“What is the Cost of Jewish Living?”
Rabbi Jordan Helfman
As we gather on this Holy Day – as the setting sun pushes in a New Year – a new decade of Jewish existence, 5780, we begin to assess as a collective and as individuals what is the “state of the covenant”?
Said in another way, year after year on Rosh Hashanah we focus on checking the hands on the doomsday clock of the Jewish People. Or, as the old commercial used to say: Its Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780, Do you know where your children are?
We have been called the “Ever Dying People” with the hands of our clock constantly poised, in the Jewish imagination, at a minute to midnight, and each year we wonder if the next turning of the calendar, flip of the generations will sweep away the Judaism we recognise into the pages of history.
This year, for our “State of the Covenant”, we are going to tackle, what many identify as one of the greatest threats to continued Jewish life, as it is today, in Toronto: “How much does it cost to be Jewish?” Is being Jewish something I can continue to afford?
Let’s start at the beginning. With the Bris. In addition to what every baby needs, and what every parent wants – the diapers and the wipes, the crib, bassinet, car seat, rocker, – If you are a boy, your family invested around $500 in coret habrit the cutting of the covenant. A girl, a bit less – not because you are worth less, but because your induction into the Jewish people was less painful – but hopefully you were also welcomed with at least some bagels.
Then we have Little Blossoms, Tot Shabbat dinners, religious school, Hebrew tutoring, Hebrew Day School, summer camp, youth group activities, CHAT, NFTY, HABSTY, March of the Living, family trips to Israel, God willing a wedding.. for some, two weddings – ending in a long term visit to a nice quiet Jewish neighborhood surrounded by some of the people sitting next to you tonight.
And of course, along the way, as you’ll hear tonight, your synagogue membership, donations to the annual campaign. A contribution to the renewal fund. It won’t impact you now, but don’t forget legacy giving, because maybe our children don’t yet value what we value, and we want to keep the synagogue here for when they are older and ready to take it seriously.
Some of you, I can see, have been doing mental totals.
While you are doing those totals – I want to add three new pieces of information into the mix. The first is that as Rabbi Marmur says – those that are serious about Judaism live near Jews. According to Kehillah, our UJA supported rental assistance agency, living in affordable housing within a Jewish neighbourhood comes at a 20% premium versus other areas of the city of Toronto. It costs many of our families 20% more to try to live in a vibrant Jewish community.
The second is that while millennials in America are earning less than their parents did – the story is more complicated in Canada. Here, according to Statistics Canada, our children are earning as much or more than we did, but – unlike their parents – are supporting a crushing burden of debt.
And the third is that the economy is changing around us, as buzzwords like the gig economy and sharing economy take off, we recognize many corporate code-words that make ‘precarious contract employment’ seem hip, cool and modern.
Judaism is expensive – and I am worried about the next generation’s ability to afford the Jewish life that previous generations were able to afford. Life blossoms here because previous generations were able to live in such close proximity to Holy Blossom. This is something which our synagogue board and the UJA Federation tackle – how to be financially sustainable in a more financially stressed future. I am not going to offer an answer tonight, because the answer is personal as well as communal. It lies with each of us planning for the next generation. Instead we need to address, what I view, is the larger cost of Jewish life.
While the gig economy, the sharing economy, being a twitter warrior for the environment and being a discriminating shopper based on paper straws and cloth bags are all increasingly hip, cool and modern faces of a righteous person. Judaism, for some, no longer seems hip, cool and modern. In fact, I hear reports that in some circles, it is increasingly difficult to be Jewish publicly.
In this past year, one of my conversion students was confronted by their fellow grad students, because, by dint of their conversion to Judaism, they were converting into an oppressor of the Palestinian People.
And on these Holy Day as we hear the words of Rabbi Akiva, singing the Shema as he praises God with his full self, the last sounds only escaping with his soul. In our YK afternoon Martyrology, we will also remember the names of Jews, here in North America, who paid the ultimate cost for being Jewish. Martyred for attending synagogue.
