This is the fourth part in an ongoing debate with Prof. Steven M. Cohen of the Hebrew Union College, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner. The first part is here, the second part here and the third part here. We will be discussing many issues over the next few weeks, and readers are more than welcome to weigh in, send questions or comments, and take part in this conversation about Jewish life in America today.
Thank you for your response. I have many follow up questions, but will have to start with the question I’ve already asked. Interestingly, while my original question was a lot about the economics of the Jewish community, your response doesn’t at all deal with it - you highlight the differences between three groups but do not write about Orthodox financial constraints. As reminder, I asked: “Can we find a way to somehow overcome the seeming contradiction between affiliation and financial resources?” I guess what I need to know first is if there really is such difference that is affiliation-based. And if there is such difference - what do we do about it?
In response to your question ... “Can we find a way to somehow overcome the seeming contradiction between affiliation and financial resources? I guess what I need to know first is if there really is such difference that is affiliation-based. And if there is such difference - what do we do about it?”
I offer the following. Some indicators of Jewish engagement are sensitive to income (usually, the ones that cost money) and others are not. As Jack Ukeles, Ron Miller and I wrote in the report (page 157-8):
“Detailed inspection of the relationship of individual Jewish-engagement indicators with income demonstrates that some are indeed related to affluence, but, at the same time, many others are not tied to family income. As a general rule, indicators of formal affiliation with Jewish institutions are income sensitive, but other forms of Jewish engagement are not at all tied to financial means.
Those measures that are at least moderately related to higher income are a collection of indicators, all reflecting institutional involvement:
• Going to museums or Jewish cultural events.
• Going to Jewish community center programs.
• Attending Jewish educational programs.
• Accessing Jewish websites.
• Belonging to synagogues.
• Belonging to Jewish organizations.
• Giving to Jewish causes, both UJA-Federation and others.
• Volunteering under Jewish auspices.
• Celebrating Passover and Chanukah (family-oriented holidays).
Among the items not related to income are:
• Shabbat-meal frequency.
• Monthly service attendance.
• Keeping kosher at home (higher among the poor).
• Lighting Shabbat candles (higher among the poor).
• Fasting on Yom Kippur.
• Having close friends who are Jewish.
• Feeling attached to Israel.
• Feeling that being Jewish is very important.
• Talking with friends about Jewish matters.
Not surprisingly, feelings of being part of a Jewish community in New York rise with household income, from 19% of the poor and near poor who answer “a lot” to 36% of the affluent group.
In short, as compared with the affluent, low- and moderate-income Jewish New Yorkers feel just as Jewishly engaged and act just as Jewishly engaged in their private and social lives. However, financial and social barriers, if not the pressures of daily living, work to restrain and constrain the participation of the less affluent in Jewish communal life, in matters ranging from belonging, to attending programs, to volunteering.”
As to what can be done about financial barriers, a few ideas come to mind.
First, we need to recognize that more committed and connected Jews find more value in acts of Jewish engagement, even when they cost money. Hence, anything that can raise commitment and connection will tend to lower the perceived cost of Jewish involvement.
Second, volunteer effort by committed Jews with high cultural capital can significantly trim costs. Some Jewish camps, schools, congregations, and minyanim can operate with relatively lower budgets than conventional counterparts because they draw upon capable volunteers or semi-volunteer low-paid professional staff. But, to do so, requires a pool of people with Jewish commitment and cultural capacity. Where such people are plentiful, the cost of Jewish involvement drops. Hence, the Jewish community has an interest in educating young people who, in some time, will go out and volunteer their talents to build and sustain Jewish institutions, especially those engaged in education or prayer.
Third, targeted scholarships and fee reductions can induce some families to engage in Jewish life in various ways. The generic problem with such policies is that if not targeted the costs will mount dramatically with little impact on increased participation. All such programs grapple with the question of how to target the funds without insulting or offending families who would otherwise participate in the particular activity or institution.