“When I moved to Seattle a family that was making $100,000 a year was doing well. But now…” My friend trails off. We are discussing what is perhaps the last social taboo — money. Specifically: the cost of living in Seattle and its impact on the Jewish community. In today’s culture of oversharing, finances are perhaps the last thing that most people continue to keep private. Thanks to late-night Facebook rants, we know more about our colleagues’ political views or their marital difficulties than we’d care to, but we are left guessing about how our neighbors are really doing financially. Who is just getting by, and who is living high on the Shabbat brisket?
Since the destruction of the Temple, the home has become central to Jewish ritual. But what happens when buying a home becomes an increasingly distant dream, or staying in a home eats up a larger and larger percentage of one’s salary every year?
On paper, $100,000 is still considered to be “doing well.” That figure is higher than the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s median family income of $89,600 for the Seattle-Bellevue metropolitan area. It’s also a figure that, according to the Jewish Federation’s 2014 Greater Seattle Jewish Community Study, a majority of Jewish families are earning, if not exceeding. However, a dollar doesn’t go as far in Seattle in 2017 as it did in 2014 when the Federation conducted the study. Due to the dramatic changes in our local economy and the growing cost of housing, the detailed picture of our community that the study painted no longer looks quite like us just three short years later.
The study estimated that 63,400 Jewish individuals live in the greater Seattle area, and for the most part they’re doing well financially, with a 79 percent home-ownership rate. In August of 2014, though, the average home price in Seattle was $451,000, and rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,600 a month. In May 2017, the average house cost $671,000, and a one-bedroom apartment was going for $2,047. Did I mention that in many neighborhoods finding that average house, let alone any house, is becoming increasingly difficult? While three years ago a down payment of $100,000 would have gone a long way, today it would mean a monthly mortgage payment of over $3,500, which means that the $100,000-a-year family could be spending over half their take-home pay on housing. So yes, a family making $100,000 a year in Seattle can indeed be scraping by.
The fact that Seattle has become an extremely expensive city to live in due to the crushing cost of housing isn’t news to anyone. However, on top of essentials like housing, child- and health care, food, and transportation, another factor affects our community specifically: the cost of an involved Jewish life. Synagogue and community center memberships, day school and summer camp and Hebrew school, fundraisers, Shabbat meals and Passover seders — all wonderful things — mean that an active Jewish life comes with a serious price tag. My friend and I mentally crunch some numbers and come up with what we think is a conservative estimate for an annual household income that will adequately provide for a Jewishly engaged Seattle family of four in 2025. It’s $200,000.
The idea that a six-figure salary is inadequate to provide comfortably for an average family and allow them to participate with a moderate to high level of Jewish engagement is a startling reminder of just how expensive Seattle has become in the last few years. With sleepaway camp coming in at around $900 per week, a “modest” bar mitzvah at $10,000, Hebrew school at about $2,000 a year, and synagogue dues in the vicinity of $1,500 (if not more) annually, the Jewish cost of living is actually only a small part of how we came to this figure. The costs of an involved Jewish life are significant, but they are modest compared to the amount of money a family will spend on basics such as housing, child care, and health care. Not to mention that families need to squirrel away a substantial nest egg — not just for things like car repairs or that modest bar mitzvah — but for the estimated $150,000 it will cost today’s toddlers to earn a four-year degree at a state college. So will we all have to be two-techie households in order to live in the Seattle of 2020 — or even today?
To take a step back: The economic conditions that created the golem that is our housing market are good things. The thousands of new high-paying tech jobs and a low unemployment rate have positive impacts on the local economy beyond the tech sector (in which, according to the community study, only 14 percent of the community works). It also means that the Jewish community is gaining new members. But is this growth a net gain, or will it result in a net zero as people are priced out?
A recent Seattle Times article reported that 45 percent of millennials are considering leaving the area due to high housing costs. While local Jewish institutions are not equipped to combat the forces of the real estate market, they can help with the retention of new young residents in other ways. According to Temple De Hirsch Sinai’s former rabbi, Jaclyn Cohen, “Things like the Engager Network — a coalition of Jewish professionals whose focus is solely on millennial and young adult programming — make a huge difference in the collective effort of retention. Synagogues can continue to offer a young adult rate for temple membership, making the concept of belonging to a congregation affordable and mutually beneficial. And most importantly, the Seattle Jewish community can continue to innovate — providing opportunities for new, dynamic, and outside-the-box ways for young Jews to explore their Jewishness.”
