Being Jewish is expensive. Wait, let me rephrase that. Being Jewish is free (although becoming Jewish can be somewhat costly). Doing Jewish, when compared to not doing Jewish, is expensive. Some people can’t handle that, and give up all or part of that way of life. Others cope by figuring out what parts of being Jewish are costing them the most, and taking steps to counter the high prices in those areas.
For example, we knew that dayschool tuition for us would be nearly impossible in the Detroit area with a combined family income of about $50,000 a year. And Israel’s negligible tuition fees influenced our move to Israel before our oldest child turned three. In other families, the solution might be for one or both of the parents (in some cases, the only parent) to work a job they don’t like, to make enough to live in a Jewish neighborhood. Or maybe some compromises are made on where the family lives, just to bring down the cost of purchasing or renting a home. But far too many of us have fallen into the trap of “Ikea Judaism”, where the outside looks nice and pretty, without being built out of quality material. As long as you don’t put too much stress on it, it’s fine. But the slightest pressure, and *crack* – there goes the Expedit frumkeit.
Last year, Sam Ser wrote a painful blog post on moving back to America because of the high cost of living in comparison to his salary. The post was especially poignant for me, because he happened to move to Detroit, the community our family left behind when we made aliyah. For all the jokes made at its expense, Detroit has a great Jewish community, with typical Midwestern earnestness and goodwill, a large selection of schools, and Jerusalem Pizza, which served some of the best pie I’ve ever had, kosher or no.
That being said, it’s not Israel. And the list of things that Mr. Ser gave which he was now able to afford because he lived in Detroit instead of Jerusalem was more than a little depressing. He bought a house in a foreclosure sale in one of the most expensive areas of the state, and went on to mention how glad he was that he could afford not one, but (yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus) two cars!
Imagine Jack’s total lack of surprise (Fight Club; I highly recommend it) when a new blog post from Sam Ser appeared, proudly proclaiming that the Ser children do not attend dayschool. Instead, the family sends their kids to the local public school, where they will receive, admittedly, a first rate secular education. To make sure that the kids remain committed, the Sers will be handling the Jewish studies at home. In the blog post, the arguments made for doing this were mostly financial, although at one point it was couched in terms of not wanting to lose their “integrity” by having to ask for financial aid. One notable observation in the blog post was that annual visits to Israel would serve to keep the kids connected to the Jewish faith more than dayschool would.
You may be asking yourself (well, if you were me, anyway) how will afterschool crash courses in Judaism compare to 6-8 hours of focused Jewish studies in a parochial school. But, in this case, the kids should get a great education, because their mother serves as director of congregational learning for a large Conservative synagogue, and their father is director of communications and marketing for the Frankel Jewish Academy, a posh private school! Win-win! The parents have a lot of Jewish knowledge, and the dad might just have some time available for studying with his kids if his idea of marketing for a private school that costs $21,000 a year is to write a blog saying how two professionals can’t afford to send their kids to private school.
This is not to downplay the looming crisis in Jewish education. But families like the Sers are not victims. Instead, they are active collaborateurs to the problem. While I haven’t yet spoken to their accountant, by his own admission, Mr. Ser is living comfortably, and can choose between dayschool and yearly trips to Israel. He decided on the latter. And for each family with an income above the median who does not participate in the communal Jewish educational system, families living below the median pay a steep price, with the burden being shifted to those who can least afford it.
This is a major reason why Catholic schools cost so much less than Jewish ones. Catholics love the idea of having children so much, that they are glad to help out to support the school which teaches someone else’s kids. Meanwhile, the Jewish educational institutions have to beg for contributions. And if they can’t capture the heart and wallet of a man who works for one of their own, I guess it’s going to be a tough sell.
The Sers are proud of how well their kids are maintaining their Jewish identity while in the public school system. And yet I fear that, much like almost every item I’ve ever purchased from Ikea, there are hidden pieces missing. I hope you kept the receipt.