A cost-benefit analysis of being Jewish

  • Rabbi Eliezer Berland - preferred pic - HOME
Looking at religion not as a spiritual practice but as a product, something that is bought. How much does it cost and how much is it worth to you?
by STAFF REPORTER | Oct 07, 2014

When one drops one’s kids off at their Jewish day school, they occasionally look around at many of the other parents dropping off their kids and notice a certain kind of distant stare on their faces, writes Steven Weiss  an award-winning journalist and anchor, managing editor, and executive producer of news and public-affairs programming at The Jewish Channel.

Writing in THEATLANTIC.com, Weiss says one can almost see the gears turning in their minds in a kind of wonderment as to what exactly it is we’re doing there. Even setting aside the massive costs of private-school tuition, for those of us who grew up attending Jewish day schools and didn’t have a great experience, we’re asking ourselves what it is that’s driving us to send our kids here; for those who grew up without that experience, there are worries about what their kids are missing out on and whether the experience might be too isolating.

FBI - Arnold Rothstein, the Jewish mobster who allegedly fixed the 1919 World Series. He was recently portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg on HBO's Boardwalk Empire

RIGHT: Don't think of it as a catering bill. Think of it as an investment in their Jewish identity

Why we make the religious decisions we do is terrain familiar to scads of psychologists, sociologists, and clergy. It has only in recent decades come to scrutinized by economists.

Economists? What can economists tell us about religion? A lot, as it turns out.

A new book by George Washington University professor Carmel Chiswick, Judaism in Transition: How Economic Choices Shape Religious Tradition, is a pioneering work in this new area of study. Chiswick is a labour economist, and that turns out to be crucial here because of the field’s focus on scarcity, and especially the scarcity of time.

“Religion is a good,” Chiswick told me in an interview. While it's unconventional to think of religion that way, the transaction of exchanging time and money for a particular experience retains certain core qualities whether that experience is religious or secular. For example, though it might seem more wholesome than buying a boat, paying for religious schooling is still a purchase of a luxury good. Heading to church or synagogue might make one feel more righteous and community-oriented than going golfing on a weekend morning, and that’s pretty much the point: The feelings and knock-on effects gathered from spending time in a certain way are part of the overall purchase.

Religion also a series of economic decisions

While many see religious identity as a philosophical or ideological matter, Chiswick suggests that it is also a series of economic decisions.

FBI - Arnold Rothstein, the Jewish mobster who allegedly fixed the 1919 World Series. He was recently portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg on HBO's Boardwalk EmpireThis idea of the “full cost”, in money plus time, of an item can present a very different perspective on many issues in the Jewish community. For example, probably the issue most talked about in the intersection of economics and Judaism is precisely that issue of the cost of Jewish education.

At many prominent schools, tuition has grown at a rate well above that of inflation in recent decades, and left it simply unattainable for even many upper-middle-class families without some tuition assistance. It is routine to find schools charging in excess of $30 000 a year where I live, in Manhattan, and tuition in excess of $20 000 a year is common throughout the rest of the New York/New Jersey area.

In Maryland, where Chiswick lives, tuition will almost always be more than $10 000 a year. When one realises that sum often needs to be paid for multiple kids, and always out of post-tax dollars, it can suddenly stretch even an income of $200 000. Indeed, at a recent presentation I attended about a new tuition-assistance programme, the sample families given as benefiting from the programme were assumed to have pre-tax incomes ranging from $185 000 to $325 000, and between two and three kids attending the school.

Jewish day schools save parents a lot of time

But in the most detailed numeric breakdown of Chiswick’s book, she shows that the full cost of day school can be a much less significant expenditure than it is often made out to be. Because Jewish day schools can save parents quite a lot of time over lower-priced alternatives, they may be nearly breaking even when compared to other options, depending on the value of their time.

