As thousands of Jewish activists gather in Jerusalem for the General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), their leadership has articulated an action plan to solve the “existential crisis” facing the “non-Orthodox American Jewish community.” In a recent Forward article, Jerry Silverman, the JFNA’s president and CEO, offered an important four-point program, hoping to set the agenda for this GA – and American Jewry. This thoughtful initiative will fail, however, without an honest, out-of-the-box conversation about two central challenges: the abusively high cost of “doing Jewish” in America – and the partially-related values void.
Silverman shrewdly endorses “Jewish Head Start programs,” more Jewish camps, and an even more robust – and hopefully even better funded –Birthright Israel. He also proposes “Jewish Development Zones” in “those places where we are strong in numbers but weak in connection.”
Free early childhood programs welcome back many Jews who treated their bar and bat mitzvahs as graduations from Judaism rather than recommitment ceremonies to Judaism and the Jewish people. In our age of what the sociologist Robert Bellah called “radical individualism,” many Americans have created a largely “negative” process of “giving birth to oneself” by “breaking free from family, community, and inherited ideas.” By the time many American Jews become parents they, too, are “disconnected” searchers, divorced from traditional “sources of authority, duty and moral example.” Effective coaching can reconnect young parents to the community, positioning Judaism as a fabulous resource in child development, values training, and family-building.
Similarly, Jewish camps and Birthright Israel, with their 24/7 Jewish and youth cultures are proven successes. Ultimately, these programs must not be considered interventions, last gasp desperate attempts to keep our kids Jewish, but as critical, integrated way stations in every young Jew’s Jewish journey. And yes, while the Israel trips are transformational, leaders have not figured out how to welcome these young people back into a community which often alienated them in the first place.
A fifth pillar must be excellent Jewish education – the more the better; the more lasting – especially into high school when identity development takes place – the better; and the cheaper the better. We need Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and secular yeshivot not Jewish prep academies for the high net worth individuals of tomorrow. Our schools must teach and embody musar morals, and sharpening both mind and spirit.
Let’s push the conversation further. Many involved American Jews today are oppressed by the insanely high cost of “doing Jewish.” One Orthodox doctor once told me that being Jewish costs him $100,000, after taxes. He calculated the cost of day school and camp, synagogue dues, and a basic Federation gift. He overlooked the high cost of kosher meat and kosher restaurants, and the exorbitant cost of buying a house in most Jewish neighborhoods, especially within walking distance of a synagogue.
Conversation about the burdensome costs of Jewish day schools has started. Leaders of every community should ask whether their own Jewish professionals can afford to send their children to the local Jewish schools. Some communities, like Montreal, have created special endowments to help middle class Jews get scholarships too.
Still, the bigger issue is existential. Many young Jews feel tremendous pressure to make career choices based on a perverse financial calculus. Many understand how much they must earn not only to “do Jewish” but to feel comfortable in many Jewish communities and – frankly – at communal gatherings like the GA. High blood pressure might be the “silent killer” because the symptoms are obscured; this financial pressure is a “silent killer” of Jewish souls as well as alternative careers in education, the arts, community, social work, especially because the problem is rarely discussed.
This pressure is less silent in two ways. First, many Jewish students feel bullied by their parents and teachers to work hard, get good grades, complete that perfect resume, secure acceptance into the right schools, all to start earning the big bucks they need to live the right American lifestyle – and American Jewish lifestyle. Jewish schools, I regret to say, frequently are stress factories and status farms, burdening students with crushing expectations, while judging success by external status markers rather than internal soul standards.
Too many American Jews are caught in the throes of a materialistic mania, while suffering from “affluenza.” This spiritual influenza of the affluent expresses itself as an addiction to the cult of success, an obsession with collecting goodies rather than living the good life, and a profound sense of psychic emptiness after sacrificing one’s soul, one’s family, one’s community, one’s values, in this perpetual but ultimately unsatisfying quest.
I am neither a hippie nor a monk. I love that Judaism champions doing well and living well. But a rich, authentic Judaism also offers balance. It teaches how to calibrate better, how to infuse our lives with tradition, with values, with family commitments and communal connections that enrich our lives.
Because of the American Jewish cult of success, and because of the outsized influence wealthy donors have at the communal “table,” we fear this kind of frank, critical conversation. But our young people sense our hypocrisy. Moreover, a Jewishly-literate, soul-stretching, truly fulfilling, values-based conversation should not stir class warfare but help us all find more meaning in our lives, regardless of social, financial or professional status.
We need a new balance, using Judaism to fill the values void that afflicts modern life. Let’s encourage worldly ambition and Jewish ambition. Let’s celebrate successful careers and satisfied souls. Let’s assess which infrastructures depress our spirits and which elevate them. And once American Judaism becomes more vital, vibrant, relevant, and yes, subversive, more Jews will flock to our institutions because they are answering our psychic needs, as humans, to stretch, grow, flourish.
Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill University and the Chairman of the Birthright Israel International Education Committee. His latest book, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism was recently published by Oxford University Press.Watch the new Moynihan''s Moment video!