The Price of Piety

Hannah, Harvard University 

My family, unlike so many others, thank God has never been without a home or basic necessities.  However, we are far from the wealthiest family in the Greater Philadelphia area Jewish community. As an adolescent I often felt embarrassed by my parents’ economic situation when seen through the lenses of the majority upper-middle class and wealthy families of our school community. I still recall stammering out responses to the dreaded questions about my father’s occupation with a pit in my stomach.

Compared with most of Middle America, my family fared reasonably well through the 2009 recession. Due to generous financial aid, my siblings and I were able to attend Orthodox Jewish day school from elementary through high school. Yet, it’s only recently that I have gained comfort discussing my financial situation and that is due to the relationships I have developed outside the Jewish community. While I was inclined to bluff to my fellow Jews, I have been open with my new non-Jewish friends. In my travels abroad and back home in university, when some of these new friends stereotyped me as a “wealthy Jew” I found myself even using the reality of my family life as currency to counter anti-Semitic assumptions and increase others’ knowledge about the socio-economic diversity of the Jewish community.

Professors and fellow students have been quick to assume I am quite wealthy when they learn I am Jewish. They also often presume I am from New York, even after I have stated otherwise. When I am abroad, I tend to perceive such assumptions as anti-Semitic, but in the context of my university I never quite know how to navigate perceptions about Jewish wealth because they accurately reflect a truth about a large percentage of the Jewish student population. While there are many students who do not fit this label, a significant amount of Jews on the campuses of top American universities hail from the upper echelons of society where their families were able to foot annual day-school or prep-school tuition bills of $20,000-40,000 per student to prepare them for their academic career.  

Thus, I acknowledge the reasoning behind these assumptions about Jewish wealth but object to their wholesale stereotypes. The affluent demographic of Jewish students may be the loudest and most comfortable in the Ivy League ecosystem but they are by no means the only ones present.

My fellow Jewish students sometimes assume that their situation of wealth is shared by all their Jewish peers. Those are the assumptions that catch me most off-guard. During my Freshman year a Jewish friend came over to me after class to relate his expensive winter-break family vacation plans and remarked in a hushed tone afterwards: “you know we can’t talk about this stuff with everybody. They’re not all like us.”  He spoke as if he was sharing a new observation about our university culture. Yet, I was understanding a new idea too  – I was accustomed to hearing about these luxury vacation expenses and beach rentals but I did not realize my friend would assume that all of his Jewish peers shared his status, merely because of their religious identity.  After all, from a Modern Orthodox perspective and perhaps in other Jewish denominations as well, it often feels as if wealth is ubiquitous in certain Jewish communities of this generation – or perhaps is the entry-ticket to them. I gazed at my friend and responded, “You know, I have never gone on a vacation like that either.”  

We have seen the articles documenting the increasing cost of observant Jewish life in America, from kosher meat to synagogue dues to Jewish day school tuition. But the truth is that the cost of an observant lifestyle extends beyond these ‘staples’ of Jewish ritual. For example, in all too many synagogues (particularly in the East and West coast metropolitan areas) the cost of dressing for services each Shabbat, including shoes, head-coverings, and jewelry, easily exceeds four hundred dollars. Given the social standards of certain synagogue milieus, it takes fortitude to enter Shabbos services in certain locations dressed in a twenty-dollar outfit. Sadly, the tepid glances I have learned to expect when my clothing falls below the ‘standard’ are warm compared with what ‘underdressed’ middle-aged folks receive when they enter these same communal spaces. I know of many individuals who, lacking income to “keep-up” with synagogue standards of dress or lifestyle, feel openly snubbed in services, communal rituals, and activities outside of the synagogue.  They might also be hindered in attending communal events requiring financial contributions such as synagogue dinners, weddings of community members, or gatherings in upscale kosher restaurants. Class-based difficulties surround the exchange and acceptance of Shabbat lunch invitations. Families fear judgment about the state of their homes, the quality of their dishes and the types of meat that they can afford to serve; and there is a general insecurity that the community gossips about these details over kiddush.

