Making Jewish Participation More Affordable

To this point, we have focused largely on how to enhance the value of Jewish involvement in the eyes of the prospective participant. But in the end, we must come back to the issue of cost as well. Although we have argued that it is by no means the only factor inhibiting participation in organized Jewish activities, it is certainly a factor, and, judging by the increasing attention that it is receiving, one that leaders are prepared to address.

This will not, however, be easy, because in the final analysis someone has to pay, not only for programs, but for the infrastructure to sustain them. The questions are “who?” and “how much?” There are those who would argue that access to certain Jewish activities, settings and services, such as Jewish education, should be free as a matter of principle to the participant or client. This implies that the revenue to support these will have to come from others, presumably through voluntary donations. Most advocates of reducing costs, however, accept the idea that users and participants will pay something, but want to ensure that the burden is not disproportionate to the individual’s means or not so high (even if technically “affordable”) as to discourage otherwise willing participants to opt out.

The principle of providing scholarships to subsidize participation in situations of financial need or hardship is accepted almost universally in Jewish organizational life. To their credit, the vast majority of Jewish institutions will not turn away empty-handed someone who truly cannot pay. However, this does not mean that the current situation is entirely satisfactory. In some instances, day school scholarships, for example, there simply may not be enough money to go around. The gap between what is realistically needed and what can be made available in tuition subsidy may still be so great as to make a day school education effectively unaffordable for some families (especially those with several children to educate). What is more, the effort to provide adequate scholarships may be so draining of a school’s resources (in terms of time and energy, as well as funds), that there is a deleterious impact on the quality of education that can be offered. From the applicant’s side, the process of seeking scholarship support may be so onerous or embarrassing as to discourage the effort, especially when the likely feasible outcome will still leave the family with a large financial burden. Day school appears to be the most prominent arena in which the gap between the cost of the service and what some prospective participants can realistically pay is unreasonably large. But the same general situation prevails with respect to other relatively high-cost activities and affiliations as well: congregational membership, early childhood programs and summer camps.

For this reason, attempts to remove the full burden of providing needed subsidies from individual institutions make sense. Cooperative fund-raising through federations or in some instances, Institutional consortia, should aim at developing endowments for the purpose of supporting the participation of those unable to pay the full cost. (The Chicago Federation has launched just such an endowment effort to deal with the issues of rising tuition, expanding scholarship needs and general under-capitalization of the day schools in its community.) Seeking new resources on this basis should be relatively non-controversial and represents a far better option over the long term than trying to re-allocate already insufficient dollars from federation annual campaigns. Community-wide capital fund-raising campaigns, designed to serve the needs of many institutions, have already proven successful in a number of locales. Obviously, any funds that can be added to what institutions are able to raise on their own allow these institutions to address the needs of their constituencies (including needs for financial subsidy) more effectively. It is already clear that the future of federated fund-raising lies primarily in the area of endowments, foundations and philanthropic funds. We don’t know yet if there is one “best” model for how a local Jewish community as a whole – federation and its agencies, synagogues, day schools and independent organizations – can maximize the financial resources available to it. Is it by creating a giant community-wide mega-foundation? Some mix of a community-wide foundation and individual endowments? A series of inter-connected “funds” for specific areas of service – education, services for the elderly, health care, religious life, needs in Israel and overseas? We also do not yet know the potential of national fund-raising for a prominent need like day school scholarships that affects hundreds of communities in similar ways. What we can say is that opportunities exist today for testing new financial resource development approaches, and that it is time for institutions to come together to do so.

Providing adequate scholarship support to remove cost as an absolute barrier to Jewish participation for some individuals and families is a worthy challenge. The situation becomes even more complex, however, when we turn to another policy being advocated today: reducing the cost of some programs and services “across the board” in an effort to increase participation. Such proposals are more difficult to deal with because they inevitably introduce subjective factors into the equation on both sides. How much is “too much” to pay? This is a function of perceived value not only for the prospective user, but for the sponsors and advocates of particular Jewish activities. Those who believe passionately that day school education is by far the best route to instilling Jewish commitment in children and youth naturally want to see nearly every family take advantage of this option. Seeking to eliminate or reduce cost as a potential barrier is a logical corollary of this belief. Similar reasoning (and passion) lies behind advocacy for reducing the cost of Israel trips, summer camps and synagogue or JCC membership (especially for young adults).

There is a modest, but suggestive, set of research findings that supports the proposition that if the price of some programs and services could be reduced, participation would increase. There is also growing anecdotal evidence cited by Jewish day school leaders that otherwise willing middle-class families are being driven out of their schools by high tuition. Even if we accept the reality of the problem, however, defining the parameters of workable solutions will not be easy. There are issues of equity and feasibility involved. Is it unreasonable to ask a family with an annual income of, say, $75,000 to pay $7,000 to send a child to day school? The answer is probably yes, especially if we want that family also to belong to a synagogue, make a contribution to federation and other Jewish charities, and send their child(ren) to Jewish summer camp and on an Israel experience at the appropriate age. But, what would be a reasonable tuition? Three thousand dollars? Four thousand? What if the family earns $125,000 – should it have to pay proportionately more, or do we want to keep the cost as low so as not to provide any rationale for the family to decline to send their child? And, if what the family pays does not (as it will not) cover the full cost of providing the education at a sufficiently high level of quality – inferior products may not sell for long at any price – who makes up the difference? Can we rely on voluntary contributions from the truly wealthy? Do we expect “the community” (read: federation) to provide the funds? Do we imagine that having experienced the benefits of an initially subsidized education, satisfied parents will eventually agree to pay something closer to the full cost? Clearly, the issue of generalized cost reduction, not just scholarships for the “needy,” is one the community must address if we are serious about maximizing participation, especially in high-impact activities. But, simple calls to reduce costs are not enough.

