november / december 2006:
Can you afford to be Jewish?
We’ve always been taught there’s a high price to being Jewish. But was that meant to be taken literally? From synagogue dues and JCC membership to kosher food and Jewish school tuition, being an American Jew can be one costly endeavor. How are families coping and what are some doing to help. AJL goes on the money trail in search of answers.
By Chanie Cohen Kirschner | Photographs by Sam Norval
Inside her brightly lit spaciously cozy kitchen, Heidi Fuchs moves busily, baking and cooking for the upcoming Sukkot holiday. In a grey T-shirt and black leggings, Fuchs brushes her brown hair out of her eyes and looks brightly across the counter. “I hope you don’t mind, I can’t sit for too long — too much to do.” As the vice-president of a head hunting firm in New York City, Fuchs reserves her nights for domestic affairs — like homework help, grocery shopping, and cooking — the latter which she is doing now. “This is what I did last night, what I’m doing tonight, and what I’m doing tomorrow night,” she says. Though she talks with a matter-of-fact attitude, Fuchs is upbeat and good-natured.
The only woman in the house, Fuchs has her own personal basketball team — her husband, and four teenage sons — well, almost teenage. The youngest, Elliot, is in fifth grade. She and her family live in Teaneck, New Jersey in a red brick, tastefully decorated split-level home.
For the observant Jew, the prices of Jewish living can be even harder to bear. Click to read more about the extra financial pressures for Orthodox Jewish families. > more
Unlike many of their friends who were getting married around the time they were, Alan and Heidi Fuchs were the only couple in their apartment complex who both held full-time jobs. And still do. While many women at her synagogue are stay-at-home moms, Fuchs and her husband both work full-time so they can raise their four sons in a strongly Jewish environment.
Even with their hectic schedules, Fuchs and her husband still manage to be active in their Jewish community. For the past 15 years, Fuchs volunteers at her synagogue, coordinating meals and other needs for families who’ve recently experienced a loss. “Once upon a time, I also arranged meals for new mothers, but it stopped after awhile, because people started treating us like a catering service,” she jokes.
As she pulls a flowered glass platter out of a cabinet, you get the feeling Fuchs is as much Susie Homemaker as she is Rosie the Riveter. She yanks a bowl of smooth, creamy white filling off the counter, stabs it with a spatula, and efficiently begins to spread the confection on a chocolate roll. “On food for this holiday alone, I’ve probably spent about $1,000,” Fuchs guesses. “And that doesn’t include special clothes for the boys — that’s just on food.” Fuchs’ annual spending is a laundry list of Jewish-related expenses.
Unfortunately, the Fuchs are not alone. Families just like them all across America are coping with the high cost of being Jewish — paying for synagogue memberships and building funds, JCC fees, federation donations, charity dinners, high-priced bar mitzvahs and weddings, summer camps and, of course, Jewish day school tuition.
Synagogue membership dues across the country are now topping between two and three thousand dollars, and that doesn’t include a mandatory building fund fee (usually a couple thousand payable over a few years) and often times doesn’t even include High Holiday seats.
Just before the High Holidays this year, the National Jewish Outreach Program conducted an online survey in which they found that an overwhelming 80% of American Jews feel the cost of High Holiday services is either too high, unwarranted, a turnoff, or should be reconsidered.
As a member of one synagogue, and affiliates at two others, Fuchs spends about $1150 on synagogue membership each year, and that doesn’t include her synagogue’s building fund or annual dinner.
Not to mention that Fuchs get tapped almost daily by non-profits looking for contributions. She stops her diligent icing to check her caller ID. “Tonight — at 7:08 actually. We’re hit up all the time.”
And by neighbors too. “Because we live in a community where everyone is active Jewishly, my neighbor’s pet charity is not my pet charity,” she draws me a diagram in the air. “So when my neighbor is honored by their pet charity, I have to go.”
“Every year a good friend of ours has been honored, including us! One dinner we were invited to was $400 a plate, so only Alan went to that one.”
Annual dinners are a big fundraiser for many Jewish institutions. “We belong to three synagogues, have three different schools that our kids attend,” explains Fuchs. “And each one has an annual dinner. At one school, there is a mandatory $500 journal ad, but that won’t get you dinner,” she jokes. “You have to pay an extra $400 for that.”
