Newsweek religion commentator Lisa Miller complains that the cost of synagogue affiliation is driving Jews away from their religion. Man-bites-dog has nothing on this one; when is the last time that anyone has argued that the big problem with the Jews is that they are short of money? Nonetheless, Miller’s argument contains a kernel of information. She writes,

In 2008, 2.7 million Americans called themselves religiously Jewish, down from 3.1 million in 1990. Wouldn’t the central challenge of American Jewry be to encourage the broadest range of people (including the intermarried, like me) to identify as Jewish and to raise Jewish kids?

Miller cites a March 2010 article by sociologist Jack Wertheimer in Commentary magazine which

focused mostly on the plight of the Orthodox, more likely to be poor than Conservative or Reform Jews, and who, because of their strong commitment, often pay more. According to his calculations, an Orthodox Jewish family with three children could expect to spend between $50,000 and $110,000 a year on school fees, synagogue dues, summer camps, and kosher food. He argued that the fate of American Jewry rested on increased and enthusiastic support from philanthropists and activists to enable these families to live, as he would say, “Jewishly.”

I don’t know what Wertheimer is so worried about. Orthodox synagogues and day schools are bursting with members, while Conservative and Reform institutions are losing members. Reform rabbi Lance Sussman, writing in the Spring 2010 Jewish Review of Books, estimated that the Reform have lost a third of their members during the past ten years. I don’t have comparable data for the Conservative movement, but it is not much different.

The Orthodox seem to find the money. Among the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi), to be sure, the quality of yeshiva education in secular subjects is notoriously poor, but that is a different matter.

Lightly-affiliated Jews, it appears, are less likely to pay for synagogue membership than observant Jews. Two thousand dollars is a lot to pay for Jews who might attend services on the High Holy Days, if at all. That leads to a vicious circle in declining congregations, where a smaller number of active congregants must absorb the fixed costs of operating a synagogue. Outreach surely is a good thing, and Jews surely should encourage the intermarried to raise Jewish children. But all the demographic evidence weighs against the notion that a superficial commitment to Judaism has much staying power.

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