Millennial retention is now just as much about young families as it is young adults. Young Jewish family life often follows the traditional pattern of putting down roots and joining Jewish institutions. As children start to grow, the equation becomes considerably more complex.
Rather than opting out of the area completely, some Jews are fleeing to the suburbs. Robin and Rabbi Daniel Ehrlich, who shared their story last year about moving from the Jewish hub of North Seattle to Snohomish County in order to live more comfortably, note that in the past 18 months they’ve seen a lot of movement to their neighborhood. This year was the first summer Camp Gan Israel, Chabad’s summer camp in View Ridge, organized a carpool pickup to serve children in the Lynnwood/Edmonds area. Snohomish County isn’t exactly the next Mercer Island, but in 20 years it very well could be. Rabbi Berel Paltiel of the Chabad Jewish Center of Snohomish County says he has seen an increase in the number of Jewish residents over the last couple of years, including a surprising amount of younger adults. “But it’s starting to get expensive here too,” he says.
While moving farther out may be a trend on the rise, it is not a viable option for all. It is no small thing to leave the neighborhood one’s family already calls home, and for some Shabbat observers, it could be a very challenging proposition. For many observant Jews, living within an eruv — a ritual enclosure that allows them to carry items outside their private domain on Shabbat — is crucial. While the choice to live within an eruv can allow for a better participation in community life on Shabbat — especially for families with small children and babies or those in need of mobility assistance — it also means drastically limiting the places one can live and can result in significant compromises or sacrifices for housing. The Seattle area’s eruvim are in Ravenna/Wedgwood (median home price $770,000), Seward Park (median home price $508,100), and on Mercer Island (median home price $1,400,500). It’s likely that the homes within the eruvim are on the top end of the median or higher than the zip code average. In addition, the combination of higher-priced kosher grocery staples and weekly festive meals (often with guests) means that area kosher-keeping households may be spending around 40 percent more on groceries a month than the US Department of Agriculture’s family average of $1,097.80. Most significantly, this segment of the community is most likely to send children to Jewish day school, which is one of the greatest Jewish communal expenses a family will experience.
Thanks to a crowdsourced Google document known as “the spreadsheet” publicized by The Forward, one can compare the prices of Seattle-area day schools with those of other cities throughout the world. (Our average for a year of K–5 is $17,374 without financial aid.) When it went live at the beginning of last school year, the spreadsheet made quite a splash in many cities because families were finally seeing transparent tuition information. Yet several local Jewish day school parents I spoke with had never heard of the notorious Google Sheets document, perhaps because our area day schools have long provided comprehensive information on their institution’s tuition, fees, and financial aid application processes on their websites. If the figure of $17,374 gives you pause, consider that this price is a bargain compared to both local secular private schools and Jewish day schools in cities with similar economies. However, the families that choose Jewish day school tend to come from a greater variety of economic backgrounds than area secular private school families. What is a bargain for some is a hardship for others.
The Seattle Jewish community is able to keep prices down and offer generous financial aid from the Samis Foundation, the Federation, and private donors, thereby lowering barriers to entry. Yael Sachs, director of finance and operations at Seattle Jewish Community School in North Seattle, notes that as the cost of living has risen, the school has seen an increase in the number of families applying for financial aid as well as a change in demographics: Families from the higher income brackets are increasingly applying for aid, too. Given the high cost of living (not to mention that many families with millennial parents are also likely to be carrying student loan debt), a family with a six-figure income may be struggling to contribute to its savings after paying for day school, even after financial aid, for multiple children. So why do families do it when there is the no-cost alternative of public school?
For starters, public school may not really be a no-cost option for all families. As one working parent put it, after financial aid, “Day school is not that much more than public school would be for us,” as her family would need child care after the public school day got out. For many, the main reason they choose to take on the financial weight of day school tuition is something that can’t necessarily be calculated in dollars and cents. In my research for this article, I did not speak to one person who thought their child’s Jewish education wasn’t worth it. Time and time again I heard the word “investment,” used not just by those who are part of the local Jewish educational community but by parents themselves. As more than one person pointed out to me, a Jewish education is not just an investment in the individual student (day school students are shown to be more connected to the Jewish community and have strong Jewish identities as adults) but an investment in the family’s connection to Judaism, as well as the greater Jewish community as a whole.
