Living in Fear of a Jewish Education

star of davidby Ami Goldman

When we spent a few years in Israel, my American friends would almost always ask if I was scared to live in such a dangerous place. They wondered if I lived in constant fear of the violence they see on TV. I told them that the opposite was true. Jerusalem is an incredibly safe city to raise a child. Violent street crimes like muggings and assault are virtually unknown. In playgrounds, we knew that we could relax because if our child got hurt or lost, other parents would bring them to us. Sure, there were a few terrorist attacks, but they were few and far between and didn’t really effect our day to day lives in any meaningful way.

Flash forward a few years to when family obligations brought us back to America. The first thing we noticed was that we were a lot more permissive than other parents. Our sense of what a child should do and how a child should behave was a little wider than most other parents. We realized that we did not have as much fear around our child as when we left. But it didn’t take long for that fear to re-appear. But in very different ways.

The second thing we were shocked by was how expensive it was to be Jewish in America. Between Temple membership dues and day school tuition, the numbers were astonishing. If we wanted to send our kids to Jewish camp, there was a steep premium. Going to the JCC was simply out of the question. We soldiered through, expecting that the yellow brick road of America would allow us to earn enough to afford to be involved in the Jewish world.

But in this sluggish economy and living in an expensive city quickly obliterated any thoughts of getting ahead. Through a layoff and a failed business, we kept paying that day school tuition. It was our single biggest expense. Living in Israel has shown us that teaching our children Hebrew and text skills was key to insuring their relationship to Judaism, which is one of our highest priorities. The school is amazing and the kids are happy there, but the price feels like it keeps getting higher and higher.

We continue to live simpler and simpler. We keep sending the kids to swim lessons but didn’t do any other after-school activities. We adjusted our work schedules so one of us could always pick up the kids after school and not have to rely on babysitters or nanny’s as many of the other parents do. My wife cut out her hobby of many years because it was too expensive and I’ve put my hobbies on hold until I can afford the raw materials. We keep driving our old, unreliable car so that we don’t have to make car payments. But we keep making day school payments.

We only travel to visit family and don’t have any other vacations. We’ve cancelled our magazine subscriptions one by one. With family help, we managed to buy a house because the mortgage payments are cheaper than rent. I can do most repairs myself, but for the moment we’re living with drafty windows and some broken plumbing because we can’t afford the parts. When we did have a big, unexpected repair that needed to be done immediately, it wiped out our emergency fund. But we keep making our day school payments.

When summer came around, we sent the kids to town camps, which were cheap. Next summer, when most of their friends go to Jewish sleep-away camp, I’m not sure how we are going to tell them that they need to keep going to town camp because the cost of sleep-away camp is so far out of our reach. But we keep making the day school payments.

We don’t got to the movies. We don’t go out to dinner. We try to live as simply as we can. But there never seems to be enough. And when our child needed a medical therapy, we put it on hold because we can’t afford it. In a few years when they will need braces, I have no idea how we are going to come up with the money. But we keep making the day school payments.

And I realize that I’ve begun to live with fear. It’s not fear for my personal safety. It’s not fear of someone getting hurt. It’s a constant nagging fear that we’ve run out of money. It’s the constant red in my accounting and the need for the side-work which allows us to make ends meet. We are middle class. We make what would be considered a good living in most of the country, though dollars don’t go as far in this amazingly expensive city. But we have no discretionary income. Every dollar is accounted for and if someone needs new shoes, it’s a struggle.

Jewish day school is 23% of our API, and depending on the month, it can be up to 30% of our total after-tax income. We get a very good financial aid package, but it’s our biggest expense by far. If we were upper class, the money left over after paying for day school would carry us along without a problem. We’re middle class and what’s left barely covers expenses. We have no savings anymore, nor any capacity to put anything away. If, God-forbid, one of us were to have some medical problems, we would be broke, we would lose the house, and the kids would need to withdraw from school. Life has become a constant treadmill to make sure we can pay all of our bills. But there is no carrot in front of us, just a big whip behind us.

When my friends in Israel ask me about living in America, I tell them that America is terrifying. I live in daily fear that we are going to slip on the treadmill and lose everything, or that I will no longer be able to afford for my kids to get a Jewish education or even to be Jewish. These are first world problems, and I don’t want to whine, but the fear is more intense than anything I experienced in Israel.

We’re going to push through it another year, but I’m not sure if we can keep the pace after that – the fear is too intense and painful.

Ami Goldman is a parent at a Jewish Day school in the US.