How to keep Jewish life affordable for Bay Area families

Going, going, gone!

That is the refrain I frequently hear in my head when I think about how rising costs are impacting middle-class Jewish families. It may seem cliché to continue to harp on the theme of the middle class, but these families are the lifeblood of many Jewish institutions, and they represent the future of our culture.

Many of you reading this probably fall into the category I’m writing about, or you know a similar family. It was their children dancing on the bimah at temple during the children’s service for Yom Kippur a few weeks ago; it is these families who are trying to organize a potluck dinner for Chanukah. And if we don’t so something quickly to address the financial stress these families are feeling as they try to stay connected to Judaism, we’re going to lose them.

Consider this: In the midst of the great decline of our state’s public school system, the average cost to attend one of our esteemed Jewish preschools is now roughly $18,000 to $20,000 annually. That figure climbs to almost $30,000 annually for day school. Combined with synagogue memberships, religious school and summer camp, a family with one child in the Bay Area needs almost $40,000 after taxes to stay connected to these kinds of cornerstone Jewish institutions. The cost increases, obviously, with each additional child.

These daunting figures illustrate that participating in organized Jewish life is expensive, and beyond the reach of thousands of Bay Area families. And while the Bay Area offers a myriad of other ways to engage in Jewish life — and the federation supports many of these alternative doorways — school, temple and camp represent the most common ways families connect with Judaism.

We must get serious about reducing barriers to Jewish preschools, day schools and camps, to ensure a healthy and vibrant Jewish community!

Just last week, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that real median household income fell for the second year in a row in 2011, two years after the official end of the great recession. That’s an 8.1 percent drop from 2007, just before the recession’s onslaught. Juxtapose that against the more than 130,000 Jewish households in our service area — where the cost of living is the fourth highest in the nation — and you begin to see the great need we have to increase our support to ensure families can send their children to Jewish schools and camps and maintain memberships at synagogues.

At the federation, reducing barriers to early childhood education and Jewish experiences is a major focus of our work. In fact, as part of our Affordability Project, we provided 4,500 scholarship awards, totaling $1.3 million, for families in our service area this year. To ensure that this Jewish safety net continues in the near-term, we need to raise approximately $10 million to maintain scholarship support at this level and keep up with the cost of inflation.

Participation in Jewish life is not only about God, faith, rituals and spirituality; it is also about friends, neighborhoods, peer networks, Israel and peoplehood in general. These connections come about at school, at camp, on Israel trips and everywhere in between. The federation’s goal is to ensure that Bay Area families are not priced out of our community.

Jennifer Gorovitz is CEO of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.