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Grappling With the Rising Cost of Being Orthodox

In Atlanta’s Toco Hills enclave, increased housing prices and tuition bills leave observant families strapped for cash

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Tzivia Silverstein prepares for Shabbat. (Ali Whittemore)
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Every Friday, Tzivia Silverstein races against the sunset, cleaning her small apartment and cooking a Shabbat meal at the same time so that everything is finished before nightfall. Gathering her daughters beside her once the cooking and cleaning are done, she lights a set of white candles and covers her eyes as the daylight fades, welcoming Shabbat with a blessing in Hebrew. Then guests arrive for dinner, fellow Orthodox Jews dressed in black hats and headscarves, greeting her warmly at the door. Over dinner, they talk about matters both religious and secular. But one topic is off-limits: money.

Silverstein and her guests live in Toco Hills, a Modern Orthodox enclave nestled near the edge of Midtown Atlanta. This pleasantly wooded neighborhood, where twisting sidewalks line streets with seemingly ironic names like Christmas Lane and Reindeer Drive, appears to have escaped the blight affecting other parts of urban Atlanta. But that façade of comfortable prosperity masks economic issues that have squeezed this neighborhood in the wake of the Great Recession.

For Orthodox Jews everywhere, the cost of being observant has always been high; day schools, kosher food, and housing have always been expensive. But those costs have risen dramatically in recent years. And for residents of Toco Hills, where housing costs have climbed even as the recession has lowered people’s incomes and reduced their savings—and many breadwinners have lost their jobs—the costs have become a major burden. According to Rabbi Ilan Feldman, leader of Congregation Beth Jacob, a grand shul at the center of the community, 100 of the 600 families living here are on federal or local assistance, a number that has risen gradually but consistently since 2010.

The stereotype that Jews are wealthy—or at least comfortably middle class—has long ignored the truth that many are struggling to get by. And Orthodox Jews, who often have higher living expenses than other Jews due to their observance and the limited choices they face when looking for a place to live, are especially vulnerable to shifts in the economic climate. For Feldman, dealing with the correlation between religious observance and financial hardship is part of his job. “For someone making $60,000 a year, in America, that’s middle class,” Feldman said. “But in this Orthodox community, $60,000 means you aren’t going to make it.”

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Silverstein, 53, was born and raised in Atlanta, growing up in a Reform home in North Druid Hills. She became observant during a seven-year stint in Israel, where she also met her husband and gave birth to her first two children, a son and daughter. In 1997 the Silversteins moved back to Atlanta and settled in Toco Hills, where her second daughter was born. For a while, her husband worked at the Kroger Deli and Tzivia helped run an Orthodox home-schooling program for preschoolers. When she and her husband divorced in 2012, her household income dropped by about half.

Her mother is helping out, Silverstein says, and she’s getting some child support from her husband, but making ends meet is a continuous struggle. Most of her time is now spent looking for work, preferably something steady, like bagging or cashiering at a local grocery store. But finding a position that doesn’t require weekend time has been difficult. “That’s been a classic challenge of American Jewry, you know?” she said. “Do you work on Shabbat or not? You have trouble earning money because you can’t work on Saturday, and you have to take off for holidays.”

On the sidewalks of Toco Hills

She has yet to find a secular job that will let her do that. She has picked up occasional work in the Orthodox community as a restaurant mashgicha, a supervisor who ensures that kosher food services follow proper religious law. She washes produce and inspects it for insects, checks for blood-spots in eggs, and makes sure that meat and dairy products are kept separate. It pays about $15 an hour, and she often finds herself working for the same people she goes to shul with. It’s a hard job, she said: “You have to be the police guy. You inspect something that has to be thrown out, you’re costing them money. Even the proprietor doesn’t always want you there.”

Most kosher food services are small outfits with high overhead expenditures, including that of a mashgiach’s salary. As a result, kosher food costs quite a bit more than nonkosher alternatives, but since kashrut is a religious requirement, observant families have no choice but to pay more. And there’s a lot to cook. Between Shabbat and Jewish chagim, there are 63 holy days on the calendar. The common Orthodox practice is to cook at least two large meals per day, with enough food to feed a large family and guests. “A hundred-and-twenty-six festive meals a year,” Feldman said. “People talk about busting their budget for Christmas and Thanksgiving meals, but this is Christmas and Thanksgiving twice a week, every week. Passover alone is usually a $3,000 holiday.”

Many Orthodox families, especially those on the lower end of the economic ladder, simply can’t keep up with the prices. So, they turn to underground charities like Yad L’Yad, an Atlanta-based organization that works exclusively with the area’s Jewish community. According to Esther Pranskey, the organization’s head, the number of recipient families more than doubled when the recession struck and has continued to rise steadily. More than 30 families—including the Silversteins—currently receive provisions of flour, rice, pickles, and other essentials. While basic, the deliveries help ease the pressure. The Silversteins rarely go out to eat, and their meals aren’t extravagant affairs, but they stay fed and they stay kosher.

