The two most urgent priorities of the American Jewish community are
making Jewish life more affordable and fixing the broken Jewish dating
This recession has reinforced a conclusion that many came to before, that's it's just too expensive to be Jewish. Yes, we Jews have paid a far higher price than money to hold on to our traditions. So how ironic that an economic downturn may end up knocking countless Jewish families out of the possibility of Jewish practice.
The cost of Jewish day-school is a killer. Since there are precious
few Jews in the world and since we are a community that shuns active
proselytizing, we must rely on a high Jewish birthrate. But those,
mostly orthodox, families who have a lot of kids are hit with tuition
costs that are staggering and I know of many families who have had
fewer children because they cannot afford school tuition.
Then there is the cost of kosher food which can average about thirty
percent more than non-kosher food while kosher restaurants appear to
be about fifty percent more. Of course, the Jewish festivals cost a
fortune with Passover especially breaking the bank for many a family
mired in unemployment and recession. Jewish religious articles are not
cheap either. Tefillin are expensive with a Bar or Bat Mitzvah being
much more so, especially since keeping-up-with-the-Schwartzes has now
created toxic social competitiveness in our community.
Even the cost of simply living within walking distance of a Synagogue is often outside people's reach since Jewish communities are for the most part in upscale neighborhoods. Once you walk there you have the cost of annual family membership to consider which is now skyrocketing as many communities undertake large capital improvements.
The other day a woman, whose husband's salary was just severely cut and who has five young children, came to see me. She grew up secular and later became Jewish. She said to me coldly and matter-of-factly, "How odd that becoming religious has put us near bankruptcy. We had savings when we got married. But now tuition fees and other religious costs means that we're always struggling."
The dating dilemma is equally grave. The Jewish community seems to have two women for every man which creates an unnatural scene where it is nearly always the women who are pursuing the men, making the women appear desperate. This both allows men to date without committing and also undermines traditional Jewish values about choosing a woman of substance and character. Since the men have a near-harem, they end up feeling like TV's 'The Bachelor' and mostly dating women distinguished by figure and looks. The orthodox community is especially betraying itself in this department. Many of my colleagues in Chabad have been sharing stories with me of how mothers of eligible bochurim (student- Rabbis) now call a girl's friends for references with the first questions often being about her size and physique. And the mothers have whole lists of girls who have been proposed as possible matches and work on several 'applicants' at once. Similarly, the other night I attended a forum for parents of Yeshiva University presided over by its distinguished and dedicated President Richard Joel. Among the first question put to him was why the shidduch scene at the world's foremost orthodox educational institution has become so broken.
There are no easy solutions to these problems but here are some
First, the American Jewish community must make its foremost political
priority, after support for Israel, the championing of school
vouchers. Parents should have the right to choose which school they
send their children attend and parochial schools should be getting
state funding at the very least for their secular departments. In the
same way American Jewry uses its considerable clout to support
candidates who are pro-Israel, we must now get behind candidates who
Second, a national campaign should be launched to make Kosher food
mainstream for Jew and non-Jew alike. Already studies show that
approximately twenty percent of Americans buy food with kosher symbols
because of the high food quality. Doubling that number would create an
economy of scale which would vastly decrease the costs.
The same applies to kosher restaurants. Imagine a national kosher
restaurant chain that markets itself to the mainstream public,
available everywhere, and accomplishing two important goals. First,
the dramatic reduction of costs through millions more customers and
second, achieving the widespread availability of kosher food so that
kosher travelers need not starve. If, say, a national organic Kosher
food chain would open, many non-Jews who currently avoid fast food
because its unhealthy may well flock to it because of high food quality.
Third, the Rabbis should institute communal norms of acceptable spending on Bar and Bat Mitvas, brises, and other religious celebrations that don't break the backs of parents. This would also get rid of the unseemly game of extravagant one-upmanship that so often accompanies Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations that are more circus than spiritual.
Fourth, over the next few years the community should put a moratorium
on capital projects and invest its money instead into lowering the
cost of tuition and Shule membership. Better smaller buildings that
are full rather than mammoth ones that are empty. We must move from a
Bricks-and-mortar mentality to an education and programming orientation.
Finally, teaching Jewish values that pertain to dating and marriage should be mandatory in all Jewish schools and Synagogues. Men especially need to be educated as to the holistic concepts of female beauty that Judaism has always championed rather than allowing secular notions of physical beauty to dominate the dating scene. And if they had some self-respect, the women would get on with their lives, study, get degrees, and develop their potential rather than pursuing men who aren't serious and just play with them. It should be the business of parents, Rabbis, and friends to push Jewish men to act honorably by dating seriously and committing. Our women should not spend their lives chasing commitment-phobic men.
No doubt others have far better suggestions than me. But to ignore our community's financial and romantic crisis is to watch a generation of Jews leave the fold not because they're bored or busy but because they're broke and alone.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's newest best-seller is 'The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets to Reigniting Desire and Restoring Passion for Life." He recently launched a national family dinner initiative called 'Turn Friday Night into Family Night.'
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