The cost of being Jewish in Canada

From challah to education to burial, how much you’ll pay depends a lot on where you live in Canada.

There’s a high cost to being a Canadian Jew – and not just a figurative one. Sure, there’s anti-Semitism and boycotts on Israel and the resurgence of neo-Nazis in the streets, but, oy, have you seen the cost of real estate in Toronto’s suburbs?

Between kosher groceries, Jewish day schools and High Holiday tickets, Jewish Canadians would be justified in believing their cost of living is higher than the average Canadian’s. In some cases, it is. But in others, Jewish life is surprisingly cheaper than non-Jewish alternatives – more so if you live in the right province.

Indeed, unsurprisingly, the cost of Jewish life (and death) fluctuates wildly across Canada. And since no clear summary of Jewish cost of living exists for Canadians, I wanted to make one.

Before you dive into the numbers, note that these data sets are all designed to be broadly representative of their categories and provinces. Almost none are literal. So if you balk at the average cost of challah in Vancouver and exclaim to yourself, “I’d never pay that much!” just remember that some people pay less and others pay more.

Also, if you’re wondering the logic behind the X-axes, they’re by Jewish population, largest to smallest. All costs are in Canadian dollars.

A loaf of challah

What is the cost of a loaf of bread? On average, according to Statistics Canada, it’s about $2.75. For Jews craving some sweet challah, it’s closer to $5.

For challah, Montreal wins the affordability race, as it will in many categories, because Montreal is just beautifully affordable. But in general, capitalism seems to have won in the challah world: competition has driven down prices, and fewer Jews mean more expensive challah.

It’s important to note that not all the bakeries I contacted were kosher. There are simply not enough kosher bakeries in Canada to make this a viable national research strategy. So for our purposes, this is challah as a ceremonial Jewish icon, not necessarily a religious item. That’s why a place such as Cobs Bread – the only bakery that sells challah in Saskatoon, so far as I could tell – becomes the de facto price-setter for a loaf.

Annual synagogue membership

As The CJN has reported before, synagogue membership is a fuzzy field. Many synagogues do not disclose annual dues online, and others declined to reveal their members’ average donations for this story. This is fair: for many synagogues, dues are effectively a private negotiation, whereby the final donation is based on the member’s annual salary.

I reached out to as many synagogues as possible to create the approximate average of a single, middle-class 50-year-old person with no family. (Couples’ fees are usually a bit less than double that, but not every synagogue offers that kind of discount, so individual memberships made an easier baseline for comparison.)

In Toronto, the number is averaged from nearly two-dozen synagogues; in Halifax, it is the average of the only two. For smaller communities – Moncton and St. John’s, notably – I used an approximation based on the information given to me by an executive at the city’s only shul, sometimes based on a percentage of the city’s average salary.

A year’s tuition at Jewish private school

This may relieve some Jewish parents: Jewish private schools are, on average, less expensive than their gentile counterparts. When you think about it, it makes sense. Some of the country’s top private schools are boarding schools, and others carry prestigious names and $30,000 fees. There’s nothing that would make a Jewish private school any more expensive than a non-Jewish one – if anything, it appears as though many Jewish schools keep tuition relatively low as a selling point, even though some believe the costs are already too high.

Two things worth mentioning: Ontario is the sole province to not subsidize private schools, and these numbers reflect one year of tuition for an elementary student, sans registration or trip fees, extra books and meals. Again, those numbers vary across schools, whereas one full year of tuition is an easier comparison.

Real estate in a Jewish neighbourhood

What is the correlation between Canadian Jews and higher-than-average real estate? One awkward reality is that Jews in Canada likely earn more money, on average, than non-Jews. (Jews topped a 2014 Pew research study of U.S. household incomes, analyzed by religion.)

Another possibility is Jews’ relatively early settlement in Canada. The absurdly high cost of Vancouver’s Oak Street, for example, reflects less what a modern Jew might pay than the historic lottery Jews won in moving there generations ago.

For simplicity, I looked at the following neighbourhoods as indicative of Jewish real estate: Thornhill (Toronto), Côte-St-Luc (Montreal), Oak Street (Vancouver), Centrepoint (Ottawa), River Heights (Winnipeg), Kelvin Grove (Calgary) and Westridge (Edmonton). For small cities with at least two synagogues, I used surrounding neighbourhoods: South End (Halifax), Albert Park (Regina) and Varsity View (Saskatoon). Moncton and St. John’s, alas, simply don’t have enough Jewish infrastructure to analyze, but I left their citywide costs for the sake of comparison.

A week away at Jewish summer camp

As we reported recently, Jewish parents are often more than willing to pay a few thousand dollars to get their kids out of the house for a summer. But while cross-Canada costs are generally consistent, some provinces are clear winners.

Because camp costs vary depending on timeframes and ages, the prices above reflect one week for a 13-year-old kid, excepting add-ons. Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia only have one Jewish sleep-away camp; in the other provinces, the single week is a calculated average.

What’s fascinating here is how the national trend descends according to provincial Jewish population – until you hit Nova Scotia. Camp Kadimah knows they’ve got a valuable product, and it’s priced competitively for Ontario and Quebec parents.    

A Jewish funeral

The cost of life also includes the cost of death – a byzantine world packed with extra fees and fluctuating price tags. These prices reflect the average cost of a Jewish burial package, including any extras that funeral homes automatically throw in. The problem is, those vary wildly. Most include a burial, preparation of the body and a few other extras.

In Canadian cities with large Jewish populations, which also have multiple companies offering Jewish funerals, nobody includes a land plot, which can double the funeral cost. (I decided against including all prices with plots, since you might theoretically want a Jewish funeral but buy a plot in a non-Jewish cemetery – or live somewhere like St. John’s, where there isn’t a Jewish cemetery.)

Here’s where this category gets interesting. In smaller communities, like Regina, where Jewish funerals are prepared by the single volunteer-run hevrah kadishah in town, they do include a plot of land. Cities where plots are included are marked with an asterisk.

So while Regina boasts one of the highest prices, knowing that a plot of land is included actually makes it one of the best deals.

Prices also do not reflect synagogue membership – again, for easier comparisons – so if you’re a shul member in Halifax, for example, that $8,000 price tag gets halved. This is more common in smaller communities, another advantage they offer.

Regardless of all that, nowhere in Canada is a more affordable place to die than Moncton. This fact is not lost on Francis Weil, a local community leader who asked me to remind any retired Jewish readers that the costs of housing and synagogues are also far more affordable in Moncton. “If you know some good Jews who are retired and want to be able to live on a reduced pension,” he wrote me, “send them to Moncton.”