Bar and bat mitzvahs can cost as little as a herring kiddush at your local synagogue, but to keep up with the Schwartzes today, parents will have to spend just a little more. And with some parents hiring stretch Hummers to transport their guests to the party, and others hiring rap stars to serenade the bat mitzvah girl, there’s a lot to compete with.
Fuchs found herself in a similar predicament, though on a somewhat scaled-down level. Even without the singers or the limos, she spent thousands of dollars on her oldest son’s bar mitzvah. And that was a catered Friday night dinner for two hundred people, a lunch at her home the following day for the out of town guests, invitations, a photographer for the week beforehand, and clothing for the whole family.
They wised up before it came time for her second son Corey’s bar mitzvah in 2003. “Zack’s bar mitzvah was the first. When we saw what we could have gotten for the same money, we chose to scale back. We felt that the money would be better spent on a family trip to Israel to celebrate the occasion. Then, back at home, we had a light reception for family and I cooked everything myself,” Fuchs explains. “We spent a fraction of the original amount without diminishing the celebration.”
And then there’s Passover. “It’s a huge premium just to get yourself started,” she says. “There are whole new sets of dishes that need to be purchased. And then the matzah, the wine ...” she trails off. Fuchs pays $25 a pound for gluten-free matzah for her oldest son who has allergies.
As a Modern Orthodox family, the Fuchs family incurs other holiday expenses on top of the ones you might expect. As a matter of fact, Fuchs’ husband and four sons are in Brooklyn tonight, meeting their grandparents to purchase lulavim (palm fronds) and etrogim (citrons) for the upcoming holiday, participating in a long-standing annual family tradition to buy the agricultural accouterments for the Sukkot holiday.
What if you want to send your child to a Jewish summer camp? Tack on an extra two grand to your yearly expenses, five grand if it’s an overnight camp.
You want your child to have a wedding one day? Even a no-frills, forget-the-photographer-hire-your-Uncle-Irving-instead wedding will cost at least $20,000, forcing parents to have to start saving for this landmark occasion before their daughter even gets her driver’s license.
But the most staggering expense of all is Jewish school tuition. For her four children, Fuchs is spending $80,000 this year. That’s right — $80,000. With one son in the 5th grade, another in 8th, another in 11th, and a son starting college, Fuchs is paying tuition at three separate schools. Because both she and her husband are working, they are not eligible for financial aid.
Indeed, tuition at some day schools across the country has crept past $17,000. And like a freight train bearing down on the tracks, it shows no signs of slowing.
In 2002, Dr. Gerald Bubis, the founding director of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service and Professor Emeritus of Jewish Communal Studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, performed a study on the cost of Jewish living in conjunction with the American Jewish Committee. Among other annual fees, the study found that average synagogue membership fees amount to about $1,100 a year, overnight summer camp to about $5,000, and JCC membership fees and federation gifts to about $700 a year. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The real financial shock comes when any of these families decide to send their kids to Jewish day schools — because according to the study, the average Jewish school in America costs about $11,000 (and that figure is four years old). Which means that the typical American Jewish family with two kids in Jewish schools is spending about the same on tuition each year as they are on their mortgage.
All in all, the AJC study estimates that the average Jewish American family spends about $30,000 a year more being Jewish. With an average salary of $75,000-$80,000 a year, a Jewish family would have to spend nearly half their income on “living Jewish” in America. And that’s before grocery shopping, clothing purchases, car payments, and mortgages. Sound unrealistic? “Indeed, it is unlikely that households whose gross incomes are under $125,000 could manage to spend 25 percent to 30 percent of their gross income on Jewish services,” the study states.
By far, the most expensive item on the AJC’s list (and Fuchs’ as well) is school tuition. At an average of $11,000 a year per child, the average Jewish day school tuition is almost $7,000 more than the average private school tuition in America, which, according to the Center for Education Statistics, is only $3,267. Catholic schools receive extensive church subsidization which allows them to charge an average of only $2,451 a year.
So why is it that Jewish schools are so expensive? “Research has shown that private school tuition increases at a faster rate than cost of living,” explains Dr. Elliot Spiegel, headmaster of the Solomon Schechter school in Westchester, NY. “And this rate is higher than for almost all other sectors of the economy. We have seen this reflected through cost of living increases for faculty and staff, energy related costs, financial aid needs, and transportation.”