Hebrew school tuition is another major expense. Starting from kindergarten, most Orthodox families in Toco Hills send their children to Jewish private schools. Several such day schools exist in the community, many of them funded by a complex mixture of donations, school-choice vouchers, and tuition. But in the aftermath of the recession, Feldman said, donations have fallen off. In response, the schools have leaned more heavily on tuition, charging anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000 a year. At Torah Day School, a combined elementary and middle school just down the road from Beth Jacob, the price of a 6th-8th grade tuition in 2014 was $13,750, up 10 percent since 2010. The large size of most Orthodox families also means that as one child leaves a school, another is often entering it. As a result, even without the rising tuition prices, 70 percent of families are receiving some sort of need-based scholarship, a number that has stayed relatively steady over the past five years. And even with that kind of assistance, Feldman said, there are families in the community spending $25,000 a year on tuition. “Which is just insane,” he said. “Even wealthy people don’t buy a brand-new car every year.”

Inflated housing costs are a further strain. Toco Hills is just 10 minutes from the main campus of Emory University, and 15 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The thriving commercial centers of Midtown, Buckhead, and Decatur are only a half-hour in each direction. This location makes it an attractive neighborhood for many commuters who aren’t Orthodox Jews. But this increased demand drives up prices for everyone, including the Orthodox residents who have fewer realistic options about where they’ll live, since Orthodox Jews have to live within walking distance of a shul.

“There’s just not the same latitude of options,” said Josh Wittenberg, a local real-estate agent. There are other Orthodox communities in the greater Atlanta area, he said, but they are small and mostly located in distant suburbs. Toco Hills is by far the best established. “If you’re going to live in Toco Hills, you have to live right by the shul, inside the eruv. If you live outside, you can’t carry things on Shabbat, and that’s a huge burden on families. Most people just won’t consider it.”

With a new synagogue, Young Israel, being constructed down the road from Beth Jacob, demand has been rising for Orthodox Jews just as prices have spiked. Housing prices have been climbing generally across Atlanta, but in Toco Hills the prices have jumped by 6 percent over the past nine months, in what Wittenberg said is a sharp change from a normal year. A typical ranch house in Toco Hills now sells for as much as $400,000, Wittenberg said, a 15-percent rise over about three years. A house that might have been worth $290,000 in 2010 is now worth, on average, about $340,000. That includes houses in various states of repair; the demand is so high, Wittenberg said, that all of them sell. Many of the cheaper homes are being knocked down, and in their place rise massive, multistory affairs, far larger than the existing homes in the area, and costing far more than most families can pay. That would not have been the case a year and a half ago, Wittenberg said.

The Silversteins have never owned a house. Instead, they have opted to rent, moving between the small complexes clustered at the periphery of the community. Currently they live in Calibre Woods, a wooded apartment complex an 11-minute walk from Beth Jacob. But rent there has been rising as well. A two-bedroom apartment now goes for $1,300, about $400 more than it cost just a year ago, Wittenberg says. That’s more expensive than Silverstein can afford, so she and her daughters recently traded in their old space for a smaller one-bedroom in the same complex.

The truth, Wittenberg says, is that everybody in the neighborhood is tapped out. He said he’s run the numbers and has concluded that most people in the neighborhood are only making it by borrowing money. That includes his own family. In 2008, he and his wife Jody lost their grocery business and came close to losing their house. Yad L’Yad came to their rescue for about six months, and Wittenberg’s parents started lending him cash. In the meantime, they scrambled for any kind of work that they could. Jody cleaned houses and picked up shifts at a kosher bakery, while Josh drove people to the airport and sold suits. Eventually, Wittenberg, 45, got his feet under him as a real-estate agent, but his parents are still paying his health insurance. He would love to sell his house and move somewhere cheaper, he says, but that would mean giving up on a community that makes his kids happy and that rallied around him in his time of need. That’s a trade he isn’t willing to make.

“I know it’s not the smart thing to do,” Wittenberg said. “I’d love to sell my house and move out somewhere cheaper. There’s not a day goes by when my wife and I don’t talk about it. But I’m a baal teshuvah. I’m choosing to be observant. And if I’m going to struggle through this Torah, then my kids need to have friends. They need to be in the community.”

For Silverstein, it comes down to value instead of cost. In terms of personal and spiritual fulfillment, she says, the neighborhood pays for itself. As heavy as the expenses are, they are necessary sacrifices for belonging to the community. “I see maybe one movie a year,” she said. “I choose to put my kids through religious school instead of buying a nicer car. It’s astounding, the amount of money that other people have, to spend on things like renovating their house or buying a bigger TV. To me, my most important relationship is with God. The material world is a means to an end.”

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Grappling With the Rising Cost of Being Orthodox

In Atlanta’s Toco Hills enclave, increased housing prices and tuition bills leave observant families strapped for cash