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The view from the data: Do we spend too much on bnei mitzvot?

Being a Jew can be an expensive business, as Jonathan Boyd explains...

    (Photo: Getty Images)

    I’ve been waiting for this Shabbat for years. Ever since my son first exercised his lungs in the maternity unit at Hadassa Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem, it’s been at the back of my mind.

    All through his nursery and primary school years, and particularly as he transitioned to secondary school, it’s become an increasingly common thought. And now it’s finally here. Shabbat Zachor 5778. The moment my son becomes barmitzvah.

    But what I hadn’t fully appreciated until recently was how much the damn thing was going to cost.

    We’ve gone decidedly low key — after careful consideration, we decided not to fly in Beyoncé — but for all our efforts, it has still proved remarkably difficult not to spend a small fortune. I don’t mean to make my guests feel uncomfortable or anything, we’re only too happy to celebrate this wonderful milestone with them.

    And if any of them are reading this, please don’t think I’m going to be spending the entire weekend imagining you slowly eating away my retirement fund.

    That thought never even crossed my mind. You lot should just enjoy yourselves.

    But there has become a standard formula about how to do a barmitzvah that most people seem to follow. The venue; the caterer; the band; the lighting; the decorations. The benschers; the kippot; the kiddush in shul; the donation to shul. And, of course, the mandatory photo booth (alongside the actual photographer); the fancy-dress equipment for the photo booth; and the additional entertainment (to prevent the kids from running riot). The list just goes on and on.

    In some respects, the fact that such a formula exists reflects the strength of the community. We all know the unwritten rules and what we are meant to do. That’s an indicator of a close-knit, tight community. But there’s also a downside. The formula creates social pressure to replicate it; to do as others have done, or, perhaps to outdo them. And that’s where the financial pressure kicks in.

    For some, it’s not really an issue. Indeed, 47 per cent of all working-age British Jews are in the top two national socio-economic categories — i.e. they hold managerial or professional positions — compared to a national average of 30 per cent, and equivalent proportions for Hindus at 34 per cent and Muslims at 16 per cent.

    The converse is also true. Just 8 per cent of working-age Jews are classified as being either in routine occupations, unemployed or never having worked, compared to a national average of 17 per cent, and Hindu and Muslim equivalents of 17 per cent and 32 per cent respectively.

    In short, many Jews are reasonably well-placed to manage this type of financial pressure. But not all.

    And critically, there is a correlation between income levels and engagement in Jewish life.

    For example, Jews on higher incomes are more likely to buy kosher meat than those on lower incomes, presumably, in part, because kosher meat is more expensive than its non-kosher alternative. But Jews on higher incomes are also more likely to hold synagogue membership, a fact which requires rather more explanation as most synagogues are willing to offer reduced fees for those under financial stress.

    More troubling still is that Jews on higher incomes are also more likely to light Shabbat candles. Now that’s odd. Candles may be an indulgence if you’re doing all in your power just to put food on the table, but they’re hardly a luxury item. So what is going on?

    The most plausible explanation is that it’s expensive to be part of a Jewish community. You need to live in particular, often expensive, neighbourhoods, pay for synagogue membership, buy kosher food, send your children to the right schools.

    And yes, you need to put on the right kind of barmitzvah party. If you can’t afford that, it’s difficult to be part of that social set. And if you can’t find your way into a Jewish social set, your propensity to light Shabbat candles, even if you can afford them, declines.

    There is an economic dimension to Jewish living that rarely features in debates about how to maintain community engagement.

    But it matters. And if we’re going to deal with it, we may well need to adjust our community structures, rethink our social norms and re-establish some clearer moral principles. It may be too late for me to benefit for this barmitzvah, but don’t worry. I’ve got another one coming up next year.

     

    Jonathan Boyd is Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR).

     

     

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