By Dahlia Bendavid
There have been a few articles over the years about the cost of leading an observant Jewish life. Being Jewish is expensive, including the cost of kosher food, Jewish day school, Jewish summer camp, synagogue dues, and JCC membership.
The older I get, the more I appreciate the sacrifices my parents made to give me and my siblings a Jewish education. After spending first grade in public school, my parents placed me and my sister in a Jewish day school in Queens, NY. Once my brother started nursery school, he was placed in the same school.
While growing up, I was always resentful that I came home from school and had to watch my brother and sister. My mom worked full-time because she had no choice. I was a latch-key kid. I remember as the first day of school approached, we wouldn’t know if we were starting school or not. My parents had to go to the school to negotiate with the administration for tuition they could afford, and commit to volunteer work – a demeaning process that was repeated year after year. We also lived a simple life – no fancy clothes, no overnight camps, no vacations, no eating out at restaurants. My parents just tried to make ends meet – and give us a Jewish education, which was important to them. Of course, years later, I appreciate the Jewish education I did receive and the sacrifices my parents made. I can speak Hebrew, I am comfortable reading Jewish texts, I have a love for Israel, and I am knowledgeable about religious observance.
A different perspective on the cost of Jewish education is highlighted in this article by Steven I. Weiss in The Atlantic, which relates Carmel Chiswick’s book Judaism in Transition: How Economic Choices Shape Religious Tradition. According to Chiswick, religious schooling is considered a luxury good. And tuition is not as expensive as one might think from an economic standpoint since the cost of time spent taking kids back and forth from Hebrew school, in the long run, is a saved cost for parents that send their kids to Jewish day school. This is an interesting perspective, but hard to think about when confronted with the idea of day school tuition for two or three kids at once. For many it isn’t about the opportunity cost of quality of life – one less vacation, one less car. It is about the ability to pay the mortgage and put food on the table.
The irony is not lost on me, that as a professional working in the Jewish community, I sent my children to public school, as have many of my colleagues. I just couldn’t afford the Jewish day school education. After moving to Miami almost 15 years ago from Israel, with barely any financial resources, and not yet employed, I inquired with local day schools about enrolling my two children. Tuition was just too expensive. Yes, it was a choice, but not for lack of trying. I could not justify the cost of a Jewish day school education for my children with funds I did not have. So, I made the decision to send my children to public school, and have them attend religious after-school. There is no way that two hours a week of supplemental Jewish education in any way compares to an immersive day-to-day experience, but it was better than nothing. I told myself, “It’s okay, I will do what I can at home, we will travel to Israel every year, they will go to day camp at the synagogue or JCC, and eventually attend Jewish overnight camp.” It didn’t exactly happen that way. Thanks to financial assistance from our synagogue and JCC, my children did attend summer day camps, and thanks to both the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and Ramah Camping Movement, my children were able to have a wonderful Jewish overnight camp experience and spend time in Israel. Of course, it was still not easy financially and there is always the difficult and humbling task of asking for financial assistance. Fortunately, many synagogues in our community will give Jewish communal professionals a discount on membership, as will most JCCs. I am fortunate that both my synagogue and JCC extended this courtesy, but it is not a practice that is followed nationally.
What does it say about the Jewish community if those that work for the Jewish community find it difficult to lead a Jewish life? The same professionals who spend their days ensuring the future of the Jewish community, thinking of ways to engage the unaffiliated, and create community for others find they do not have the opportunity to take advantage of what they are trying to create. For most Jewish communal professionals, what they do is not just a job. It is a career, a passion, a calling. How can we make sure these very people, the ones working day-in and day-out trying to make their communities inclusive and Jewishly engaged have meaningful connections and feel the same? How can these dedicated professionals make Jewish life a priority for themselves and their families?
Employee engagement and retention of employees in the Jewish nonprofit sector are of concern, as highlighted in the most recent Leading Edge employee engagement survey. One area that may increase engagement and retention could be the opportunity for Jewish communal professionals to send their children to Jewish day schools and Jewish overnight camps at a reduced and affordable cost. It would be interesting to find out if providing this benefit would help Jewish nonprofit organizations become great places to work.
Dahlia Bendavid is the Israel and Overseas Director at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. Her Jewish day school education, attending Yeshiva Dov Revel in Forest Hills, NY and Yeshiva University High School for Girls, Central, in New York City, helped shaped who she is today.