Labour economists suggest that the value we place on our time is directly correlated with our incomes. “A worker who is paid by the hour knows that leaving work on hour early - whether to sleep, to go shopping, or to drive a Hebrew-school carpool - involves a reduction in income exactly equal to the hourly wage rate,” Chiswick writes, and therefore, “a person’s potential hourly earnings thus provide a good first approximation of the value of an hour spent in any activity.”

A lawyer who earns $200 an hour will view the time required to pick up and drop off their kid at different schools as quite expensive.

Chiswick shows how this view alters the equation when looking at the two major options for preparing a child for a Jewish life and a bar- or batmitzvah. Jewish day school is the fulltime, dual-curriculum option available at Jewish private schools; by contrast, Hebrew school is the term used to describe a much more limited programme of study, often on Sundays and a few weekdays as an after-school programme at a local synagogue. Chiswick assumes that the several hours of extra time required to shuttle one’s child back and forth to Hebrew school instead of enrolling the child at a fulltime day school, can represent a time cost of $18 000 per year for our $200-an-hour lawyer. Suddenly, the combination of public school and Hebrew school rather than day school doesn’t seem like such a bargain.

Money informs understanding of religious life

Of course there's still a huge difference in cost between the two options. But the purchases aren't, in all likelihood, of two similar-quality goods: The Jewish education - and quite often the general-interest education, as well - is of much higher quality at a day school than the alternative. How do you decide what such things are worth? Chiswick notes that attitudes about money, life, and Jewish culture in America have changed over the generations and that has consequences for day-school enrolment: “Our immigrant grandparents’ educational goal was to help their children realise the promise of America by moving up the socioeconomic ladder,” she writes.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland - preferred pic - HOME“Today’s Jewish parents take this for granted, worrying instead about how to enrich their children’s American lives by strengthening their Jewish heritage.”

Day schools are but one, though perhaps the most concrete, example of how economics can inform an understanding of religious life. But Chiswick expands far beyond such a classic consumer decision (how much to spend on tuition) to matters of identity, including that question so central to American Jewry: What label does one choose to describe oneself as a Jew - Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, or something else?

While many of us see our religious identities as more philosophical or ideological matters, Chiswick suggests that they are also economic decisions: In the same way that the value of time could influence one's choice for schooling, it should also impact denominational choice.

Orthodox Judaism generally requires the most hours of an adherent's time, while Reform Judaism generally requires quite a lot less of an adherent's time. Therefore, based on income alone (which makes a person's time more or less valuable), “we would expect the members of Orthodox congregations to have the lowest wage rates and the members of Reform congregations to have the highest wage rates,” with Conservative Jews somewhere in the middle.

And since education correlates well to income, we’d expect college and advanced degrees to be similarly-sorted throughout the denominations. Sure enough, Chiswick writes, “This pattern was clearly apparent by the mid-20th century.”


  1. 2 Economist 13 Oct
    That's why they call economics "The Dismal Science"
    I wonder what the late venerated economist Ludwig M.Lachman would say about this thesis ??
  2. 1 david 04 Nov
    A philosopher 'gevoren' ?  -  My late mother used to say.
    How we teach, preach, learn to be Jewish is not a factor in my opinion. Just being Jewish allows me to walk with my head held high because I am a member of this beautiful and proud religion, and ( some would say ) possibly race ?   So many of us believe we should question and idealise, to find the differences between us.
        Orthodox, Reform , and all those between - are we different ? not a chance. We are all part of a wonderful Religion and relate to a wonderful Land  'Eretz Yisrael ' - so why we have to argue , and philosophise escapes my tiny mind.
        We now have our first female Rabbi Julia Margolis. Is it so hard for us all , as one, to welcome her into our midst, and celebrate her achievements in these new exciting times ?
       Jewish day school or Cheder, we learn the same things but at possibly different rates and levels from different teachers. That is what makes us different parts of the same.
      I went to a public school and Cheder, my grandchildren go to different private and Jewish day Schools, so what? Are they different?  No-way!.


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