The Priority of Affordability

The recession has hastened an affordability crisis and highlighted the perverse refusal of the American Jewish community to look after its own first.

Jack Wertheimer writing in Commentary Magazine:

The High Cost of Jewish Living

The nexus between Jews and money, a topic of perennial curiosity for philo-Semites and anti-Semites alike, has drawn renewed interest during the economic downturn. With most attention riveted on the celebrities – investment titans and philanthropists brought low, con artists jailed, and economic wizards appointed to oversee the recovery – other aspects of the American Jewish economy have receded into the background.

… the affordability of Jewish living is not on the vital agenda of the federations and most other institutions. When the Jewish Federations of North America announced its legislative priorities for 2010 with much fanfare, we learned that it was prepared to lobby for all manner of government funding for social and health services and in support of strengthening ties between the United States and Israel. The only reference to education came under the vague rubric of “Speaking out for Children,” which meant “rais[ing] awareness on children and youth issues.”

The federations are not alone: Jewish community-relations organizations, which have not been bashful about endorsing huge government-spending plans like the massive federal stimulus bill of 2009, refuse to consider creative ways for governments to offer relief to Jewish families struggling to cope with their most onerous financial burden – day-school tuition.

… Broadening the base, however, will not solve the economic problem of prohibitively expensive operating costs. Most midsize synagogues have annual budgets in the millions of dollars, and even medium-size national organizations and educational institutions expend $30 to $40 million dollars each year; the largest federations need two to three times those sums to fund their agencies. Nickels and dimes won’t get them very far.

Moreover, the alienation of many Jews from collective Jewish activity has begun to take its toll on Jewish institutional life. A good many conventional institutions have failed to position themselves attractively for younger Jews in their 20s and 30s, many of whom are unaffiliated. Large synagogues, establishment organizations, and federations of Jewish philanthropy attract some in the younger demographic but appeal only to a minority because they are seen as rigid, doctrinaire, and unwelcoming of fresh blood. It is so much easier for energetic young Jews to rise to positions of influence in other types of organizations, including those they have established themselves, than to wait patiently for their time to come.

… And just at a time when Jewish communal institutions are failing to attend to the needs of Jews at home and abroad, the hot trend in Jewish philanthropic and organizational circles, incredibly, is to channel ever more of their resources to nonsectarian causes. Preachers in every corner of the Jewish community are intent on urging the faithful to drop their parochial concerns for the welfare of fellow Jews and instead think globally. How can Jews worry about their own, they ask, when so many unfortunates in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia are suffering even worse afflictions? Last May, at my own institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the commencement speaker exhorted newly ordained rabbis and cantors, along with graduating educators and communal workers, to do nothing less than focus their energies on eliminating poverty and injustice from the world, even as she gave short-shrift to the impact of the economic downturn on Jewish needs.

[the complete Commentary article is available here]