It's the economy, 'tipesh'

Although American Jews associate making aliya with economic sacrifice, aliya can make economic sense.

US olim 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
US olim 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
America's Jews enjoy relatively high socioeconomic status. The 2008 US Religious Landscape Study of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that the educational levels of America's Jews are second only to those of Hindus among the country's religious groups. More than three-quarters have at least some college education; 24 percent are college graduates and another 35% have post-graduate education. On the other hand, it is of significance that Jews in American colleges and universities are decreasingly attracted to science and technology and are a decreasing percentage of outstanding students. In part, this is due to the rapid increase of Asian students who have high rates of excellence. America's Jews also enjoy high occupational status, with more than 60% of both men and women in the top categories, as compared with less than 30% of the larger population. America's Jews also continue to have above-average rates of self-employment. Moreover, there is much less dissimilarity between the occupational status of men and women for Jews than for others of their socioeconomic status. Indeed, for America's Jews, the gender gap in occupation has largely disappeared. Given their high educational and occupational status, it is not surprising that Jews have high-income status. As compared to 48% for the entire population, 75% of Jews have annual income of $50,000 or more, with 46% having annual incomes of $100,000 and more, and another 29% $50,000-$99,000. But the high socioeconomic status of Jews as a group masks their high income gaps. While their incomes are the second highest in the country, with 75% having incomes of more than $50,000 per year, they also have significant poverty rates. According to a study by the United Jewish Communities, 15%-20% are poor. In New York, the figure is even higher, with more than 25% living near or below the poverty line. The Jewish poor are comprised primarily of the elderly, some of whom are Holocaust survivors; immigrants from the former Soviet Union; ultra-Orthodox; and those earning minimum wage or less. The annual family income of Reform Jews is higher than that of Conservative Jews, and that of Conservative Jews is higher than that of the Orthodox. Since the Orthodox have more children than Conservative and Reform do, the economic constraints are greater than the data indicate. The lower income of the Orthodox, combined with their larger families, means that they have considerably less disposable income than others. In addition, their ideological commitments compel them to join synagogues at higher rates than others, to send their children to private day schools and to contribute to a variety of other Jewish communal institutions. They are thus disproportionally affected by what has been called "the high cost of Jewish living." THE COST of Jewish living has become increasingly intolerable. At least 12 years of Jewish day school education is today the norm in the Orthodox community, a cost borne by parents. Tuitions and other required fees in Modern Orthodox high schools in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area average about $20,000 of non-tax-deductible dollars per child. At Manhattan's Ramaz High School tuition is now more than $30,000 annually. When we add the cost of synagogue membership and summer camp fees to the many other costs involved in living Jewishly, the economic realities of the Jewish-committed are far less rosy that the broader data suggest. Nor is this an issue solely for the Orthodox. Tuition at Manhattan's Abraham Joshua Heschel School, a pluralistic Jewish day school, is very close to that of Ramaz. Especially amid the current economic situation, many parents are finding it increasingly difficult to make their financial ends meet, and those who are not fully-committed to living Jewishly are discouraged from sending their children to day schools because of the high cost. Indeed, a number of Conservative Solomon Schechter day schools have closed in recent years, and it is estimated that another six or so will likely close in the foreseeable future. THE HIGH cost of Jewish living has had an impact on patterns of American aliya. Those for whom living a Jewish lifestyle is more important are those who are most likely to make aliya because their lifestyle costs are much lower in Israel. Ironically, although American Jews have traditionally associated making aliya with economic sacrifice, aliya can make economic sense. Indeed, for the past several years, the major organizations promoting American aliya, Nefesh B'Nefesh, the Jewish Agency, and the American branch of the Israel Aliya Center have been directing their messages to Orthodox families with small children, emphasizing the economic incentive of aliya. There had been some debate about the wisdom of this approach, but it does reflect the immediate economic concerns of young American Orthodox families. Jewish Agency officials have recently expressed optimism that the current financial crisis will contribute to a new wave of American aliya. However, the current economic recession and the housing crisis may actually have just the opposite effect. As a start, both younger and older potential olim may be prevented from making aliya because of an inability to sell their houses at the price they intended when they planned their aliya. Not only that: The strong Israeli real estate market and the across-the-board recent price rises here mean less purchasing power on both the US and Israeli sides. Fewer of the younger olim will consider commuting to jobs in the US as a viable option because of the increasing weakness of the dollar, and seniors living on US pensions and Social Security will find aliya and living in Israel a much less viable option. In addition, the combined declining dollar and increasing shekel has had serious adverse impact on some of the programs which bring youth to Israel, such as the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel, the Ramah Jerusalem High School TRY program, and the many yeshivot and seminaries which comprise the post-high school Year-in-Israel program. But the American economic crisis is significant not only because of its impact on the pocketbooks of Jews. It affects the population as a whole, and could lead to social upheaval. Although America's Jews have enjoyed unprecedented degrees of equality and a sense of being at-home that they have not experienced in any society in which they were not sovereign, there are no guarantees that this will not slow down, if not reverse direction. While such a forecast is not on the radar screen, anyone with a sense of history cannot be too certain that it cannot develop. The writer is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute and a professor emeritus of sociology and Jewish studies at Rutgers University. A somewhat different version of this article appears in Hebrew in the spring 2008 issue of Hade'ah Haravahat, the quarterly publication of the Israel Council on Social Welfare.