You do have to be rich to be my Jew
By Ron Burdo:
The cost of living Jewish life in 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.
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.