By Matt Shapiro
With our son turning two this week, Sarah and I have begun to think about the years ahead and what they’ll look like for us, both personally and financially. One of the big questions marks, of course, is education. As two Jewish professionals, we hope to send Jonah to a private Jewish school, and also have the opportunity for him to participate in the variety of Jewish organizations and programming that have become the norm for mainstream affiliated Jews in the US. At the same time, we can’t ignore the logistic challenges this very well might present to us, given the very high cost of day school tuition, among other Jewishly-fueled expenses. How do we balance financial concerns with spiritual goals?
To further problematize the issue: yes, it’s true that most Jewish organizations have scholarships available, should we need them, and make a point to help those who may be financially at need (it’s also important to note that things are different in the Orthodox community, but I think that’s part of a much larger conversation). This potentially problematic dynamic, in which one needs to repeatedly ask for help, was highlighted for me a few years ago in an conversation I had with someone I grew up with. Though we both grew up in the affluent suburbs of Chicago, her family had come upon some tough times and was struggling. She shared with me that once her family lost their resources, they were essentially unable to be a part of the Jewish community. I attempted to make the argument that scholarships would have been available, but it was about something deeper than that. Once they were less well-off, she felt distant, apart from the other people around her. Even if they received scholarships for whatever they needed, the expectations of financial success and resources are still high, implicitly suggesting that this is what’s required to be a full member of the Jewish people.
American Jews have recently, by and large, been tremendously successful financially, and, in turn, I believe we have become desensitized to how wealth-acculturated our communities are. Many young families are struggling to make ends meet (the frequently cited thought that we’ll be the first generation to be less well-off than our parents might not end up being true, but it’s certainly possible) and tuition and program costs continue to rise. It’s no surprise then that people might very well not want to have to ask for material help just to have their spiritual needs supported. Questions can very well be asked about if day school is necessary to begin with, and perhaps there are ways to develop new, cost-friendly alternatives than currently exist. This doesn’t change the fact that we have grown accustomed to a standard of living that much of the country, let alone the world, can barely touch, which may in turn implicitly reinforce misplaced priorities.
My friend Michael Shefrin wisely pointed out that it actually costs almost nothing to be a Jew; it costs a lot to be a part of the institutions we've created. I see this dichotomy, between what God asks of us and what we set up for ourselves at the end of this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh. We’re taught that when pilgrims came to the Temple for the three pilgrimage festivals, each person was supposed to bring what they could afford. The standard was set that it was individualized, based on personal resources, not uniform, to a lofty financial standard. The opportunities are indeed there in many Jewish organizations today to recognize personal financial situations, but I also don’t think this is the only message about money being communicated. The cultural expectations we set, the way we determine what’s feasible for the population being targeted, the bigger picture goals beyond the budget: all these and more play a role in how we set financial expectations that can either bring people in or push people away. I know there aren’t any easy solutions here, and I’m not so blind as to think that no one else notices this. I do think the bigger problem is that this isn’t being addressed as a larger existential question within the Jewish community. It’s a complex problem with many different dimensions. But we can’t begin to figure it out if we aren’t even asking the question.