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You do have to be rich to be my Jew

March 3, 2015 – 10:38 pm9 Comments

By Ron Burdo:

The cost of living Jewish life If-I-Were-a-Rich-Man-620x310in Australia is rising and rising. This puts a big question mark over the future of our community. And what have the community leaders done about it? Almost nothing.

Australian Jewry is proud of our prosperous community, our abundance of social activities and charities, our excellent education system and our low rate of assimilation. But are all these sustainable?

There are many factors that threaten the future of Jewish life in Australia, and one of them is already felt by many: affordability, or the lack of it. For more and more people in our community, living Jewish life and maintaining the Jewish identity of the next generation is rocketing out of financial reach.

Middle-class families – the backbone of our community – find themselves struggling to pay the bills of residential properties in the “bagel belt” and tuition of Jewish day schools (JDSs). They either cut other expenses to the bare bone, or simply give up these “Jewish” expenses altogether. Giving up means a weaker connection with the Jewish community, a weaker Jewish identity of the next generation, and a higher chance of assimilation.

Let’s estimate the costs. An average three-bedroom unit in Caulfield South costs about $850,000. A couple that already has a third of that, will have to take a home loan and pay about $3,000 a month for the next 30 years. Had they chosen to live, let’s say, in Cheltenham, their repayments would be slashed by half. The cost of a JDS for that couple will be about $1,000 per month in YBR, and many times that in non-Haredi schools.

Add smaller expenses like shule membership, Kosher food and so on, and the cost of being a Jewish family in Melbourne accumulates to at least $3,000 per month; about 37% of two average salaries. What can I say? Schver tzu zein a yid, it is hard to be a Jew. Or, in our case, it is expensive. Very expensive.

Previous generations could afford the Jewish costs, but during the last ten years, the housing prices in the Caulfield area have almost doubled, and the tuition fees at JDSs rose much faster than CPI.

I am definitely not the first person to point out this problem. The Gen08 survey did that better than me a few years ago. What I would like to focus on is the roaring silence of the leadership of our community. Educators, rabbis, managers of community organisations – almost all play the game of business as usual. They praise the financial generosity of the Jewish community and the high academic achievements of JDSs, but ignore the fact that all this bounty applies to a steadily shrinking group.


I recall a panel about  the cost of Jewish education, which took place at my shule. Someone in the audience claimed that many families give up on the JDS experience because of the cost. A principal of one of these schools responded that according to a poll, there were hardly any such cases.

On another occasion, another principal called upon the audience to “reprioritise their expenses” in order to send their kids to his school, where the annual tuition for three kids is at least $60,000 – more than the average net salary.

We, the community, are relying on these people to educate the next generation. They are sticking their heads in the sand and refusing to accept they have a problem. In the long run, this approach may cause irreversible damage to our community.


On a smaller scale, the cost of Kosher food, especially meat, is a problem. Kosher Australia (KA) have never publicly criticised the hefty prices that Melbourne Jews pay for their Kosher meat or cheese.

KA cares about our adherence to its strict standards, but does not care about us paying more than $30 for a kilo of chicken breasts – three times the treif price.

For KA, keeping Kosher is important, but Kosher keepers are not. Only Rabbi Meir Rabbi, a “non-mainstream” Rabbi, has openly criticised (and taken action on) the cost of Kosher meat.

Real estate

Property prices are subjected to supply and demand created not only by Jews. And yet, there are solutions the community can try. For example, organising groups for constructing and purchasing blocks of units, built at a no-frills standard and cheaper than market prices. Initiatives like this, known as Kvutzot Rechisha (“purchase groups”), exist in Israel.

Another, more complicated option, is extending the Jewish area to suburbs which are not too far from Caulfield, but still have large potential of new, medium-density building projects. True, this approach did not work well in Frankston, but it may work in closer suburbs.

Here as well, out leadership is dormant.

Meanwhile,  young Jewish families waste their income on renting at Caulfield, giving up owning even a modest apartment where they will retire. Others rely on the savings of their parents and grandparents, who raised their families in a more affordable era.

Alumni of Yavneh and Scopus realise that living around Caulfield means sending their kids to a public school, and think of alternative ways of providing them with Jewish education. Less observant families move further away, to suburbs where there are no Jews around, and their kids are more likely to assimilate.

At this time, when economic stress puts the unity and continuity of our community at risk, it is urgent that we take action. I expect the leaders, of all streams and roles, to make the affordability of being a part of this community their top priority, both in efforts and funds. That’s the essence of being a community, that is what a community is for. I also expect them to break the silence, show courage and be critical of people and institutions inside the community whose actions make Jewish life here unaffordable.