This is not to say that many of the issues documented in great detail in the expansive body of work written on the so-called “tuition crisis” are not occurring here just because prices are lower and generous financial aid is available. As in any city, many families are “making it all work” with difficult choices, sacrifices, and compromises. Our community has people who manage a steady hum of constant stress and worry about how to get the bills paid each month. There is also a tendency for our community to view itself as “affluent” or “prosperous.” While on paper we may well be, at least back in 2014, this label leads to potentially dangerous assumptions by adding an additional layer of stress via a perceived or real sense of community scrutiny and judgment for those who are struggling. Based on the high cost of living in the Seattle area, at the end of the day many families, regardless of where they fall on the salary scale, are finding it challenging to make it all work. Perhaps it’s time we recognize that they are not the outliers in our prosperous community, but rather the norm.
While the costs of synagogue memberships and summer camp add up for most area families, they also add up in another, more positive way. Participation in Jewish life builds and bolsters our community, and the value of community cannot be overstated, especially as an increasingly large number of us are transplants. Being a connected member of the Jewish community is not just a windbreaker from the Seattle chill — it’s a shelter from the storms of life. It’s knowing that you won’t have to worry about food after the arrival of a new baby or a surgery because your friends organized a meal calendar for you. It’s knowing that when your child chants the Haftarah, he or she will be met with proud smiles not just from your family but from your whole congregation. It’s knowing that your commitment to being a part of the community will be matched by the organizations within it, and they are determined to do everything possible to keep your participation affordable. The problem is not that our local Jewish institutions themselves are cost-prohibitive — it’s that living in Seattle is increasingly becoming so. While housing is a big part of the equation, child care, health care, and college tuition costs have also increased much faster than the rate of inflation. We just don’t have as much money to spend at the end of the day.
The shelter of the community must extend beyond the barriers of formal participation. Some of our most isolated are also the most vulnerable to the impacts of expensive housing. The Federation’s community study reported that the state of Jewish seniors is good. Overall, they are confident in their ability to support themselves through retirement and have a low rate of poverty. Yet exponentially rising property taxes can be an extreme hardship for someone on a fixed income — and that could be a best-case scenario. As Jewish Family Service’s director of Aging in Place Adam Halpern points out, “There is an assumption, even among aging policy makers, that all older adults own their own homes. But as many as a quarter of older adults in King County are renters, and this is true for many of our clients. With rising housing costs, and few affordable housing options, clients are having to look to communities that are farther from health care, friends, and the Jewish community.”
Our mental math has left a depressing cloud in the room. But my friend and I aren’t done with our conversation. It seems as if many people we know are making it all work somehow, but it all feels a bit precarious. We don’t really know how everyone is secretly managing. Because people keep their finances private, we don’t know who is drowning in credit card debt or who is living without a safety net. What will happen if millennials prove unable to offer their children and grandchildren the same level of financial support that many young adults have historically received from older family members (such as help with a down payment or assistance with children’s education expenses)? What happens to the community if the economic divide increases? What happens if new Jewish professionals, the people who sustain our Jewish institutions, are not able to afford to live in the community they serve? What happens when the average Seattle house costs $1 million? Will our community continue to physically expand and spread out as those of us with more humble means leave the Seattle city limits in favor of the more affordable surrounding areas? Will institutions and services follow? And most important: What can be done about it all? These are the conversations we need to have as a community. They need to occur at synagogue board meetings, at strategic planning sessions, and in living rooms over coffee.
As in all communities, ours is not immune to the effects of consumerism, and most of us have probably experienced a degree of “keeping up with the Steins” at one time or another. It’s important to remember, though, that what we see on the surface may not be the whole picture. What cars your friends drive, which camps their kids go to, what cut of beef is served for Shabbat dinner — these are all factored into an assessment that may actually be inaccurate. What might not be apparent is that a family may have paid for that Maui vacation you saw on Instagram with points. Or that they are able to send their two children to day school thanks to a combination of logging 60 hours a week, generous financial aid packages, and help from relatives. Maybe they will get to revisit every detail of their son’s beautiful bar mitzvah monthly for the next six years when their Amex bill arrives. Along with their Discover, Visa, and Mastercard bills. And that lovely brisket? They may have put a significant dent in their grocery budget because they were delighted you finally accepted their invitation. At the end of the day, each other’s personal finances are really none of our business. But the overall affordability of Seattle and our local Jewish institutions is.