I was recently in New York for a few days and then traveled to Potomac, Md. to help celebrate the bat mitzvah of my niece Renee Fuller. I was struck by a comment made to me by several different people during the course of my visit in the U.S. These people each said, “My children are going to have a lower standard of living than me.” This was not the first time that I had heard such a comment, and from what I can tell, there is a growing realization among middle-aged, modern-traditional Jewish professionals in the United States that the success story begun with the generation of our parents will not last into the next generation — and not primarily because of assimilation but because of economics.
The Jewish day schools, the overnight camps, the synagogue and JCC memberships, the gorgeous homes, the Passover vacations, the ski vacations, the sheer abundance of cars, jewelry and clothing — all of this is predicated upon a couple earning a minimum of $300,000 a year. Two things are happening economically to put this life out of reach of the next generation of America’s modern-traditional Jews. One is that growing numbers of these young people are choosing professions that do not typically pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. From speech therapists to graphic designers to audio engineers, precisely the at-homeness of traditional Jews in America is leading to greater professional diversity than what my generation was trained to think possible. The other factor, of course, is that the U.S. economy can no longer be expected to reliably throw off a sufficient number of quarter-of-a-million-dollar jobs to keep the modern-traditional miracle humming along.
What will change? Parochial Jewish education as we know it will change. Families with three school-age children will simply not be able to afford tuition bills of $50,000 a year or more. Many families are already in this situation, but currently the center is holding — thanks to scholarships, grandparents, and personal sacrifice. At a certain point in the near future, there will just be too many families struggling with tuition payments. Already, alternatives to the traditional day school are cropping up. My cousin Abby Flamholz, in New Jersey, helped start a day school that relies on a mix between online and face-to-face instruction (to allow for larger classes); tuition is $9,000 a year, which is just over half the normal tuition cost for Jewish primary school in her area.
What else will change is fairly obvious: the lifestyle will need to be cut back. People will have to make do with fewer vacation trips and have to settle for less expensive cars, homes, jewelry and clothing. One bright spot here: The Passover Seder, which so emphasizes the family unit, will take place less often in a hotel and more at home.
Now I’d like to jump across the Atlantic to assess my own children’s future. Relative to their peers in the U.S., my kids grew up quite modestly as far as material goods, so this won’t be hard to improve upon should they want that (although I still maintain that the best gift we gave our girls was to have them grow up together in one small bedroom—they have become true soulmates).
However, I see a marked increase in the quality of my children’s lives coming from a different factor. My children, now young adults between the ages of 19 and 26, are all planning on making their lives and raising their own families in Israel. What this means, since Israel is a very small country, is that they will always have easy access to each other’s lives. Not just for big life-cycle events (as can be the case even in huge America), but for holidays, birthdays and regular Sabbaths.
Who wudda thunk it? Aliyah not just as Jewish self-respect, not just as participating and contributing to the modern Jewish state, but aliyah as facilitating a higher quality of life for one’s children.
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is a tennis coach who made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies.
He and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.