Judaism's Cost Keeps Many From Practicing

From Religious News Service

Historically, sacrifice has been to religion what yeast is to a rising bread: the ingredient that guarantees the integrity of the end product.

But for many American Jews, the financial sacrifice needed to ensure a full Jewish life is unreachable, according to a report issued here this week by the American Jewish Committee.

The report, called "The High Cost of Jewish Living," says that a family of five needs an annual income of $80,000 to $125,000 to pay the costs of being fully involved in its religion--a sum that leaves most families out.

In 1986, almost 90% of Jewish households had annual incomes under $80,000, according to a 1988 study by the Council of Jewish Federations, and 70% made less than $50,000.

As a result, "it is a safe bet that a majority of Jewish households cannot afford to pay the costs of fully involved Jewish living," the report says, citing high costs as a significant factor in the "checkout rate" among young and middle-age Jews.

Funds needed to practice Judaism extend to more than elaborate bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies for adolescents. They involve far more basic kinds of belonging.

A middle-class family of five, striving for a fully involved Jewish life, can expect to pay between $18,000 and $25,000 for synagogue and community membership, day-school education and summer camp for children and a contribution to a Jewish federation campaign, which provides funds for Jewish projects, including many in Israel.

Such steep costs are the reason that Robert and Leslie Stern of Boston, a couple in their late 30s with children 7 and 9, have not joined a congregation nor enrolled their children in day schools, even though together they earn $73,000, the report says.

Even keeping kosher is too expensive for some families. Susan and Eli Aviv of Queens, N.Y., earn a combined income of $40,000 and are unable to afford the extra utensils or special food. The couple, who have three children younger than 5, have also ruled out joining a synagogue for now.

The costs of joining a Reform synagogue in 1988-89 ranged from $1,000 for a couple with an income under $30,000 to as much as $2,200 a year for a couple in a top income bracket with two children in school.

Costs for Orthodox synagogues are lower, ranging from about $300 to $650 a year for a family. But day-school education ranges between $2,300 and $3,600 a year for Orthodox schools and $4,130 per child for schools of the Conservative branch.

The often-held belief that most Jews are affluent is among myths that have been debunked, the report says, citing as evidence a book called "The Invisible Jewish Poor" by Ann G. Wolfe.

Among proposed solutions, the report suggests the following:

* Establish national and local task forces to assess the affordability of Jewish life.

* Develop equitable and user-friendly systems for setting membership and program fees.

* Encourage board members of Jewish organizations to help subsidize programs by taking out life insurance policies naming a Jewish organization as beneficiary.

* Seek untapped resources for funding and encourage philanthropy among affluent Jews.

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