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No Laughing Matter

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During Yom Tov, a group of my friends – all middle-aged ( but youthful of course) babyboomers were chatting about the usual things women smooze about when one of them shared with us the call she had recently gotten from her son-in-law’s mother. Her machtainiste asked her - a self-employed professional working part-time – if she was going to be working full time, ‘now that the kids were expecting.’ The young husband was learning and my friend’s daughter was a graduate student with years to go and their first child on the way. My friend, who is in her early 50′s told her ‘no, that she wasn’t planning on changing her work schedule . The kids would work it out themselves. The silence on the other end of the phone was deafening.

My friend had suggested something to her machtenesta that hadn’t even occurred to her – the
young couple would take responsibility for the choices they had made. The young man is a college graduate who made the choice of learning for several years – with the full encouragement of his young wife. Both sets of parents had paid for their respective kids’
undergraduate educations and had been generous in helping them set up a household. As for my friend – who had worked hard since her late teen years - she felt had earned her free time.

Everyone present shook their heads in disbelief – some in wonder that this question was asked in the first place by the mother-in-law and some by my friend’s stance on saying ‘dayeinu’. Many in that room were also facing the dilemma of needing to help their married kids, some of whom had their hearts set on devoting their lives to Torah study or helping their husbands to do so.

One woman quipped that soon it would not be enough for the baby-boom parents to help support their kids, but the bubbies and zaydes would have to come out of retirement, sell their condos in Florida and go back to work as well, while their grandsons were hunched over their Gemaras. The image of a 75+ bubby selling knitted scarves in Times Square had everyone bent over in hysterics.

But it’s no laughing matter. Parent do their best to help their children pursue their studies, paying nose-bleed tuitions for day schools/elementary yeshivot, boys and girls high school level yeshivot, and post secondary yeshivot and seminaries in Israel. But by supporting their married chuildren who are creating families of their own on an inadequate income, these parents may be short-changing their younger children who are still in school, and themselves as well.

At this stage of their lives, parents should not have to work additional hours at a a job, or to get a second one altogether, in order to provide for the children who insisted they wanted a less materialistic life, more spiritual life, and are now overwhelmed by the reality of rent bills, tuition, car payments etc. Hard working parents should be saving for their old age and generating financial security in case of serious illnesses or disability. Rather, they should be
semi-retiring and having time to themselves for their own learning or helping their aging parents and not straining themselves to help the younger generation. The fallout is often “stressed out, guilt-ridden parents” and perhaps “resentful younger siblings” who feel they are being cheated both financially and in terms of their parents’ attention.

While rebbeim and other menhanchim feel that they are doing the right thing, influencing their
students to choose a Kollel type life, they are doing a disservice to middle-class level familes and to themselves, as their stuggling alumnae who forgo a secular/professional level college education will not be able to give the high level donations the schools need in order to remain viable. Those who did not heed their call to learn – the doctors and lawyers and business executives are the ones they will be honoring at their fund-raising dinners - not the yungerleit.
And the middle-class girls looking to marry learning boys only - may find themselves left behind as these boys look for wealthy fathers-in-law to sustain a decent lifestyle for their families.

Sitting and learning is a holy undertaking. Just as the Kohanim, Leviim and Yisrael have their unique contributions in Torah life, so does each young man and woman. Some are cut out for the role of life-long learning and should be encouraged and supported in every way. Others should follow another derech and gain merit by becoming an ‘enabler’ of Torah learning by giving donations.

The rebbeim should assess each individual on his suitability as a full-time learner, based on his ‘Torah kop’ and personality, and direct him appropriately towards his life’s work. The same should be done for the girls who may truly want to be Kollel wives, but are not cut out for it after being accustomed to a cerain standard of living.

This would relieve the burden on their families and would cut down on the number of ‘learning’
couples who don’t belong in that world. Discouraging well-intentioned, but unsuitable kollel candidates is crucial, similarly to how professional disciplines, such as medical or law only accept those they think can ‘hack it’.

The genuine kollel types should have community support if their families are not in a position to help them adequatel. And the rest can earn a living , something the greatest gadolim and Talmudists throughout the ages did.

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