How Can A Regular Person Afford a Jewish Life? 8 Tips

Image: A small purse with a few coins spilled from it. (Croisy/Pixabay)

The end of summer approaches. Many of us can feel the approach of the High Holy Days just over the horizon. For those who are synagogue members, it’s dues-paying time. For those who are not, it’s how-do-I-find-services-I-can-afford time.

Anyone who lives a Jewish life for more than 10 minutes will notice that living Jewishly costs. Keeping Shabbat, for instance, can involve lost income, candles, and food. Keeping kosher can very expensive, since it can involve special food and extra dishes. Keeping Passover – oy gevalt! Have you seen what they charge for matzah? High Holy Day tickets, synagogue membership, bar or bat mitzvah, religous school for the kiddies, Jewish camp for the teens, travel to Israel – it is overwhelming.

Here are some ideas about coping with the cost of a Jewish life:

  1. Synagogue membership: Most synagogues do their best to balance the cost of keeping the doors open with the reality that most Jews aren’t wealthy. First, ask about the dues: how much? If that amount is impossible, consider it the beginning of a conversation. Ask about dues relief, aka financial aid. Different synagogues have various ways of making these decisions, but a good synagogue will have a dignified mechanism for helping you as much as they can. (It should go without saying that if we can give more than the bare-bones dues, we should do so precisely because others need help.)
  2. High Holy Day tickets: There is a large demand for seats in the synagogue for High Holy Days, far beyond the demand any other day of the year. Most synagogues have a limited number of seats, most of which are already occupied by members. Again, it’s worth asking about financial aid. But also, give the federation or other Jewish institutions a call, because it is likely that someone in town is offering services without a charge.
  3. Shabbat: Shabbat can be very simple; the most important ingredient is the sense that the day is different from all the others. Make it a day to connect with the people you love. Everything else follows from that. If you have to work, know that many Jews before you had to work on Shabbat, and worked toward a day when they would be free to take Shabbos off. Read the weekly parashahIf you are reading this article, you have access to the Torah portion through Hebcal or Sefaria. Also, many liberal synagogues stream services online every Shabbat, a boon for those of us who are not able to travel to services sometimes, and usually there is no paid gateway to those streams.
  4. Your Jewish Education: A Jewish educaton isn’t cheap. However, the Internet has brought about an explosion of Jewish learning opportunities for free. 10 Great Jewish Websites will point you to some of them. A word of warning: be picky. There’s a lot of good stuff out there and if what you read doesn’t fit your life, then try another site. My original purpose in starting this blog was to provide short accessible articles on Jewish topics for my Intro to Judaism students. You can use the search box on the left side of the screen to search for any topic.
  5. Your Child’s Jewish Education: It is a mitzvah (commandment) to educate our children. The same strategy for synagogues applies to religious school: have a conversation with the director about what may be available in financial aid. It is a community value to educate all our children. If it’s still out of reach, consider pairing with another Jewish family to celebrate holidays and observe Shabbat.
  6. Kashrut: Again, traditional kashrut (keeping kosher) is expensive. However, fruits and vegetables are naturally kosher unless they’ve been processed. Stay away from processed foods (a good idea anyway) which require big bucks for rabbinic supervision. The more dairy and meat, the more it will cost. But another thought: if at this stage of your life it isn’t possible to keep kosher, then don’t keep kosher yet. The day may come when you can. There are many good Jews who don’t keep kosher yet.
  7. Passover: The price of “kosher for passover” goods is a pet peeve of mine. The prices are outrageous. I recommend avoiding most processed Passover foods because they taste awful and aren’t good for any of us. Springtime is a time to celebrate fruits and vegetables, anyway. The commandment for the seder is to eat matzah, greens, bitter herbs, and to drink 4 cups of wine or grape juice. Some years I buy exactly that: a box of matzah, greens, herbs, and a bottle of grape juice. You don’t have to throw out your chametz (grain products.) Many people seal them up in a box, tape it shut, and open it at the end of the week. It isn’t “perfect observance” but since when do we all have to be perfect?
  8. Gather with Others: Many synagogues began as a small group of Jews who wanted to celebrate Jewish life. Rabbis are required for conversion to Judaism, but services can be led by any knowledgeable Jew. If you don’t have any knowledgable Jews, put together a book group or a reading group. Meet regularly to share what you are learning. Or get a siddur (prayer book) and take turns reading aloud out of it.