One should not have to be rich to be a Jew. Even in Australia.


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  • eli says:

    You forgot one part of the life cycle that also requires great wealth. Aged care in Jewish facilities is beyond the means of 95% of the jewish community.Try getting a room for an aged parent and you will have to mortgage not only your future ,but your childrens as well.

  • Confused says:

    Guess what, there IS life outside Caulfield. The Bagel Belt is spreading and Jews are living in Bentleigh, Carnegie,Chadstone, Moorabbin….and guess what, the (Jewish) world aint endin.

  • david segal says:

    The community leaders have done about this, as much as they did about other problems that are facing the Jewish community.

    In the famous words of “Kazablan”:

    בשביל כבוד צריך לעבוד ואצלנו כל אחד היד רועדת לו

  • Gedalia says:

    Yet our community also raises millions of dollars and sends them to the UIA, JNF, Hadassah, MDA, Universities, yeshivot, etc etc. All very worthy and important causes, but at an opportunity cost of fixing a critical issue locally, being the cost of Jewish education. If all that money was applied towards brining shlichim, Jewish studies teachers etc from Israel into our schools, thereby lowering the cost burden of the schools (average of several thousand dollars per child per year) it would go a long way towards starting to bring the costs of Jewish education back to a sustainable level.

  • Reuven Segal says:

    I believe the Jewish community has to look reality in the eye and accept that money is running out. There is no arguing that there are many successful people in the community but the money from the older generation is going quickly. The community organisation must realise that Caulfield is not the centre of the universe.

    The millions spent on many projects in order to keep them only within the confines of Caulfield is phenomenal….and embarrassing. Beg for money and then throw it away. People will say “then don’t donate to these organisations”. That is (1) ignorant of the issue at hand and (2)not the solution.

    The situation out in Bentleigh and the surrounds is changing quickly too. Plots of land are going for close to a million now. With kids in Jewish schools, the only way to save the quarter of a million mentioned above is by a ‘family contribution’ or by marrying and having kids late (or living at home far longer than one should). With the rents in Caulfield/Elsternwick jumping every year, it would take decades to save up. I am talking for the average family. I don’t believe anything can really be done about this situation but to move out further. It is not an easy decision but someone has to pay for children to be educated in a JDS. Should the schools be responsible for subsidizing school fees for a family living in Caulfield with $3000+/month rent on a house? Not when it can be had for a $1000 less per month in Bentleigh. Should the school be responsible for subsidizing a 10 kid family that somehow finds money for a parent to fly overseas each year to visit the Rebbe’s grave or put on a $300K extension? No. This is unfortunately how things have moved. It is a reality that not everyone is willing to move away (even an additional 15 minutes). It is not easy to be in Benteigh on Shabbat when there are very few who are of the same age group or hose that are tend to drive to Caulfield anyway. It is, however, reality.

    I would like to know, however, who was this genius Principal who tells people to ‘reprioritise’. Obviously he (she?) is getting paid way too much. To say that not many are changing to non- Jewish schools due to finances is false. Of course, other reasons could be related to some Jewish Day schools abusing children physically and mentally. Either way, it definitely is on the rise.

    It is not a communal issue as such. It is a common sense issue. Do not spend what you cannot afford. There is nothing else for it.

  • SbM says:

    Haha so funny! A Jew from melbourne complaining about property prices. Try living in Sydney my friend.

    The Cost Of Living issue isn’t isolated to Jews. It’s everyone in the major cities. The difficulties for Jews is how to shift the community to places further out from the city centres.

  • Bryce says:

    While the JDS are great, many families who can’t afford them, and even those that can, should be looking toward the Youth Movements. According the the earthshaking Gen08 report they will be crucial in long term Jewish continuity. Even for those who attended JDS, like myself, when we think of why be Jewish and where our motivation comes from, the Youth Movements have it! The JDS system takes so much money to run its excellent services, and the Youth Movements have incredible programs for fractions of the cost.

    Habonim Dror for example, is hugely successful in creating meaningful and long-lasting Jewish identities, and our annual membership cost for parents, should they choose to pay it, is $120! That’s the cost of a nice pair of shoes, or a few dance classes for kids. With these few dollars we create a truly meaningful outlet for our kids.

    If you care about the sustainability of our community, and meaningful Jewish identities, choose to be inclusive regardless of finances. Choose Youth Movements!

  • letters in the age says:

    Just marry out and leave the diaspora behind you!!

    Josh Frydenberg said this at an exclusive event recently in melbourne.

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