Expectations of wealth in our community are similar to the attitudes surrounding academic credentials and degrees. Successful professionals look down upon those who, for any number of reasons, were not able to obtain a college education or even who attended community college.  The religious community should be the last place where being honest about one’s background results in loss of respect.  Yet, it often seems that our care for the physical state of our synagogue facilities surpasses our care for our common decency.  

In addition, our communities are constructed to honor and give positions of influence to our wealthiest members. We overlook the instances when the primary criteria for being a board member at our schools and shuls and Hillels is having made a significant monetary contribution (as if that guarantees their abilities to make proper decisions, spiritually and practically, for the future of the diverse membership). Are they buying their decision-making power? We pretend not to notice when the children of philanthropists are favored in Jewish day schools and receive a leg up in everything from class placement to teacher recommendations in college admissions.  

Sadly, stories like these are a dime a dozen in our generation. I hear them echoed by my Modern Orthodox friends and from peers belonging to Jewish communities of different denominations. This pattern is certainly unacceptable and I am thankful for the rabbinic leaders who reject this discriminatory behavior and buttress an all-inclusive moral and spiritual framework for their organization’s leadership.

We pay for our obeisance to wealth as we neglect the moral health of our communities.  Our institutions depend on the generous funding of community members to thrive. But in that cycle of giving and thanking the relationship between faith and funds becomes twisted. We come to associate virtue with wealth, delivering praise to those who donate philanthropically but neglecting to express equivalent respect for those who piece together synagogue dues and discounted day school tuition bills by adding mortgage to their house or skimping on meat at the Shabbos table.

Just think, how many sermons you have attended and newsletters you have read describing the merits of a family tho donated twenty-thousand dollars to fund a new Rabbi, helped build a mikvah (ritual bath) or purchased a new Torah scroll? Now, how about the family who overcame financial obstacles to contribute fifty dollars in order to participate in a synagogue function? Just as we must thank the donors whose contributions enable the work of Jewish institutions and leaders, we must praise families who struggle to afford ritual observance and who oftentimes sacrifice their material comfort for its sake. In order to respect personal privacy, we might recognize struggling families anonymously and without describing individual details, but we, as a community, ought to openly consider the situation and sacrifices of this constituency.

We must demonstrate reverence for both the philanthropist and the righteous congregant. We must esteem those who generously give tzedakah (charity) alongside those who gracefully accept it and put it to good use. We must be open to having difficult and substantial conversations in our schools and homes on the wealth divide and its impact on our social and ritual spaces.  As a matter of practice, Rabbis should offer sermons on the personal challenges of unemployment and the practical difficulties to ritual life caused by living paycheck to paycheck. These are human experiences, not limited to our pious sages in the Talmud but rather impacting upstanding members of our community in the present day.  We must teach our children to value the different families that participate in our communities and the roles that they play.

I envision developing Jewish communities, which serve as sanctuaries from the materialist tendencies in our society, where the brand name of one’s suit jacket does not correlate with one’s status in the community or where one sits during services.   I hope to pray in a synagogue which is respectful of the different circumstances of its congregants and does not devalue those who cannot afford to just ‘give more.’ I aspire to be part of a congregation which conveys esteem towards those practicing mentshilikite and emet and which values individuals on their strength of character.

These changes are possible.  If we aim to build a vibrant Judaism that can thrive and nurture us amidst the storms of the twenty-first century, it is critical that we acknowledge and address these issues.  We ought to make clear that we welcome Jews of all socio-economic classes and that we are inspired, and not ashamed, by those living in more difficult straits, who strive to remain steadfast in their commitment to our communities and to our traditions.

Hannah is an upperclassman at Harvard College studying History, Law and Religion. She is currently focused on the intersection of Medieval Islamic and Jewish Philosophy. In her spare time she enjoys running and experimenting with recipes.

Hannah is interested in engaging with readers. If you’d like to contact her, please direct message her facebook account – https://www.facebook.com/hannah.ella1

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Unfortunately, due to a miscommunication for which I, the author, take responsibility, this piece was published while still in draft stage and took flight in the Jewish blogosphere while it was not fully formed.  It included edits which I had not made or reviewed.  

This updated piece reflects my full views on the subject and I hope it will receive full and open-minded consideration. I thank you and look forward to hearing your thoughts.