The moral costs of our community’s affordability problem

Moving into the new Jewish year is an opportune time to take stock not only of ourselves individually but of our community in totality. As such, I would like to discuss what I see as a major upstream determinant of our imperfect Jewish community: the moral costs of our community’s affordability problem. The financial barriers to the access of Jewish life in Australia and around the world have been discussed ad nauseam. While part of this affordability problem is specific to the Judaism of our community – Jewish school fees, Shul membership and the costs associated with the Jewish holidays, for example – much of it arises in the more general context of servicing the cars, homes and holidays of an upper-middle-class Jewish lifestyle. To date, the conversation has centred on money: How can we raise more? And how can we spend less? However, while grappling with affordability is obviously an essential component of this conversation, it neglects the ultimate cost of our community’s materialistic mentality. The true damage of our community’s affordability problem is not financial, but moral.

The orientation of our community’s “Skinner’s box” – the carrots and sticks rewarding different behaviours – nudges us towards pursuing professions. For financial and social reasons, from a young age we are encouraged implicitly and explicitly to pursue professional careers. Our community’s messaging highlights the remuneration of professions compared with vocations or the arts, as the means to fund our upper-middle-class lifestyle. The perceived social value of professions and professionals further works to incentivise the pursuing of professions.  Medicine, for example, is a profession viewed positively as contributing to a broader social good. That someone is a doctor acts as a signal both of their intelligence and their goodness. Furthermore, in a community with a high prevalence of Jewish doctors, there is often an additional family component that nudges students towards medicine. Bolstered by the many Jewish doctors at the top of their fields who serve as role models in outlining a clear path to personal and professional success, young people come to view becoming a top doctor as an achievable and admirable aim. At a certain point, all of this becomes self-reinforcing. People who pursue professions are tagged as “successful” – and “success”, at least in the material domain, comes to be interpreted as pursuing a profession.

That “my son/daughter the doctor” makes Jewish mothers happy is axiomatic. But do all our kids really want to be doctors or lawyers or accountants? Professions are wonderful for the people who want to do them and are suited to them. But there is a moral cost to the primacy we place on professions – the “opportunity cost” of people pursuing other areas they are better suited to. People being nudged towards high-paying professions necessitates them being nudged away from lower-paying professions, vocations and the arts – all of which someone might be much better suited to and find much more meaningful than pursuing a high-paying profession. With its valuing of the intellectual, I think our community does an excellent job of supporting and cultivating “above the shoulders” people but fails “below the shoulders” people – those who express themselves through their bodies, hands and hearts. Unfortunately, the contrapositive of the self-reinforcing success cycle becomes true for these people. It is public perception of lower-paying professions, vocations and the arts that foots the bill for the inflated social value of high-paying professions.

Disincentivising lower-paying professions, vocations and the arts incurs a hefty price. With fewer writers, researchers, artists, teachers, and truck drivers, we lose the value of diversity and the fertile ground for the cross-pollination of ideas. We lose the value of what each alternative career would add to our community. And we deprive individuals of the opportunity for self-actualisation through a career that would be best for them. And every year this continues, ‘compound interest’ accumulates as professions become more entrenched, and alternative career paths continue to suffer from a dearth of viable role models.

I’d like to illustrate this point using two specific domains, the arts and the adult Jewish engagement, as key examples. With regards to the arts, in view of the social pressures presented above, the curve representing the proportion of people in our community pursuing different careers is shifted away from creative pursuits. To assess the cost of fewer artists is to assess the value of the arts themselves, and one only needs to consider the enormous contributions made by those artists in our community. A school friend of mine, for example, is a comedian whose comedy places a mirror to our community and helps me unpack and reflect on what things we are doing well, what things need be improved, and sometimes even how we can achieve them. As Elli Fischer has written on the subject, “without a vibrant creative class, there is no communal unpacking of that experience, no collective expression or catharsis, no mirror to show the community how it looks from the outside, no legacy of the community’s unique contributions”.

The moral costs of our community’s affordability problem constellate to disrupt adult Jewish engagement at every level: content creation, implementation and attendance. The question that animates my Judaism is “what does it mean to be a 20-something-year-old Jew in the 21st century?”. I aim to lead a life where my Jewish values interface with what I know to be true about our post-modern world. Recontextualising our ancient tradition in the 21st century requires deep knowledge from both Jewish and general spheres to be coupled with sensitivity and creativity. Our generation’s Jewish iteration requires models different from those that were useful for our parents. Yet, with our best and brightest incentivised to pursue high-paying professions and so diverted away from creating Jewish content, we are slower in generating responses to the questions and challenges of our young people. Furthermore, whatever ideas are generated are left up to fewer and fewer people to implement. And, most sadly, even if we did have “the answer”, and fabulous people to implement it, with everyone staying back late at the office to fulfil the requirements of their high-paying profession, there would be no one available to attend. Too busy with meetings and memos, no one would be physically or mentally present.

Whilst striving for professions has paid our community enormous dividends in access and lifestyle, it also continues to exact enormous moral costs. Moving into the new year, we must ask ourselves what does the optimum balance look like and how can we achieve it? Shana Tova.

About the Author
Avi studies Medicine and Public Health at the University of Melbourne. As a Rabbi, he works to promote engaging, relevant and meaningful Judaism. Avi continues to be involved in the leadership of a range of Melbourne's Jewish community organisations.
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