That sounds about right, considering that when all four of Fuchs’ children were in elementary school seven years ago, she was only paying $40,000 for all four kids. Now, a few short years later, she’s paying $25,000 for just two of them.
Fuchs understands why she’s paying so much too, even though it puts a major dent in her family’s wallet. “My kids are getting a top education,” Fuchs asserts as she checks on one of her cakes in the oven. The kitchen now smells like the inside of a bake shop. “Elliot has two teachers in his classroom for a class of only about 20 kids, they use state of the art computers, and he’s constantly being pulled out for enrichment.”
I ask Fuchs what else she pays for at her kids’ schools. Without missing a beat, she answers, “Besides tissues?” Last year Fuchs’ son Jonathan was asked to bring in five boxes of tissues or he would lose a point on his English grade. “Five boxes?” Fuchs sounds just as incredulous as I look. “So you’re telling me that 100 kids need 500 boxes of tissues?” The school rescinded its policy the following year.
As is evident in Fuchs’ anecdote, even with the cost of tuition rising every year, Jewish schools across America are struggling to make payroll. Literally. One teacher told me her school doesn’t even offer direct deposit on payroll checks for fear they may not be able to pay on time. As senior director of the AVI CHAI foundation, Dr. Marvin Schick has done extensive research on the finances of Jewish day schools in America. In his definitive 1997 study, “The Financing of Jewish Schools,” he found that many schools are struggling to close the gap between their operating budget and their income from tuition and school fees. “The gap can be as high as 30 to 40 percent of the budget,” reports the study.
More recently, Schick performed a national census of Jewish schools asking them how the economic downturn after 9/11 affected enrollment and parental ability to pay tuition. He found that nearly two thirds of the surveyed schools were seeing significantly increased scholarship requests. In addition, many of the schools reported that “parents had withdrawn children, giving job loss or financial hardship as the reason.”
The problem is a Catch 22 of sorts — schools need to keep raising tuition to cover their annual operating budget, but because tuition is so high many parents can’t afford to pay and are either requesting scholarships or sending their children elsewhere.
Some small-town middle America communities are the answer for families who find the high cost of living on the east and west coasts too prohibitive. Indeed, tuition at the Jewish day school in Cincinnati is only $6,000, five grand less than the national average.
“Someone can be making $70,000 in New York, but it’s just not putting food on the table,” says Tamar Smith, the marketing director for the Jewish Vocational Service in Cincinnati and mother of two. “A four-bedroom house in Cincinnati on a third of an acre of land can cost under $200,000 here. Try to even find land in New York for that price.”
Smith certainly has a point. In New Jersey where the Fuchs live, that same third of an acre of land has an asking price of $550,000 — and a house on such a property is probably in such disrepair that it needs to be torn down. As New Jersey realtor Sallie Levi puts it, “Bergen County is a wonderful community with tremendous opportunity for growth, and it just keeps on growing. New families are moving in all the time,” she pauses and then adds, “But I don’t know how people are doing it.” Levi goes on to say that some houses in the area have an asking price as high as $3.5 million, a number virtually unheard of in the small communities in the Midwest.
In her home, in the very same community Levi is talking about, Fuchs confides this little tidbit for verification. “We bought this house in 1999 for a price that you couldn’t buy a three-bedroom fixer upper now.”
Back in Ohio, the 26-year old Smith tells me how Cincinnati’s Jewish community has begun to offer first time campers who want to attend a Jewish overnight camp a monetary gift of up to $1,000. Another community fund offers $6,000 to Jewish high school students who want to take a trip to Israel, similar to the very popular and ever-growing Birthright program which has already sent more than 110,000 young Jews to Israel since its inception six years ago. Incentives like these make these options more attractive to parents who otherwise would not send their children to a Jewish program.
But gifts to families are not the only answer. Many Jewish organizations are also on the receiving end of such charity. This past summer, the largest donation in the history of Jewish philanthropy was given to Yeshiva University in New York. Ronald P. Stanton, a proponent of the school for many years, pledged $100 million to the university. The gift will allow the school to hire new faculty, pay for research, erect new buildings, and help fund countless other initiatives around campus that would have otherwise lain dormant.
The gift prompted much talk in the non-profit sector. If Stanton could single-handedly solve one school’s financial woes, how many more people are there in America that could do the same for other schools in the same position?