We need a commitment to and frameworks for working through the complicated issues that will inevitably arise in a spirit of good will and experimentation.

The recognition that we are in a period of testing and learning, not definitive policy-making, is important. In some instances, it may be possible actually to reduce the costs of operation to program sponsors (or to shift the costs to others in a better position to pay), thereby making it possible to lower the price to consumers. For example: A major cost component of all Israel programs is the flight to Israel. Could hard bargaining with several airlines, chartering, an Israeli government initiative to lower the price charged by El Al, or some combination of these strategies produce significant savings? Some observers believe that the answer is yes. Institutional systems also need to take a hard look at how they set pricing policies and allocate their resources internally. A number of major providers of Israel programs must charge more than the actual cost for these trips in order to fund their year-round youth movement infrastructures. Perhaps it is time for their sponsoring organizations to commit additional resources to their youth programs so that more families can and will take advantage of the opportunity to send their teenagers to Israel.

Other reductions in cost may flow from heightened levels of collaboration among institutions – with the bonus that such cooperation may well enhance the quality of the programs at the same time. More efficient use of facilities (such as the situation in Milwaukee, where two ideologically distinct day schools use a common library, kitchen and other spaces), sharing of professional staff (hiring community teachers to work in several institutions or placing social workers in synagogues) and joint purchasing may not result in dramatic dollar savings, but they will almost certainly enhance the benefits received for what is being spent.

Collaboration may also make it possible for institutions to enroll new participants and members by offering “bargain rates.” The City North Kehillah Project in Chicago, which allows young adults to take out a single membership in both a synagogue and the neighborhood JCC at a modest cost, has already spawned spin-offs based on the same principle of combined memberships in several communities. Other pricing approaches that challenge the traditional ways of doing business – including eliminating “memberships” at synagogues and JCCs and charging only for the services that participants actually use – have also been suggested. We don’t know the “price points” at which participation curves for many Jewish activities may increase dramatically. Thus, experiments like the four-week, $2,500-Israel trip noted above or the initiatives undertaken by several foundations in different communities to “cap” day school tuitions at relatively low levels represent vital learning opportunities. Since every dollar used to reduce cost could theoretically be used as well to increase quality or to provide additional programs and services, the actual investment in this fashion is not self-evident. There is no substitute for some empirical testing and for continued vigorous debate about the relative priority of various possible uses of public and private Jewish resources.

From a macro-policy perspective, it seems clear that increasing the affordability of a wide range of Jewish experiences and affiliations is a worthwhile endeavor. However, we should not underestimate how difficult it will be to find approaches to doing so that will command broad public and philanthropic support. Unless community campaigns experience an unexpected upturn, the scale of funding needed to make a serious impact on day school tuition or to reduce drastically the cost of joining a synagogue will not come from federation allocations. Whether more than a relatively small number of highly committed activists will rise to the challenge of raising substantial additional amounts for this purpose remains to be seen. Providing scholarships for the needy is proven and popular; whether offering across-the-board subsidies to increase participation is also a magnet for new fund raising is not yet clear. What does seem likely is that the work of reducing costs will be guided less by traditional communal planning than by the convictions of committed individuals. This may be the best hope for energizing new fund raising efforts, but it may also make cost reduction a partisan and competitive issue, pitting advocates of various “priority” targets – both programs and populations – against one another.

We hope, however, that there is at least one objective that will receive near-universal endorsement: No Jewish family or individual who is motivated to learn, to worship, to turn to the community for help or to come together with other Jews should ever be unable to do so because of a lack of financial resources or the difficulty (procedural and psychological) of obtaining the financial support required. Translating this principle into effective policies and practices will be a challenging task in its own right, but one eminently worthy of our institutional and collective effort. It will involve:

  • reviewing formal policies regarding memberships, fees and payments to make sure that they are as “customer-friendly” as possible;
  • committing to raise the funds needed to provide for those who cannot provide (adequately) for themselves as an organizational and communal priority;
  • training front-line contact individuals (lay and professional) in how to deal with financial issues knowledgeably and sensitively;
  • publicizing the availability of support as something that is the institution’s and community’s obligation and pleasure, not as an act of charity to the recipient;
  • making the process of seeking and receiving support simple, private and dignified;
  • ensuring to the extent possible that the financial situations of members and participants remain confidential and have no visible impact on the conditions or quality of participation.

In a very real sense, the issue of affordability is also an issue of organizational and communal culture: If we are genuinely committed to making participation in Jewish life and institutions a valuable and positive experience, it will be far easier to get larger numbers of individuals to make the financial commitment needed to support their own and others’ participation. It will also be far easier to get organizations to take the steps necessary, including greater cooperation, to ensure that the programs and services they provide are delivered at the highest possible quality and at the lowest possible cost.