Monday, January 23, 2012

Why Being an Orthodox Jew Is Expensive

There is a lot that can be said on this topic, but we're going to touch on the major causes superficially. This is basically a warning to make sure you realize what you're getting into. After the steep cost of the initial set-up, living Jewishly doesn't seem that much more expensive to the average single person. But then the big ticket items begin to hit: Dating. Wedding. You have to take a lower-paying job when your boss stops being patient with yom tov observance. Children. Keeping up with the Steins. Jewish or not, no one ever thinks they have enough money at the end of the month. But if you choose to live Jewishly, you have to remember your priorities.

So let the list of awfulness begin. [This is admittedly skewed to the American experience.]

Kosher meat, which can be even more expensive based on the kind of meat hashgacha you hold by. The price of kosher meat varies greatly depending on where you live and what kind of meat you're looking for. Chicken could be priced almost as well as treif chicken. Lamb, which has lower demand, could be much higher than the secular varieties. If you live outside of New York City or Los Angeles, your grocery store availability is probably not great, and there is probably only one brand, maybe two. You might not even have fresh meat, just frozen. Worse, you may not have access to any meat in your local stores. Either you stop eating meat (and you probably eat a lot less meat regardless) or you locate it somewhere else: road trips with large coolers or order your meat through the mail, probably as a group.

Most people buy glatt kosher, and it seems to be the most widely-available, which can often make it as cheap as kosher meat gets. If you hold by beit Yosef, only a particular rabbi, or only a certain group of rabbis, your purchasing choices are very limited. For example, if you live in Borough Park in Brooklyn, you probably have access to every kind of meat hechsher you could want. However, if you travel to another community for a visit or move there, you likely will not find the unusual hashgachas. Either you bring meat in a cooler, order it through the mail, or stop eating meat. You may have to reassess your priorities and consider whether another hashgacha would be appropriate for your circumstances.

Kosher dairy, especially if you hold by cholov yisrael. Kosher cheese is easily double the price of regular cheese. And you're not going to find the fancy cheeses you loved before you went kosher. There will be a fantastic day when the heavens open and the angels sing because you discovered kosher havarti cheese. Cholov yisrael cheese may not even be available in many smaller communities. Cholov yisrael dairy in general may be nearly twice the price of the stam cholov products, especially milk or coffee creamer.

Kitchen supplies. You need over double (maybe almost triple) the kitchen supplies of "normal" Americans. You probably realize that you will need doubles of almost everything in order to prepare both meat and dairy. Don't forget that many items will also need a pareve option, which will definitely throw you over the mark for "double the supplies" and, depending on your cooking habits and finances, could push you very close to having a kitchen in triplicate. If you can afford it, you will want a dishwasher (or two), two sinks, and two ovens. Kosher kitchen remodels are probably not the conspicuous consumption that they are in most American homes.

The ritual items (Judaica). This is largely an up-front cost, and much of the "nice" stuff might be gifted to you later, most likely for your conversion or wedding. Even if you expect the nice stuff later, you probably still need to buy some cheap stuff to get you by for a while. Some purchases can be postponed. For instance, you don't need a fancy challah/matzah cover; you can use a napkin. If you're fancy, you can buy a $1-2 cloth napkin. Your candlesticks can be cheap ones from Wal-Mart or nice ones from Goodwill. You can use normal cups as kiddush cups and havdalah cups. But this is like eating Ramen in college. It's fine at the time, but eventually, you're going to want to have nice things. (And there is definitely a "keeping up with the Steins" mentality out there.) There is even the mitzvah of hiddur mitzvot to encourage you to "upgrade" your cheap Judaica eventually. But really, you'll just want to look like a normal adult person in your community instead of feeling like a college student. I was always very proud of my first "big girl" Judaica items because either I had saved up for them or received them as a gift, and it was one more marker of being a Jewish adult.

Mezuzahs: This is a big up-front purchase. One case and scroll (kosher handwritten scroll, not a printed one) will cost about $50. The cheapest I've ever gotten out was $40, and the prices can easily go into hundreds of dollars for the very pretty/artistic cases. You'll probably receive many mezuzahs as conversion and wedding presents, but often not enough. And anytime you move into a new home (hello, apartment dwellers who move every year!), you run the risk of needing to buy several more or having half of your mezuzot sitting in a box gathering dust. My inner clutter-hater is very bothered by un-utilized mezuzot.