This year we had children in our parking lots having conversations with their parents about if they felt safe walking into our building – and when they did step out of the cars, our children and our parents made a calculation. Of worth. Of potential cost.
Of the cost of a Jewish education, and is it worth it.
We ask today, “What is the cost of Judaism?”
The cost – friends – is not financial. It is emotional. It beyond a concept of wealth into a realm of deep emotion. Of deep connection to our ancestors, connections both real and imagined.
For many of our ancestors, Judaism was not a choice – but they would have had it no other way. They structured societies around them which included communal tzedakah funds, warm welcomes for travels from other lands, and a deep duty to actualize a sense of what was Divine in the world. In some generations, our ancestors would give generously to these communal funds – in other eras, draw on them heavily.
If our religious, not just moral or ethical but religious duty of looking after the poor and disenfranchised is to survive – If our religious, not just moral or ethical, but religious duty of welcoming the stranger, to our homes and to our country is to remain a mandate into the future – If our religious obligation to look for and nurture the Divine in all humanity – If Judaism will survive this modern hour, we must look inside ourselves and answer that the cost is an ever-present feeling of duty.
The cost, my friends – is duty. That is the cost of being Jewish. Some here might articulate that covenant, that duty, as being duty to the Eternal – others as Eternal duty to the other.
The French Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas asks who is a Jew? He answers – one who looks at another and feels an infinite obligation, an infinite debt, an infinite duty.
A few moments ago, I mentioned Kehilla, our community’s rent assistance program. I have made three referrals to this program in the last week, and I know that their weight list – those that pay more than 35% of their income and benefits to housing, contains as many names as those they do support.
And I need to mention JF&CS, because this Rosh Hashanah there are more children in the Jewish foster care system than there have been in a long time. JF&CS and all of the social service agencies now place children with relatives at a much higher rate than in the past. But, there are always children that they cannot place. I know Rabbi Plaut once stood on this Bimah and asked that you consider having another child for the sake of the Jewish people. Today, I repeat another call that our rabbis have made in the past- to think about taking in someone else’s child and treating them as you own. Most of the families that do volunteer to open their homes to foster children are religious families, doing a mitzvah. The call from JF&CS was specifically to the rabbis at Holy Blossom Temple – when I asked why, I learned that many of the children in need at this moment are from progressive Jewish backgrounds, and there are not nearly enough homes open to them in our community.
Judaism is duty. Think seriously about if you can properly foster, and reach out to JF&CS to begin their rigorous screening process.
This year, this decade, is not the last of the Undying people. A report commission a few years ago in the US on the question of the cost of Jewish living reached a typical depressing, ever-dying conclusion. After saying that yes- programs were aimed at the affluent, and were out of reach of too many single-parent or multi-child homes, it continued:
“To be sure, there remains considerable truth to the view that money is by no means the critical obstacle in Jewish life, so much as the paucity of compelling ideas to make Jewish living worthwhile. Therefore, in the final analysis, we need to devote communal attention to two very different but overlapping fronts – lowering the cost for those prepared to make Jewish choices and enhancing the attractiveness of those choices to make Jewish life more compelling.”
In this year, I hope our Judaism is based on attractiveness, yes, but especially a duty. In this year, I truly hope our Judaism is not based on resistance to external hate – that the tragedies and small-mindedness reverse their trends. I hope instead that we are given the chance to look inside ourselves and find there… an undying sense of obligation, of mitzvah. This New Year as we hear the Ram’s horn sound, as we hear the stories of Ishmael, and Isaac, of Sarah, Hagar and Hannah, as we gather with family and friends and fellow congregants – This New Year as we read the names of the martyrs – may we reach inside of ourselves and find there the Eternal Jewish call – Ve’ahavta et Adonai Eloheicha – that beyond the fear, beyond the apathy, is a call of duty to God, to the world, and to the Jewish People. And this year, and this decade, may we have the courage to answer it.
May this Holy Day remind us of what Judaism means to us – That it is an investment in the world we want to make real, and that we can only realise it by sensing our obligation to our fellows, ourselves, our God.