April 12, 2001
The Jewish Tax
Every April 15, we are reminded that many of the things we hold dear literally don't come cheap. Democracy demands its pound of flesh, or its 30 percent, and on Tax Day the bill comes due.
According to demographer Pini Herman, the median Jewish household income in the greater Los Angeles area for 2000 was $57,100. The median Jewish household in Los Angeles has to work until March 24 to pay its federal taxes and until May 16 to pay off other income, property and sales taxes. That median Jewish family's estimated total tax bill this year: $21,300.
On top of this, there's the Jewish tax. Being Jewish may be wonderful, but it isn't necessarily a bargain. "Jewish taxes" for a small $5,100 basket of Jewish services -- temple membership, minimal Jewish education and recreation, modest Jewish organizational membership and charitable gifts, Jewish ritual events and Jewish articles -- will keep the median Jewish household working until June 17 to pay off this "tax."
A larger basket of Jewish services (i.e. day school and camp for two children) can easily reach $22,000 a year in Los Angeles. That figure is unaffordable for those Jewish households at or below the median income level.
Indeed, the price of engaging in Jewish communal life has become daunting. Most synagogues, day schools and camps are willing to arrange scholarships or discounts, but sticker shock or shame often scares off potential members. Institutions and individuals have begun to take the problem seriously. Synagogue 2000, an organization leading naionwide synagogue transformation efforts, has begun encouraging alternative approaches to dues structures in attracting new members. In San Francisco, Temple Emanu-El is experimenting with voluntary dues.
Jewish day schools, which budget far less money per pupil than their public counterparts, are themselves struggling with deficits. The four year-old Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education is focusing on fostering the growth of new day schools, providing grants and fundraising expertise to the schools. A number of foundations, including Avi Chai, have experimented with providing tuition subsidies to encourage people who would not be eligible for financial aid to consider day schools.
For many, these changes cannot happen fast enough. They face rising bills now, especially as the bear market extends its grip to both end-users and potential donors.
Short-term answers are to appeal to donors to continue giving, and to encourage the efforts of places where participating in Jewish life is still relatively inexpensive and richly rewarding, such as museums, libraries and the Jewish Community Centers.
But for the longer term, we need to take steps to ensure that Jewish communal life does not become solely an upper-middle class entitlement. Other wealthy and resourceful communities have explored massively-funded regional endowments for day school tuitions. An endowment structure could also be used for synagogue memberships. It just might work-- and contributions would be tax-deductible.