Books. Most converts are book hoarders. And I might be your leader. Books will easily cost you several thousand dollars just to get a "respectable" home library of basics and some fun stuff. Most of this basic library will be built up during the conversion process, but you'll always be learning, and there will always be more books for your study. The best you can do is watch for sales, buy in person if the middleman mark-up isn't too high, and buy in bulk to get rid of (or minimize) shipping costs. While there are many books you will want to keep a physical copy of, remember that you may want to borrow most books first, either from a friend, library, or shul. For the books you decide have earned a spot in your home, used book websites are everywhere and often have the book you need. If you're patient, you can wait for books to be posted on or I've had surprisingly good luck on PaperBack Swap for Jewish books. (And it's an amazing site generally for all books!)

Clothing. This is primarily an up-front cost. Male or female, you'll probably have clothing adjustments you'll need to make, such as tznius-fying your closet (men too) and buying tzitzit. Clutter-haters may like the spring cleaning aspect of this, but everyone throws out more than they need to. Remember that shells and undershirts can make most shirts tznius. Your booty shorts will unfortunately have to go. But your clubbing tops might not need to. Personally, I also recommend not throwing out your jeans or some other pants until you've gone at least a year without wearing them. It can be comforting to know that they're there, even if you choose not to wear them. You may also want to keep a pair of jeans around for serious cleaning (yay Pesach?), home-improvement projects, or to wear under a skirt while moving, etc. (To be fair, I've moved twice in skirts-with pockets-and it was fine.) Over time, this cost is probably very similar to a "normal" clothing budget, once you've done the initial change-over. However, this cost can go out of control quickly if you don't pay attention to which stores tend to carry tznius women's clothing (men luck out in this department). If you don't, you'll waste gas and time going to multiple stores with zero results, leading to overpriced, frustrated internet shopping binges with high shipping rates. As for tzitzis, they can also be expensive (and itchy), but you can learn to make your own! (Don't try to teach yourself. Just don't.)

Tzedakah: The laws of tzedakah are complex and depend on your individual circumstances. But that is an automatic deduction of your take-home income every year for the rest of your life.

Being shomer Shabbat: Being shomer Shabbat can bring a lot of unexpected (and unpredictable) costs into your life. You will have to live in a certain part of town, and you can't control those property/rental costs. Maybe high housing prices make you decide to move to a different town or state. Little things like nice timers can add up, as well as hot plates (I highly prefer hot plates to blechs for safety reasons) and bathroom tissues. More subtly, Shabbat observance will determine where you are able to work. You may have to take a lower-paying job, and you will miss more work days for chagim. You may not have the freedom to take on a second or third job on the weekends as many Americans do. You may have a harder time finding a job at all, so your periods of unemployment may be longer. You may outnegotiate yourself in job offers because you know you're asking your employer to deal with strange hours and strange days off. If you cause your starting salary to be lower, it's likely that your salary will continue to be lower than your colleagues for years to come. That lower salary could even cause later jobs to offer you lower job offers. (If you think you need to disclose your prior salaries, please read this.) Women are already prone to this self-destructive behavior in the job offer negotiation process, and Shabbat observance may cause you to sell yourself that much shorter. 

Wedding. Getting married in the Jewish world is incredibly expensive. Wedding halls, kosher caterers, more fabric in the wedding dress, printing bentchers for the attendees...orthodox weddings can easily cost more than your entire college education. $40,000 is not a shocking number today (even though it is incredibly shocking). $10,000 weddings are considered a bargain. Jewish weddings tend to have many guests, and elopement isn't a popular option. If you're like many adult converts, you will not have family able or willing to pay for your wedding, but you probably also have less guests. However, you may get the "joy" of dealing with 200-300 guests you've never heard of, as your spouse's parents use the wedding to network with every distant relative and business acquaintance. On the other hand, the money the Jewish community is willing to spend on wedding gifts is equally shocking. It's possible that you could actually "make money" on your wedding from the cash and registry gifts. But I don't think you want to rely on that.

Children. Here's the biggie. Day school tuition. Just the thought of it already makes me gag and wheeze. You'll also have to pay for religious celebrations throughout the child's life, such as the bris, bar mitzvah, etc. My observations in college, law school, and my current community make me think that Jewish parents tend to provide financial support to their children longer than the average American parent. (Maybe my data is skewed by being in the South, which has a lot of poverty and values independence? I don't know.) And at the end of the day, you get to pay for a second wedding. And maybe a third, fourth, etc.

