am searching for an affordable, Jewish community in which to live. My issues are different, in that I am at the age of retirement and will be on a limited income. I am used to a certain style of living, which I can not afford in the Northeast without a struggle. Where are some locations that meet my criteria?

    Posted by
    Diana Talmor
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