The spiralling cost of kosher living
How a Jewish lifestyle costs you an extra £12,700 a year
The affordability of living Jewishly is a perennial subject for debate, often without much cost data. As economists, we wanted to see what actual data was available so we could encourage a more evidence-based debate on whether there is indeed a "cost of Jewish living" crisis. Our findings were presented at this year's Limmud.
We built a "Kosher Chicken Index" - a basket of goods reflecting products that Jews are likely to buy in order to lead a Jewish lifestyle - and compared the prices with non-Jewish equivalents.
We found that living Jewishly in the UK can have an annual cost premium of £12,700 per family.
What is the cost of living Jewishly?
The cost depends in large part on how you define a Jewish lifestyle. Nevertheless, there are certain big-ticket items that are commonly incurred.
The biggest cost may be property prices. One fifth of British Jews are concentrated in the north London borough of Barnet, where property prices are 157 per cent higher than average prices for England and Wales.
A further significant cost is kosher food. Comparing prices between Kosher Deli, the London kosher butcher and delicatessen chain, and Tesco for five products (whole chicken, minced beef, whole turkey, diced beef and chicken thighs), we found that kosher meat was on average double the cost of regular supermarket meat. That premium varies according to the cut of meat (filleted chicken thighs command a high premium of 250 per cent while diced beef came in at a modest eight per cent premium).
This also affects the cost of eating out, with prices at kosher Indian or Chinese restaurants 70 per cent more than at equivalent non-kosher restaurants, reflecting the price of kosher meat and the cost of restaurant supervision.
Membership of a typical synagogue costs between £600-800 per household. This is in part due to Jewish requirements for burial, the cost of which is triple that of cremation, as well as the high salaries paid to rabbis (at least twice that of vicars in London). This may be why, outside the Charedi community, synagogue affiliation rates are declining, with many Jews preferring to affiliate with the community in different ways, for instance through JW3, the Moishe House or Chabad.
Jewish state schools charge an annual premium of up to £2,000 per child to reflect the cost of additional religious education, though the cost of Jewish education compares very favourably with that in America or France, where there are no state-funded faith schools.
Simchahs are a further significant cost, driven by the need to "keep up with the Cohens". The average Jewish wedding was reported this year to cost £55,000, compared to a UK average of under half that amount, while bar- and batmitzvahs represent a significant additional cost that is specific to the Jewish community.
There are a range of additional costs not included within this basket. Age-16 Israel tours now cost around £2,800 per child, while post-university Israel gap years cost £10,000 to £15,000 each. Taking your family to Limmud costs £1,270, while we found that kosher Passover holidays include a mark-up of 400 per cent over the regular price.
In addition, for the more observant who buy all groceries kosher, there are further costs not included in this overall figure.
Comparing prices at Kosher Kingdom supermarket with those at Tesco, staples like milk and eggs cost 10-20 per cent more if kosher, while kosher baked beans and pizzas are double the equivalent non-kosher price. A humble pack of ginger biscuits cost eight times more.
How have prices changed over the years?
We estimated the cost inflation in kosher meat by comparing Kosher Deli prices advertised in the JC in January 2005 with those in-store last October.
Our data shows that kosher meat prices have doubled in little over a decade, compared with non-kosher meat prices which rose by 40 per cent .
Similarly, property prices in north-west London have fast outstripped prices elsewhere, making it increasingly unaffordable for young Jews to live in the vicinity of a Jewish community.
However, the story is not all negative. The expansion of Jewish state schools provides a low-cost, high-quality alternative to private education.
Why is the cost a problem?
The Jewish community is an affluent one, with average earnings for a Jewish household some 54 per cent higher than the UK average, with a Jewish dual income household earning £23,600 more than the UK average, based on analysis of UK national statistics. There are also a wide range of charities and welfare funds that help less well-off people to be able to afford kosher food, synagogue membership and other activities.
However, for the rapidly growing Charedi sector, the cost of living is a major source of concern. Rabbi Abraham Pinter, a leading Charedi rabbi, said in 2014 that 40 per cent of Orthodox families in Stamford Hill, in London rely on charitable support to celebrate Passover.
Many mainstream Jews may be put off from a more observant lifestyle by the cost. Even those that can afford kosher meat may still question whether it is a more ethical choice than organic or free-range meat, which is sometimes cheaper.
What can be done?
There are many good reasons why a Jewish lifestyle may cost more, such as the costs of supervising food. Jews value living in communities and there are better economic opportunities in London; and we are a small community so we will inevitably miss out on the economies of scale seen in the wider market.
However, high prices are not a given. There are many things that can improve the affordability of Jewish living.
First, there needs to be greater cost transparency. For instance, few synagogues publicise their membership prices on their website. And, incredibly, the London Board of Shechita cannot provide any data or explanation as to why the price of kosher meat has risen over time.
Secondly, the community needs to identify cost efficiencies even when they are difficult.
In many areas, synagogues could merge, but personalities and denominational politics often get in the way. Kashrut authorities also need to find ways to produce and license food more cost-effectively. The Sephardi Kashrut Authority is a good example - certifying Kingsmill bread as kosher and using CCTVs in restaurant kitchens to keep down supervision costs.
Thirdly, the community needs to harness the power of competition to drive prices down. There are too many impediments to switching synagogues, such as the inability to transfer accumulated burial rights to a different denomination.
Similarly, kashrut authorities need to value the interests of consumers over that of producers when deciding whether to license new stores or products.
And communal organisations need to give greater consideration to inclusivity by offering activities and services at a wider range of price points.
Anthony Tricot is a consultant for Ernst and Young and a former government economist. He is also a trustee of the S&P Sephardi Community of London and its representative at the Board of Deputies. Andrea Silberman is an economist at the Treasury. The article was written in a personal capacity.