I'll go curl up in the fetal position and cry now.


  1. Ah so you are the person I am competing with on Paperbackswap for my Jewish books!

    I think 9 out of 12 books that I needed for my conversion course (Reconstructionist) came from PBS. Also check out a few other books I needed to build up my library came from there too. I went from 5 Jewish books to 50+ in 6 months primarily using those two sites plus amazon.

  2. There are gemachs for weddings for a kallah who may not be able to afford one, There are also gemachs for baby supplies and anything else you can think of, just gotta ask around or read the jewish press.

  3. Moving to Israel will solve all your educational expense problems.

    And all it costs is a bit of sanity! ;)

    [pretty sure blogger ate my earlier comment; if it showed up the queue somewhere, feel free to delete this one. Or that one. Or both. It's your blog, after all...]

  4. Mel: Thanks for the hint! And I send about 1/3 of the books back into circulation, so I'm only stealing them temporarily :D

    Anonymous: Funny you should mention that! Gemachs are my intended topic for tomorrow!

    Mike: You are the only person to ever report Blogger eating your comments, and this happens pretty often, LOL... I blame operator error at this point. (And no other post has showed up other than the one I published above.)

  5. Gemachs and resisting the urge to "keep up with the steins" is a big help. For us, it helps that we do not live in one of the major orthodox communities, so rent and houses are cheap even within a mile of a Shul. The trade off is basically no kosher restaurants and few amenities. We get meat as part of a co-op and most of the "women talk" is about where to find what kosher groceries for the best price.

    Add on Synagogue memberships, yeshiva school tuition, and then the neverending shul fundraisers and, yes...being orthodox does empty out bank accounts in a hurry. However, I see my kids playing with other orthodox kids, learning from each other. I see a community where people still look after each other. I see a place where we all flourish together.

    And I don't see the hole in my shoe as much. ;)

  6. Redacted is right (and then some). There are plenty of places where kosher meat and other foodstuffs are readily available outside of NY and LA, and those places tend to be less expensive.

    Forget about keeping up with the Steins and be true to yourself. If this means using a napkin instead of a fancy challah cover, fine. If it means eating vegetarian most of the week because meat (or the amenities of a double kitchen) costs too much, fine. If it means having a smaller wedding--or, gasp, a dairy wedding--fine. If you do these things and more, you will be able to create margin in your budget so that you can afford the things that you determine *are* necessary.

    By the way, a beautiful havdalah set is lovely, but two leftover chanukah candles, a cup, and your Tone's bottle of cinnamon will help you fulfill the mitzvah in the exact same way.

    I am sorry if I sound cynical; I do appreciate your position, but please be aware that there are many ways to live an observant life, and while some choices absolutely incur more expense, there are always, always ways to save without losing out.

  7. Caroline: I wasn't aware that I have a position :P Even making those changes, I think being an orthodox Jew is still significantly more expensive than not being one. These are just possible costs (and I can't believe I forgot synagogue-related ones!), and not all are negotiable. I also think that most people prioritize within these costs and probably end up spending the same. For instance, I personally would go cheaper on Judaica so that I can splurge on books. Right now, I'm prioritizing living in a place with restaurants and almost-unlimited Jewish resources because I'm single and it was the best place for me to be right now. Sure, I could be living plenty cheaper somewhere else, but I've chosen to be here. (Well, it wasn't entirely voluntary, but it worked out extremely well for me.) I think it's fundamentally about making informed, intelligent decisions about how you spend your money and making it fit your priorities. And if your money is going to different places, then reassessing whether your priorities are really what you say they are.

    And at the end of the day, these are mostly "hidden costs" to the new conversion candidate who's maybe read a few books and gone to shul a few times. That early conversion candidate to the advanced conversion candidate is my target audience, and I have to aim my materials at them. It's about helping them make an informed decision whether the orthodox lifestyle is something they are willing to live and making sure they go into it with open eyes, well-informed. These should not be nasty surprises that drive people off the derech later (which they do).

