Our Israeli neighbors’ perception of Jewish life in America boiled down to three T’s: Tommy Hilfiger, Times Square and Target. Ron, a Ra’anana based auditor working for a prestigious Hotel company salivated when he learnt of the salary he could be making with an equivalent job in New York. Pining over the dollarim I supposedly left behind upon making aliyah, he wryly asked the oft-asked question of half the people I met in Israel (the other half, who was likely wondering the same, offered a mystified “wai”. The Israeli colloquial variant of wow, you’re a serious friar for coming to this Middle Eastern, hell-hole of Zatar covered economic despair): “Why did you move here?” he’d ask. “Are you stupid?”
A graduate of Tel Aviv University, Ron is a hard working professional who audits the country’s various hotels- from Tel Aviv to Eilat, on any given day. His salary renders him upper middle class—at a meager 40,000 USD (his wife, Nurit, a social worker, makes about the same). But Ron’s workday wraps up at 4pm, leaving him enough time to bring his two daughters to the park, eat dinner with his wife, visit his in-laws down the block, and help get the kids ready for bedtime. That’s more than many American families pack into one Sunday.
Each year, Ron takes two family vacations to a European countryside, in addition to a local getaway up north. Friday mornings are spent at any of a series of hip cafes in the Sharon region.
Ron and Nurit, categorize themselves as chilonim but deeply value Jewish culture and tradition. I remember Nurit jokingly asking my (Orthodox) husband and me if we’d vacation with them to Berlin—flights were only 200 bucks a pop. The caveat was that the departure was on Yom Kippur. In the same supposedly secular vein, Nurit wouldn’t dare miss a Shabbat dinner at her parents’ home.
With no intention of abiding by normative, Halakhic Judaism, Ron and Nurit’s impartment of Jewish values to their two daughters is completely natural. It’s simply their mimetic way. Of course, this is in no small part reinforced by the subsidized, Jewish education that their children receive at a local, prestigious, Jewish day school. While they appreciate their childrens’ schooling, the fact that it doesn’t dent their monthly earnings is taken for granted.
If Ron moved to New York tomorrow and chose to live the equivalent life in an upper class neighborhood—vacations, dining and priciest of all–Jewish education, all the while coming home by 5pm, it would hardly be possible.
So why does the myth that Jewish Americans have it “better” still resonate among many Israelis? Somehow, the possibility of leasing a luxury vehicle coupled with a two-day weekend (Sunday is longer than Fridays, where most of Israel shuts down for Shabbat) reinforces the myth of the white starred, bright striped, Golden Medina—a myth that a few clicks through Jewish day school’s tuition pages will quickly debunk. Sure, the ceiling in America is higher. But a cost benefit analysis that takes into account quality of life on a day-to-day basis exposes the less than pretty financial truth.
Jewish life here is a fortune. And for those aspiring for the six digits–kiss family time goodbye.
Take David, a close friend of mine who is a surgeon in the NY area. He earns close to 600 grand a year—almost 8 times Ron and Nurit’s combined income. By most countries’ standards — even America’s — he’s considered wealthy. Indeed, according to the United States Census Bureau, the top of the economic ladder is the so-called “1 percent,” or households that earn more than $250,000 annually. David earns over three times this sum. But with six children in Orthodox Jewish day schools, he isn’t left with much spending money. He works late weekdays hours, keeps his office open on Sundays and takes no vacations (save Jewish holidays). Between the food bill, the tuition board and rent, David’s hands are lucky if they’re not full of debt by day’s end. And by the late day’s end, he hasn’t even seen his children.
For parents like David, who choose to send their children to Jewish day school, there isn’t really room for an upper middle class bracket. There isn’t really room for upper middle class lifestyle. This is the uglier face of Jewish life in America that most Israelis I meet are ignorant of.
One of the founders of a major, Florida-based, Jewish charter school revealed to me who the major demographics in his school were—not surprisingly, Israelis. They had emigrated in search of the better life, and sent their kids to local, public schools. All was peachy, until December rolled around, and instead of singing chanuka songs, they came home from school jingling Christmas carols. The Jewish education they took for granted back home was now being challenged. Suddenly, the dollars didn’t add up quite as they had before.
Deeper than Israelis’ pockets, is the subsidized Jewish education that effectively allows for spending on other things (like dining and getaways). What’s more, the salaries, though somewhat scant, often coincide with earlier workdays–more family time. Those blinded by numbers need only imagine a day before a dehumanizing, Jewish day school tuition board. Or a workday that wraps up in the wee hours of the following morning. There may be a few zeros missing on the Israeli paycheck but I’d advocate for caution before emigrating, if only for financial reasons — the sensationalist, money myths of Jewish life in America just ain’t so.