This spring, my son, Nathaniel, turned 12. It was time to get serious about preparation for his bar mitzvah, which usually happens when a Jewish boy turns 13. We needed to hire a tutor because at the twice-a-month hippie Silver Lake Sunday school my kids attend, Hebrew isn't part of the curriculum. And most bar mitzvah ceremonies include saying blessings on the Torah in Hebrew.
My first call was to the father of a woman I met through taekwondo. Between ax kicks and knife defenses, I had discovered he was a cantor. I figured since she was warm and well-spoken, her dad was probably a good guy. Indeed, he sounded like a mensch. Just what I was looking for. After all, I wanted this to be a positive experience for Nathaniel, not a dull exercise in rote memorization. If things went well, I hoped we would use the same tutor for our daughter when it was time for her bat mitzvah. Then I asked what he charged: $140 per hourlong session.
This is where I should probably note that I am a freelance journalist and my husband works in retail — $140 an hour just isn't in the cards for us. Not once a week, for nearly a year. So I continued my research. I called a man who lived nearby. A stranger I encountered on a local online parenting forum had recommended him, but she was a very enthusiastic stranger. Candidate No. 2 turned out to be the former principal of a Jewish day school — good creds. He too sounded nice when we talked, not at all the stern-principal type. And he charged $80 per session. Never would I have thought I would rejoice over $80 an hour.
For good measure, I decided to reach out to one more person before committing. Not only was she referred by someone I have mad respect for, but she sounded cool, like someone I would want to drink a beer with, if I drank beer. But because she is also a healer who fetches $175 an hour for her services, she requests that same fee for Hebrew lessons. I told her that was a little rich for us.
Why not just join a synagogue, one with a religious school that prepares students for b'nai mitzvah? We used to belong to a synagogue in the San Fernando Valley, not far from where we live. We joined when Nathaniel started preschool there. Like most synagogues with schools, families are required to join the temple and pay the annual membership dues in order to send their child to the school. (Dues aren't a voluntary offering, as is customary in most churches and mosques. School tuition is separate.)
At first it was affordable. But over the years — our daughter attended as well — our annual dues steadily increased, until they were nearly $3,000. Someone in the office there once alluded to this as the elevator system. Or maybe it was the escalator system. All I remember is asking if there were a stairs option.
To be fair, our former temple, like most temples, does offer "financial consideration." We applied for this when our daughter finished preschool, and were offered a few-hundred-dollar reduction in temple dues. But we were still looking at several thousand dollars a year. That did not include religious school, an additional $1,500 or so per kid. My husband and I agreed to move on. Thus the hippie (and way more affordable) Silver Lake Sunday school.
Now, I get that temples have rents and salaries to pay. They are important institutions. And if I could get $175 an hour for doing something other than taking my clothes off — and even that is farfetched, given that the big 5-0 is not too far off — I surely would. But it's expensive to do Jewish. No wonder so many Jews don't. In 2013, the Pew Research Center put the portion of American Jews of no religion, meaning Jews who identify as Jewish by label rather than practice, at 22%. This is triple what it was just a dozen years earlier.
The hefty price tag that comes with being an active Jew surely doesn't help. Just going to High Holiday services — the Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur hustle that this year begins Sept. 20 — can set you back a few hundred bucks for tickets. And that's for one person. Oy.
Fortunately, there are organizations working to make Judaism more accessible. IKAR, a spiritual community that gathers in rented space midcity, allows people who can't comfortably swing the standard membership contribution to name their own amount. They call this Ezra membership. They do offer suggested reduced figures based on income. But unlike many temples that require tax returns and financial records before making accommodations, IKAR simply asks that people choose an amount that is "reasonable and meaningful." Nearly one-third of their community are Ezra members.
Temple Ner Simcha, in Westlake Village, took an even bolder step last year, going to a no-dues model, "because it's the righteous and right thing to do," said their spiritual leader, Rabbi Michael Barclay.
"Paying to pray is a concept we as a community simply don't agree with," he added. They still welcome donations of course.
Barclay is the first to admit the change hasn't been easy. But the upside is undeniable. Over 500 Ner Simcha newbies, nearly all of whom were unaffiliated with a temple previously, attended the entirely free High Holiday services last year.
"To make it easy for a Jew to be a Jew," said Barclay. "That's what this is about."
As for Nathaniel, baseball and sleep-away camp and a million other not-so-good excuses have prevented me from setting up his first tutoring session. But it's on my to-do list. Candidate No. 2 for the win.
Leslee Komaiko is a writer who lives in Sherman Oaks.
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