  8. @Skylar - I think it is REALLY important for someone to be upfront about the real, material costs. All too often, I see or hear of conversion candidates who can't afford kosher chicken thinking that they will be able to somehow afford all the other expenses that come along with being orthodox. A few off the top of my head, that are unavoidable, big-ticket items:

    1. Synagogue membership - This varies from synagogue to synagogue with some Chabad Shuls being "free" and running off donations. I'd say about $1,000-$2,000 is standard for a family membership, from what I've seen.

    2. Tefillin - If you are male or plan on marrying one and having little males, this adds up in a hurry. About $200-$600 per set...and every male will need a set eventually.

    3. Tallis - $150-$250+ Again, every male in your family will eventually need one.

    4. Basic books. This depends on what you consider basic, but let's assume at least $1000 here for all the Chumash sets, siddurim, and seforim.

    5. Mezuzot - Depending on your house size, this can add up in a hurry. Open floor plans help, but still. Even with a cheap case, this is about $40-$50 a doorway.

    6. Tutoring - Often about $20 per week, per class. The more studying you can do on your own, the better off you are and taking public classes helps, but you still might need a Hebrew tutor.

    7. Weddings, bris milahs, bar mitzvahs, etc. These can be done cheaper, but it's a challenge.

    8. Yeshiva tuition. If you're converting RCA, your children will have to go to Yeshiva day schools. On average I've seen this starting at $7,000 and going up from there...per kid. Keep in mind that living in an orthodox community and following Jewish laws on family planning means you may have more children than you might otherwise have had...and the expenses climb.

    9. Tzedekah and fundraising. Synagogues are often filled with older's often up to the few younger people there to do a lot of the footwork of keeping the shul open. Expect to participate in fundraisers constantly, whether organizing them or supporting them. It's your shul and you'll be expected to pitch in and help keep the doors open!

  9. ". . . a fancy challah/matzah cover . . . "

    Just to avoid confusion (or worse), it may be worth mentioning that it's absolutely *not* permissible to use the same cover for both challah (chametz) and matzah!

    Housing expenses can certainly be a major challenge. My husband are seriously considering moving to a more Jewish neighborhood. I'm sorry to say that we concluded long ago that there's no such thing as an unexpensive Jewish neighborhood in NYC, and since both of us work in NYC (and I have a chronically-ill sister in NYC), we're stuck here. I hope we can manage to move.

    1. Shira, you're correct that the accepted norm is to NOT use the same cover for chametz and matzah. Yet, in terms of strict halachic practice, if I run that cover through the washing machine with soap, there is nothing to forbid it's dual use. No different than table cloths, napkins, etc.

  10. As someone who has been to a bunch of gemachs at this point, don't expect to just get the same as everyone else for free, especially with wedding gemachs. I've been to a few of the biggest gemachs on the east coast for wedding dresses and have spent hours digging through piles of yellowed lace, torn sleeves, irreparable damage, stains that have set in for years... There are some decent dresses, but keep in mind that all the dresses ARE previously worn and not necessarily cleaned before storing. I think I had my hopes way too high when I went to gemachs... They are definitely workable, especially if you are a more typical size(tiny with hips/a chest apparently isn't 'typical'), but don't go in expecting to even find a style that you like in your size! It's the same for any other bridal gemach, like those giving flowers to kallot or catering. The flowers and catering are leftover from a previous wedding, so you have no choice in colors, styles, etc and the food is reheated. It's not the worst, especially for what it is, but this is the reason why most people end up just paying a fortune to get what they want...

    Also, I should note, gemach is not FREE. Skylar says she's posting about gemachs on a future day, so hopefully she will cover this. I have heard of a range of pricing. One gown gemach was 'technically' free, but you give them a deposit of $75 that they do indeed cash but give back to you when you return the dress in one piece. One gemach charged $200 for a dress. Another charged about $100. Another charged $36 tzedakah to the shul and $35 for cleaning the dress after. These are absolutely 100% cheaper than buying(or even renting, if you have the opportunity), but not free. Same with flower, catering, sheitel, etc gemachs... They do cost money, but it's just much cheaper. If you literally have a $0 budget, you're better off remembering that all you need is a ring of some value, grape juice, and a piece of fabric tied between four poles(and of course, the mesader kiddushin, a chatan, and a minyan of guys ;)). All the rest, white gown included, are just extras.

