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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The two most urgent priorities of the American Jewish community are making Jewish life more affordable and fixing the Jewish dating scene.
This recession has reinforced the opinion that it's just too expensive to be Jewish. Yes, we have paid a far higher price than money to hold on to our traditions. So how ironic that an economic downturn may end up knocking countless Jewish families out of Jewish practice.
The cost of Jewish day school is a killer. Since there are precious few Jews in the world, and since we shun active proselytizing, we must rely on a high birthrate. But families with a lot of kids are hit with staggering tuition costs, and I know of many that have had fewer children as a result.
Then there is the cost of kosher food, which averages about 30% more than nonkosher food, while kosher restaurants appear to charge about 50% more. Of course, the festivals cost a fortune, with Pessah especially breaking the bank for many a family. Religious articles are not cheap either. Tefillin are expensive, with a bar or bat mitzva being much more so, especially since keeping-up-with-the-Schwartzes has now created toxic social competitiveness.
Even simply living within walking distance of a synagogue is often beyond people's means, since Jewish communities are usually in upscale neighborhoods. And once you walk to shul, you have the cost of family membership to consider, which is now skyrocketing as many communities undertake large capital improvements.
The other day a woman, whose husband's salary had been severely cut and who has five young children, came to see me. She grew up secular and later became observant. She said to me coldly and matter-of-factly: "How odd that becoming religious has brought us near bankruptcy."
The dating dilemma is equally grave. The Jewish community seems to have two women for every man, which creates an unnatural scene where the women appear desperate. This both allows men to date without committing and also undermines traditional Jewish values about choosing a woman of character. Since each man has a near-harem, he ends up feeling like TV's The Bachelor, dating women distinguished by figure and looks.
The Orthodox community is especially betraying itself. Many of my Chabad colleagues share stories with me of how mothers of eligible bochurim (student rabbis) now call a girl's friends for references, with the first questions often being about size and physique. The mothers have lists of girls proposed as possible matches, and work on several "applicants" at once. Similarly, the other night I attended a forum for parents of Yeshiva University presided over by its president Richard Joel. Among the first questions put to him was why the shidduch scene at the world's foremost Orthodox educational institution has become so broken.
THERE ARE NO EASY solutions to these problems, but here are some suggestions.
First, the American Jewish community must make its foremost political priority (after support for Israel) the championing of school vouchers. Parents should have the right to choose which school their children attend, and parochial schools should be getting state funding, at least for their secular departments. In the same way American Jewry uses its clout to support pro-Israel candidates, we must get behind candidates who are pro-voucher.
Second, a national campaign should be launched to make kosher food mainstream for everyone. Already studies show that approximately 20% of Americans buy food with kosher symbols because of the high quality. Doubling that number would create an economy of scale which would vastly lower costs.
The same applies to kosher restaurants. Imagine a national kosher restaurant chain for the mainstream public. There would be a dramatic reduction of costs because of millions more customers, and kosher travelers would need not starve. If a national organic kosher chain opened, many non-Jews who currently avoid fast food may well flock to it.
Third, the rabbis should institute communal norms of acceptable spending on bar and bat mitvas, circumcisions and other religious celebrations. This would get rid of unseemly extravaganzas that are more circus than spiritual.
Fourth, over the next few years the community should put a moratorium on capital projects and invest its money instead in lowering the cost of tuition and synagogue membership. Better smaller buildings that are full than mammoth ones that are empty. We must move from a bricks-and-mortar mentality to an education and programming orientation.
Finally, teaching Jewish values that pertain to dating and marriage should be mandatory in all Jewish schools and synagogues. Men especially need to be educated as to the holistic concepts of female beauty that Judaism has always championed. And if they had some self-respect, the women would get on with their lives, study, get degrees and develop their potential rather than pursuing men who just play with them. It should be the business of parents, rabbis and friends to push Jewish men to act honorably. Our women should not spend their lives chasing commitment-phobic men.
To ignore our community's financial and romantic crises is to watch a generation of Jews leave the fold, not because they're bored or busy, but because they're broke and alone.
The writer's newest best-seller is The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets to Reigniting Desire and Restoring Passion for Life.