When being Jewish becomes too expensive

Not for nothing is matzah called the bread of poverty: because when you tot up your Pesach bills afterwards, they are likely to have made a deep hole in your pocket. The ritual outcry against Passover prices came this year with disturbing reports of a growing numbers of people having had to rely on charity to help them celebrate it.

It’s ironic that the festival of freedom should be a time of anguish. But Pesach is just one occasion in the year. It prompts a wider question: to what extent does the cost of Jewish living affect involvement in the community and could it even drive some people away? So far as I am aware, there is no hard data but the economic crisis that struck in 2008 has clearly hit Jewish people and institutions.

A report recently produced by the JLC and the UJIA on youth activities found cause for concern. One in five organisations had to cancel an event in the past five years due to lack of funds. Cuts in grants have placed a greater burden on parents.

A summer camp with a youth movement can cost around £1,000, a month-long Israel tour will not leave much change from £3,000. (This is on top of the £500 plus which many families will be paying in synagogue fees, along with hundreds of pounds a year for contributions to their children’s Jewish studies at Jewish schools).
Numbers going on Israel tour at 16 have remained high — 50 per cent of the available age group outside the Charedi community — thanks to a substantial pool of bursaries from the UJIA and the different movements. Some families may forgo a summer holiday in order to send their child on tour; others may be too embarrassed to apply for a bursary, even if eligible.

According to the UJIA/JLC report, those “who fall just above the bursary limit are the ones who suffer most”. But the evidence is anecdotal: no one knows how many teenagers do not go on tour because of cost.
Pre-university gap years in Israel have traditionally groomed leaders not only for youth groups but the future activists in communal organisations. But costing upwards of £10,000 a year, they are increasingly becoming a luxury. “The impact of increased university fees, coupled with a struggling economy, means that Israel gap year is unaffordable for most,” the report stated.

It surely cannot be healthy if gap year programmes are restricted to a financial elite. One educational director proposed the creation of a special subsidy fund which would allow any Jewish child to go on a gap year in Israel for £1,000. It is not such an outlandish idea. The international Birthright scheme already offers short trips to Israel at little or no cost for young adults who have not previously gone there on an educational tour. A number of interviewees in the report called for reduced fees for young people to go to social events or join synagogues.

Young Jews are more likely to remain actively Jewish if they have social Jewish networks in close proximity. Digital connectivity of course can transcend distance. But you can’t share a Shabbat meal over Skype.
British Jewry has been contracting into fewer geographical centres: migration continues into the capital from the regions and there appears to be little reverse movement. The number of viable regional Jewish communities is shrinking by the year. Yet soaring London house prices may make it increasingly harder for young Jews to opt for existing areas of Jewish settlement.

Even 25 years ago, philanthropists like the late Fred Worms suggested establishing subsidised housing for Jewish school-teachers. The gap between incomes and affordable housing has widened significantly since. Not every young Jew counts as a “young professional” and even those in what once might be thought a “middle-income” bracket might now find housing a challenge, especially if their parents cannot help. Forced to look for homes beyond the reach of organised Jewish life, communal ties may weaken. Economic assimilation is a risk we should take more seriously.

Last updated: 3:45pm, April 27 2014