    And historically, Jewish weddings used to take place on friday afternoons, which would go into shabbos. The actual dancing and dinner part was actually friday night shabbos meal, which obviously saved on costs ;)

    (Can anyone tell that I'm having a big orthodox jewish wedding in less than 2 months?! lol)

    1. Whoa! part of the completion of the marriage is the marital relations. It's like completing a contract. So in a sense it is like a business transaction. I think it might be, LeChatcheelah, (sorry regarding the spelling) not necessarily desirable to conclude a business transaction on Shabbos.but what do I know. I am

  11. Its not just converting Orthodox that's expensive. Even as a Reform convert, I've had to come up with some expenses that are like "WOAH!". Synagogue membership was a shock for someone who grew up Catholic tossing $10 in the collection plate weekly.

    I'm also planning a VERY small, dessert only Jewish Sunday afternoon wedding in about 4 months and even for only inviting 70 people, its getting in the $4000 range. And that's cutting some stuff REALLY short.

    We eat exclusively kosher meat at home too, so literally, every 3-4 weeks, I have to pack up my toddler who loathes long car rides, drive an hour and 1/2 north and east to Skokie (we're in Chicago) and like you said, pack the cooler. I COULD drive only 20 minutes to trader joes, but its 3x as much there. I'm probably burning the money in gas... but I freeze it so its not FRESH, but meh.

  12. Skylar [what happened to Chavi? I liked her... ;-) ], whereas I certainly agree with the gist of your post; I think some of this is nonetheless the result of our falling prey to the general conspicuous consumption of affluent American society (and its influence on other places). I recall how my grandmother kept a perfectly kosher kitchen with far less of the *stuff* that we have in our kitchen. Rav Soloveitchik points out what a minimal library his father had at home. And weddings? That has completely gone into outerspace. I look at my parents' wedding pictures, and there is none of pageantry and expensive gowns we see now. My own wedding was put on by community friends and students for a fraction of what people think reasonable today. We *really* need to change our attitudes in the widespread community about what we call reasonable consumption. I would even argue that it defies many of the Torah's values.

  13. Ha! If you don't eat meat you get to skip three of these!
    Also, re: cheese, I buy the Cabot brand. It has a K on it.
    These are the moments when I consider being vegan...seriously, when fish is $15/lb. and soy milk is a dollar less and keeps for a year, it's an easy decision!

    I also like how "keeping up with the Steins" is actually a thing. Good thing about growing up poor: You don't even know what keeping up with the Steins is. It's just a given that you know you won't be doing that.

  14. Yeah, in the Northeast parents seem to provide for thier children FOREVER. Like, until 35 or so.

  15. See Magadocious rex is a reform convert and keeps Kosher. I really think we need just one body for all conversions across the board and drop all the mishagoss between the movements. It causes undue hardship and too much emotional damage for all. Just because somebody goes to a conservative shul out of necessity does not mean they are not orthodox in observance.

  16. A. Day school tuition is unnecessary to give your kids a proper Jewish education. Forcing future children to go to day school as a condition for conversion is a form of extortion.

    B. Incidentally, so is meat. And dairy, for that matter. Produce is cheap. Even cheaper than having two sets of dishes/pots/utensils!

    The most I have ever paid for is tefillin, and it wasn't that expensive at all, having been marked down to $100 after a bit of, erm... Yahooding down the vendor.

    Really, it all comes down to how much you're WILLING to pay in order to fulfill the mitzvot.

  17. I'm getting married in Sydney, Australia early next year and the cost is working out to about AUD$100,000. I've told my fiance that I really don't want a huge wedding with a lot of people that I don't know and he is sympathetic. However, his parents (mother in particular) are trying to be huge "machers"... help!!!

  18. Anonymous September 10, 2012 2:31 AM

    I find it hard to believe that you'd be spending that much on your wedding in Sydney.

    Considering how small the frum community is within Sydney. Spending that much on the wedding is a down payment for a flat in Dover Heights.

  19. Wow, im a new graduate and pretty broke and my first meeting with the Rabbi is tomorrow. Bleh.

  20. The sacrifices both financially and otherwise may be great, but the rewards are well worth it!

  21. Just found out about this place,, that offers couture or bespoke wedding gowns that won't kill one's wedding budget and everything there is kosher mehadrin!

  22. This is honestly the main reason I never took the jump to become an Orthodox Jew. I am on disability and can barely afford to get my basic essentials.