Yes, Judaism is Expensive – That’s the Point

Creative Commons photo by Steven Depolo/flickr

By Jessica Shamout

The new school year is right around the corner, and while there’s plenty of things keeping me busy, I have found myself distracted by the July 30 op-ed, “It’s Too Expensive to be Jewish,” by Leslee Komaiko in the Los Angeles Times.

Komaiko’s opinion isn’t a new one, and the statements she makes are not wrong: synagogue dues climb, and tuition fees usually increase too.

But she fails to consider the other side of the equation.

As the director of a school, I rely on those increases for a great many things.

For starters, there’s the art supplies, cooking gadgets, musical instruments, event tickets and museum entry fees necessary to provide a fulfilling experience for our students – none of which are immune to the price of inflation.

In addition to keeping the lights on and helping us pay our maintenance workers a fair wage, the increases also allow us to compensate our faculty, who create the engaging programming that parents demand.

But I’m not here to rattle off a laundry list of reasons why fee increases are necessary – I’ll save that for my Board of Trustees when budget season rolls around.

Instead, I’d urge people like Ms. Komaiko to think of fees associated with Jewish learning experiences, such as synagogue dues, religious schools tuition and B’nei Mitzvah tutors, as an investment rather than a simple transaction.

As Jews, it is our obligation to invest in the future.

Many are familiar with the story from the Talmud about the old man and the carob tree. The man says he has been able to enjoy a fruitful world because his ancestors planted it for him, so he goes about planting a tree that will not yield fruit for at least 70 years as an obligation to his children (Talmud, Taanit 23A).

We have an obligation to plant the seeds of Jewish learning for the sake of Jewish living. If a fruitful world is what we desire, then it is our duty to invest in our children.

Jewish institutions are where they learn what it means to be a well-rounded Jewish adult by exploring the richness of our collective history, developing a relationship with Israel and engaging in Tikkun Olam. It’s where they learn that Judaism encourages problem solving, discovery and inquiry – skills we hope they utilize daily as contributing members of society.

We are taught that all of Israel is responsible for one another (Talmud, Shevuot 39a). That bond means we must also provide the next generation with the knowledge and tools to stand up to anti-Semitism and hatred, of which we are seeing plenty right now. We must give them the strength not to feel defeated when they visit social media or read news headlines. They deserve to know that when they are faced with vile rhetoric, they do not face it alone.

Judaism also commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves and not stand idly by when one of them is in trouble (Leviticus19:16-18).

To combat hatred, fear, uncertainty and discrimination, we must unite with our neighbors in solidarity. This may mean showing comfort to someone who has been bullied, confronting a friend about an off-hand insensitive comment, or reassuring our peers that the Jewish community is an inclusive one committed to treating everyone with respect and dignity.

But these actions also incur costs – ones we must also teach our children to bear. Every time we speak out publicly for what we believe to be right, we run the risk of quarreling with family members, alienating friends or losing followers on social media.

These challenges – and our responses to them – are where an investment in Judaism truly begins to pay off. Do you really want to consider what might happen to our community and neighbors if we fail to plant these seeds for our children?

It IS expensive to be Jewish. But the spiritual cost of living in the modern world has risen, and the rewards Judaism provides are priceless.

Jessica Shamout is beginning her fifth year as the Director of Jewish Education at University Synagogue in Los Angeles.