The High Cost of Jewish Living

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In the wake of the market crash of 2008, Jack Wertheimer spotlighted the “affordability crisis” plaguing American Jewish families. Adding up the cost of day school, Jewish camping, Kosher meat, synagogue dues, premiums for real estate near a synagogue, trips to Israel, and much else besides, Wertheimer guesses that an “actively engaged” Jewish family pays a premium of “$50,000 and $110,000 a year just to live a Jewish life.” So what can be done? What are the foundations doing?

Many federations do offer per capita contributions to day schools, usually in the vicinity of a few hundred dollars per child, but such subventions cover only a small fraction of the costs. And though some funds are made available for camp scholarships and even trips to Israel, the total sums are small. There are political reasons why more has not been forthcoming: many who sit on federation boards give higher priority to social-service agencies or Jewish community centers or other types of institutions, while others are loath to give pride of place to day schools, which educate only a limited sector of the Jewish population.

An additional impediment is ideological: the affordability of Jewish living is not on the vital agenda of the federations and most other institutions. When the Jewish Federations of North America announced its legislative priorities for 2010 with much fanfare, we learned that it was prepared to lobby for all manner of government funding for social and health services and in support of strengthening ties between the United States and Israel. The only reference to education came under the vague rubric of “Speaking out for Children,” which meant “rais[ing] awareness on children and youth issues.”

The federations are not alone: Jewish community-relations organizations, which have not been bashful about endorsing huge government-spending plans like the massive federal stimulus bill of 2009, refuse to consider creative ways for governments to offer relief to Jewish families struggling to cope with their most onerous financial burden—day-school tuition.

Adhering religiously to their separationist faith, most organizations claiming to represent Jewish interests continue to give greatest priority to the maintenance of the most impermeable wall separating church and state—even at the expense of thousands of children who are deprived of the Jewish education their families would like them to have. The head of the Washington office of the National Council of Jewish Women articulated the priorities of her own and other organizations when she declared a few years back: “We can’t put a chink in the wall [of separation] just because it will help Jewish children.” The zealotry of strict separationists is a faith to behold!

It is not as if there are no ideas about how to help with day school affordability while maintaining separation: some groups with an interest in Jewish education have made common cause with Catholics and minority leaders to explore ways out of the conundrum facing American families of different faiths who pay school taxes but cannot derive any benefit from them in a school under religious auspices.

Among the options under consideration:

• Vouchers that would enable families to direct their educational funds to the school of their choice, an approach that seems to work just fine with the GI Bill, which in effect offers a voucher to attain a higher education. Although a few voucher plans are currently operating, state courts have not been consistently receptive to their use in religious schools or by any but the poorest of families.

• Tax credits for individual and corporate contributions to scholarship funds that aid non-public-school students.

• A change in tax laws so that families could deduct day-school-tuition payments on their federal tax returns. This would go some distance toward relieving the sting of unrequited taxes they pay for public education.

• Additional state reimbursements for textbooks, technology, mandated tests, busing, and health services.

• Tax credits are granted to corporations and individuals making contributions to a not-for-profit institution. These credits, which are in place in a few states, reduce state taxes but currently are capped. Until the limits are raised, state tax credits will not offer much relief.

• Most helpful would be direct subsidies to reimburse day schools for the general studies education they offer, which relieves the public sector of educating more than 230,000 Jewish children annually. Alternatively, if day schools could utilize public-school educators to teach general-studies classes at taxpayer expense, tuition costs would drop significantly.

To move such an agenda forward, Jewish organizations would have to rethink their priorities. In addition to lobbying to ensure that Jewish agencies receive their fair share of funding for services to families, the aged, and the full range of subpopulations in the Jewish community, they also would have to rethink their reflexive and by now ossified opposition to any “breach” in the wall of separation, so that families sending their children to Jewish day schools in the United States could receive governmental support the way their counterparts do—with no apparent dire consequences—in Australia, France, Germany, parts of Canada, and in several other democratic countries.

Read the whole thing in Commentary.

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