The Best Things In Life Aren't Free--Neither Is Being Jewish – Kveller
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The Best Things In Life Aren’t Free–Neither Is Being Jewish

It’s Too Expensive To Be Jewish” is the title of a Los Angeles Times personal essay written by a mother who, in the course of trying to figure out how to afford bar mitzvah tutoring for her son, decided that being Jewish is, well, too expensive (exemplified by the high cost of synagogue membership and High Holiday tickets).

Her conclusion is one with which I vehemently disagree–but that is in no small part because I vehemently disagree with her feelings about the underlying value of being Jewish.

Admittedly, I’m coming at this from a different angle than the writer, because Judaism is a non-negotiable point in my life, and I would happily drop other expenditures before the costs of Jewish communal life. But that–arguing that “if she gave up Starbucks and taekwondo and blah blah, she could afford to join a synagogue”–is entirely beyond the point.

The headline (and piece itself) troubles me in that it’s the Jewish community equivalent of the “shanda for the goyim.” The “shanda for the goyim,” for those who may be unfamiliar, is the idea that a particular topic is embarrassing to the Jews and not to be discussed “outside” the community.

This piece, however, is a step beyond that: It is a “shanda for the Jews” in that if there is even one person among us who feels that it is prohibitively expensive to be a member of a Jewish community, it is a disgrace. And Jewish institutions like the ones the writer cites in her piece are actively trying to fix that problem.

The issue of the high cost of synagogue membership and/or enrollment in Jewish institutions is not a new one and has been discussed by parents, educators, administrators, op-ed writers and clergy ad infinitum. A synagogue, the argument goes, does need to actually run beyond those High Holidays–and to do so needs money.

But I would say that just as much as it needs money, a synagogue needs bodies and souls–people to fill the proverbial pews, sure, but also people who believe that being Jewish is an important part of their lives, one they couldn’t do without any more than they could go a day without coffee (and just think, they get to do both on Yom Kippur! Win!).

So yes, it’s incumbent on Jewish institutions–if they want to maintain, well, Jews and being institutions–to be more welcoming financially. But it is also incumbent on us, as Jews, to take a stand in terms of who we are and what is important to us–and what we want a Jewish community to be.

Those of us who are “inside” need to be more welcoming to those who are not. Each synagogue should be making intense, empathetic efforts to penetrate the homes of its members to deepen its daily relevance.

I empathize with the writer in some senses, and very much do not in others. Yes, you can complain that it costs too much to be part of a congregation or to be tutored for a bar mitzvah–but it is hard to understand that idea of financial hardship if the writer is also writing in the same piece about taking taekwondo classes, sending her kid to sleepaway camp, etc. In other words, the “it costs too much” argument comes in part from financial concerns, and in equally important part, it comes from priorities.

I once did an interview with a Jewish educator who told me, when I expressed concern about dwindling numbers in my Conservative movement of Judaism, that an increase in the “quality” of involved congregants could compensate for the decline in quantity. In other words, the glass may well be half empty—but what’s left in the glass is top-shelf champagne.

What’s the opposite of dayenu? Because that, to me, as a concerned Jew and parent of six Jewish kids, is definitely not enough. It isn’t enough to simply be happy with the few of us who keep going to synagogue, despite the siren calls of travel soccer.

It’s necessary to make being actively, rather than passively, Jewish an important part of life just like working out: sometimes wonderful, sometimes difficult, but always necessary for a healthy, fully livable life.

Because the next logical step I took after reading this piece was to raise the question:

Why is the writer even bothering to have her child become a bar mitzvah at all?

The idea behind becoming a bar or bat mitzvah is to signify the commencement of the child’s engagement with the Jewish community and his newfound responsibilities as an adult to that community. But if it’s just a stand-alone ceremony with no follow-up–no congregational involvement, no further Jewish education, no institutional or communal building of a Jewish life–then honestly, what is the point?

I don’t think there is much value, honestly, in seeing being Jewish as something vestigial–an obligation to alive or dead grandparents, a burden, a box to be checked. But that is because I see Judaism as something so engaging, alive and dynamic that I cannot imagine my life without it.

If we don’t have institutions that actively communicate that point to their congregants or members–and don’t build that community and continuity outside their walls–then perhaps it is inevitable that people will say, “oh, you’re 13, let’s hire a rent-a-rabbi and do a ceremony” without understanding what that ceremony actually means, or knowing that it is supposed to be a new beginning of being Jewish, not an end.

The best things in life are sometimes not free–but if we don’t see them as the best things in life, then we sure as hell aren’t inclined to pay for them. We as Jews who are invested in Jewish continuity need to make Judaism not a service provider, but a way of life. It’s not just incumbent on synagogues–it’s incumbent on all of this who find this important, to ensure the continued existence of meaningful community for our children.

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