Friday, December 02, 2005

Time for Community to Fix the High Cost of Being Jewish

December 1, 2005
copyright 2005 D B Levy

Time for Community to Fix the High Cost of Being Jewish

Dov Burt Levy

Sometimes an institution (or a person or politician for that matter) can get out of knee-jerk defensive mode, admit a mistake, acknowledge that things are wrong or not going well, and change its ways. To me, that is integrity and accomplishment.

That's why I applauded last week when I read the story of Tel Hai college, located near Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel, which had refused to accept a young woman with cerebral palsy as a student. The college had argued that its location on a steep hill was not easily accessible.

When the situation was exposed in Ha'aretz, condemnation came from many facets of Israeli society. In fact, two other colleges offered admission to the rejected student.

The Tel Hai administration quickly said they erred in their original decision and would fix it right away. Good work!

Now let's turn closer to home.

Last year, the Journal ran a front-page story called "The High Cost of Being Jewish on the North Shore" written by then associate editor, Gary Band. The essence of the story was that the expenses associated with taking part in the Jewish community kept many families from full participation.

The story pointed to the following costs, among others: temple dues, building funds, JCC membership, tuitions for Jewish day school and summer camp, a variety of contributions, plus fees associated with other social and education programs. The total dollar amount for a young working class family is simply beyond its ability to pay. And having to admit to the Jewish community that the money isn't there is too degrading.

We don't know today the percentage of Jewish kids in our area whose participation is diminished due to lack of money. Whatever the exact numbers are, community action is key to fulfilling our mandate of keeping our children Jewish.

In the weeks following the news story, most of the community went into defensive mode, arguing the obvious: that keeping important organizations going required raising funds through dues and fees. But, they said, most religious organizations and schools made scholarships and dues abatements available to lower income individuals and families who apply.

You need to be poor, working poor, or struggling to pay the bills of the middle class to truly understand how difficult it is to come, hat in hand, to a committee and disclose to strangers that you lack money. I think it is easier for a Jewish kid to admit a father in jail than a mother on welfare. And you don't have to be on welfare or unemployed to be damn poor.

Chabad's rise on the North Shore (as well as around the world) shows how inclusion can be done with dignity. Chabad asks for participation first, financial support later. No committees determine how poor you are or what special treatment you should get. Still, Chabad ends up getting plenty of financial support. And they get it with a smile.

But Chabad, as successful as it is, should not be the only alternative for Jews to educate and socialize their children. Chabad's right-wing politics in Israel, its willingness to crack the wall between church and state in America, and its belief that their late Rabbi Schneerson was the Messiah are off-putting for most Jews.

The North Shore Jewish community is now in the middle of a major analysis called Solel (pathfinder) geared to helping our institutions serve our community better. (Information available at the Jewish Federation of the North Shore offices and at

I hope you will join me in asking Solel to take a new tack, as the Israeli college did, by making a top priority the ending of financial status as prerequisite for a full Jewish life. Somehow, every Jewish child should have the opportunity, week in and week out, for Jewish education, cultural and religious activities, regardless of family finances and without well-meaning, yet inevitably demeaning, financial aid committees.


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