I hope you find something you can use in this list. If you have other ideas for making a Jewish life more possible on a limited budget, please share it in the Comments!

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rabbiadar

Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at https://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

5 thoughts on “How Can A Regular Person Afford a Jewish Life? 8 Tips”

  1. One suggestion. All of these focus on consuming Jewish. Maybe we really need to rethink how we produce Jewish. The Jewish food system is now deeply locked in to a wildly globalized network. Synagogue dues are simply unaffordable for many young Jews. Relying on volunteers to do the work of religious education isn’t sustainable if those volunteers can’t support themselves. The massive shift to service sector work has made getting time off for Shabbat regularly a near impossibility. The overall problem is that all the systems of modern American Judaism were built at a time when the cost of living was much lower, when much of that cost of living was heavily subsidized. It seems now like a time of unimaginable luxury. And unfortunately, we can subtly shame economic insecurity in many ways. Maybe we need to start thinking about Jewish ways of addressing this insecurity within our community. Maybe it’s time to start reimagine the bund movement for a new century. Maybe we should examine the possibility of starting to build parallel economic structures where we can change the way living Jewish is produced, and that might be a way to address the cost of consuming Jewish.

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    1. Oh, I like the way you think! “Reimagine the bund movement for a new century” gives me (good) shivers.

      What would some of these new structures look like? Can you say more about your idea? I agree, this is the kind of thinking we need!

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      1. I think we could benefit from looking at historical models of Jewish living. There have been traditions of autonomous and semi-autonomous communal economic structures that involved producing what we needed for not only ritual practice, but everyday living. Jewish farmers growing wheat, Jewish millers grinding it, Jewish communal ovens for baking it into bread. The bund movement can be seen as an attempt to reconcile those communal ways of living against growing industrialization. We may want to think about ways we can build new models for these semi-autonomus systems, by shifting the focus of Jewish life back from individual consumption to a more communal production. The model until now has been to plug into global systems of production, which has had the side effect of transferring much of the knowledge of kashrut out of the home and into industrialized settings. This loss of knowledge and loss of control is not only driving up the costs, but’s alienating from the everyday experience of living Jewish by turning keeping kosher into just a matter of reading labels. How can we reclaim these everyday experiences, and in ways which will redistribute that control over cost back across the community? Are there ways we can turn our synagogues, federations, and JCCs away from being expenses to even being sources of employment? Can we find ways to subsidize child care and other expenses that are crushing for so many young Jews? Every synagogue I’ve ever been in has had a gift shop filled with things imported from Israel. Do we maybe need to think of ways we can fill those shops in with things we make in our own communities? Are there wats we can look at bringing more control over food production, education, employment, even housing, into the control of our own communities? I don’t have immediate answers for any of these questions, but I think they are questions worth exploring.

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  2. A few years ago, we decided to eat “kitniyot” for Passover. Although it wasn’t the intention for the change, our Passover bill went down considerably. Also, when faced with a choice between something kosher and something kosher for passover, and they’re the SAME THING….I choose the regular item. I don’t need to pay those prices; indeed, I can’t. And in general, for that week, we eat fresh anyway – veggies, fruits, meat and chicken (left over from Seder!)

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    1. Thanks for sharing that, Anita! I think that sometimes beginners read a website and feel overwhelmed by the task of living Jewishly – it helps when observant Jews talk about the realities of their observance.

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