Prominent Chicago businessman George Hanus came up with an idea a few years back: He wanted every American Jew to leave five percent of their estate to a superfund intended to cover the costs of school tuition for every Jewish kid in America. “Jewish education is a communal responsibility,” he tells me when I catch up with him on the phone from Israel where he’s visiting. “If we say that each community is responsible to provide an education for its own children, then the entire concept changes — it’s no longer schooling just for the rich or the Orthodox.”
“The high cost of Jewish living is outrageous,” he goes on. “If the community wants to ensure that there will be another generation, then it needs to focus on reducing the costs.”
He has successfully established the superfund in Chicago, which raises $700,000 each year to be distributed to Jewish schools in the area. Hanus hopes Chicago will serve as a model that other cities can duplicate for their own communities.
Pragmatically speaking though, many schools can’t wait for a grander scheme solution and are trying to raise money on their own to meet their rising operating costs. “Development is a buzz word in many non-profit organizations today,” says Michael Edelstein, assistant to the national business office for Ramah Camps. “A well-marketed organization builds awareness of their product,” Edelstein explains. “A lot of our camps have hired development directors to help market and promote the camp itself, through things like brochures and videos, in order to raise funds.”
Some say the issue is not the high cost of living Jewish, it’s how important (or less so) it is to American Jews today. Dr. Barry Chiswick, research professor and the head of the economics department at the University of Chicago, has done extensive research on this topic. “We do know that Jews have high levels of occupation and hence high earnings compared to non-Jews in the United States,” he explains. “But it is more the question of how American Jews wish to spend their money and time resources — vacations in the Bahamas and in Paris versus trips to Eilat and Jerusalem? How many Saturdays on the golf course versus how many in the synagogue? The issue is more, how do Jews want to allocate time and money resources, than are there enough resources.
The good news is that there are things individual families can do today to help them with the rising costs. Active in his Jewish community in Atlanta, Bear Stearns Wealth Management Consultant Brian Spaner understands the financial strain on the Jewish family. When asked what parents can do to ease financial pressure, he offers some sound long-term advice.
A daunting, if not intolerable strain on some parents’ finances, particularly after spending hundreds of thousands on their children just to get them through high school, is college tuition. “One of the ways you’re able to save money is through IRS code 529, which allows people to make contributions towards their child’s college education,” he explains. “Grandparents can also gift into it. The money grows tax-deferred and then comes out tax-free.” Spaner employs this plan for his kindergarten-aged son, allowing the money to grow considerably before his son reaches college-age. Saving money, he says, boils down to “Discipline, and having stick-to-it-ness.”
A buzzer dings and Fuchs stops what she’s doing to rush to the oven and take out her coffee cake. The smell of sautéed onions fills the kitchen, as she attempts to answer the burning question. Why? Why spend so much money on summer camps, synagogue dues, and Jewish school tuition. Her response is surprisingly simple.
“What choice do I have?” She pauses for a moment. “We do it because for us, this is not a luxury — we’re not buying fancy clothes or fancy cars — we do it because this is a must.”
She sits down for a moment and continues. “Yeshiva University tuition is $38,000. Columbia tuition is $41,000. For 3,000 more dollars, my kid can have a Columbia education,” she says. “But I’m sending my son to Yeshiva University because that’s the environment that I want him to be in.”
As if on cue, the door slams open and Fuchs’ husband and three of their sons come piling into the house. Bounding through the kitchen door, her husband opens up a traditional-looking box to reveal a perfectly shaped bright yellow etrog. “How cool is this etrog?” he exclaims as he holds it up to the light for all to see.
His excitement unconcealed, Fuchs’ youngest son, Elliot, concurs, as he proceeds to give a highly animated version of just how they found that perfect etrog at one of the temporary corner stands set up on 13th Avenue in Brooklyn to accommodate the holiday rush for the prized item.
“Tonight is a perfect example of passing on a feeling, a tradition,” she says to me a bit later. “For the last nineteen years, Alan — and sometimes me if I am not married to the kitchen that night — and all the boys join his father in Brooklyn to shop for a lulav and etrog. From Elliot’s exuberance, you can tell that no one thinks of this ritual as a burden or an obligation. They could just as easily have gone to any number of the local places, spent fifteen minutes doing this, and been done. If you can assign a dollar value to what they receive from their religious experiences, it would be more than ten times the cost.”
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