How to Afford a Jewish Education

By Vicki Streiff

June 4, 2010


I knew raising children wouldn’t be cheap. Everyone from my mother to the New York Times told me that. I even knew there were specifically Jewish expenses I was choosing to take on. But sometimes it does feel like raising Jews is remarkably costly. Sometimes it feels like the people holding the strongest, most impenetrable stereotype that all Jews have plenty of money are the ones in the Jewish community.

IRS formsMost financial aid providers don’t like to tell potential recipients what income levels equal what amount of support. Considering what they expect me to reveal, that didn’t really seem fair.

I was raised Jewish, but only marginally. When I was 13, I saw a friend become a bar mitzvah and envied his accomplishment, the accolades, the party! So I asked my parents to help me become a bat mitzvah and the answer came back: “Sorry, sweetie, we can’t afford it.” Not only did the synagogue require me to attend–and pay for–Hebrew school, but my mother and father were required to join the synagogue in order for me to enroll in Hebrew school. Perhaps they could have managed Hebrew school alone, but the dues on top made it too much.

Thus began the confusing, alienating journey that ended with me becoming an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister–with two Jewish parents. (How I became an observant Reform Jew in Indiana is another story.)

Now, I ran a church for three years, and worked for churches for some years before that. I know about the light bill, the rabbi’s health insurance, the leaking roof that needs to be repaired and the salaries of all the other people who make the synagogue run. It would be nice if we could run the shul on prayer and hugs, but we can’t. I get that. But it’s still overwhelming.

Take summer camp, which begins soon. I’ve read the articles about how Jewish summer camp enriches Jewish identity. I’ve also heard it from my rabbi. I’ve even heard it from peers who went to Jewish camps as children, which I did not. As someone with a marginal Jewish background married to a convert living in southern Indiana (what my husband likes to call “the galus of the galus”), I want that for my children. I want it very much! But it is so expensive. Working out how to get my kid to camp was a project that taught me that, even with scholarships, it’s a big challenge to give our children a Jewish education.

Tips for Affordable Jewish Education

  • Start early! As Vicki’s experience shows, funding is relatively scarce and it pays to plan ahead. To get funding for Jewish summer camp, start your application in January.
  • The PJ Library This program provides free Jewish children’s book and CDs in many Jewish communities. It’s the best bargain in the Jewish world today and a great place to start before you decide on Jewish preschool, Hebrew school or camp.
  • Sliding scale or reduced tuition? Many Jewish institutions offer sliding scale tuition and financial aid. Check the synagogue, school or camp website to see whether they have posted information on confidentiality and what they require. You may be asked to submit the same information as you would for private school tuition financial assistance.
  • Check the website of the Foundation for Jewish Camp Though not all campers are eligible for the scholarships the Foundation publicizes, your camper may be! If your child is a first-time camper, check out If your child participates in The PJ Library, you may be eligible for a special scholarship.

I went to a Catholic sleep-away camp for three summers in a row because they made a place for my autistic brother, and my parents thought it would be nice for me to go as well, if I wanted. My parents found it very affordable. Affordable enough to volunteer to double the price without blinking. My husband went to Episcopalian sleep-away camp for many summers, and it was beyond affordable–all the way into cheap. In other words, these camps were heavily subsidized. I see a full-page ad soliciting donations to the Jewish summer camp network in every issue of Reform Jewish Magazine, but the price for just two weeks of camp is anything but affordable.

A friend pointed me to the Foundation for Jewish Camp, a foundation that acts as a clearinghouse for Jewish camp information. It took me some moments to realize I couldn’t apply to them directly. Luckily, they have information about three potential sources of money right there on the front page. Unluckily, my family wasn’t eligible to apply for any of them. One gives money to middle-schoolers in a few far western states. My daughter is 8 and we live too far east. One gives money to Russian immigrants. I suspected it wasn’t good enough that my great-grandparents all came here from that part of the world in the early 1900s? Indeed not.

The third scholarship looked promising, and I chased through several web pages only to discover finally that their scholarships were for children attending camp for a minimum of 19 days. My daughter is only old enough to attend a short session, usually about 15 days long. It took a few hours to discover that I had been wasting my time. It didn’t help that every time I asked a person for help finding scholarships, they enthusiastically told me about the same scholarship.

Oh, come on, people, I thought. I named her Zipporah Yael. Isn’t that worth any grant money?

I switched focus to the closest Jewish camp, which did have a way to apply for financial aid. Then I realized I had missed the deadline–in the middle of February when I clearly should have been thinking about July, but strangely enough wasn’t. I emailed the director. He assured me that it was still worth sending in the application. Yay!

Or not-so-yay. I didn’t apply to the camp, but instead to a firm they use, many states away. They seemed to mostly contract for private schools. And I learned that to apply for financial aid for Jewish camp or day school, you have to scrounge up all of your tax documents. If you file a Schedule C and your financial life is complicated, that’s not the easiest thing to do! I had a moment of panic when I realized that if we submitted our 2008 forms, we’d be declaring a slightly higher income because the economy was better. But our 2009 forms weren’t ready yet. How much scholarship money might the difference be worth, I wondered? Most financial aid providers don’t like to tell potential recipients what income levels equal what amounts of support. Considering what they expect me to reveal, that didn’t really seem fair.

To apply for the camp’s own scholarship, I needed to register my daughter for their camp. It was a leap of faith–we had to pay out a non-refundable $250 deposit without knowing we’d be able to afford to actually send her. What if they didn’t award us enough of a scholarship? Or any scholarship? It wasn’t easy for our family to scrape up the registration fee. Only when we could afford to register her for camp could we apply for help paying for it, but to register, we had to start paying for it.

It was a tense moment for us, knowing the camp was probably promising families more and more of their minimal grant money every day. Would all the scholarship funds be gone by the time we had the registration fee?

In the end, we managed to get almost all the money we needed. My parents sent $500. Our synagogue has a scholarship fund for Jewish sleep-away camp that covers $1,000 (about half the expected fee), no matter what Jewish camp she attends. To apply, I wrote them a letter and didn’t have to reveal all of our Social Security numbers and the exact, embarrassing details of last year’s tax return–which is also how I requested a dues reduction and a reduction in Hebrew school fees. Our congregation cares about not humiliating families that need financial aid. Between the synagogue, my parents and eventually the camp, we’ve managed to cover most of the costs, and to work out a payment plan for the rest.

Maimonides said anonymously giving tzedakah is best. I did get a lot of pleasure from being able to smile at someone and thank them in person for helping send our children to camp. But this process has, in the end, convinced me that it would be nicer still if we could afford it without help. I think that means Maimonides was right. 


About Vicki Streiff

Vicki Streiff married a convert to Judaism in 1995 and they have three children who all love books. They all live together in Indiana and love it there, to her everlasting surprise.