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November 27, 2014 / 5 Kislev, 5775
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Can ‘Yoni Ploni’ Afford To Be Frum?

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Shortly before Pesach, I received a rather agitated call from a long time reader of The Jewish Press who pleaded with me to write a column regarding what she insisted was the unwarranted high cost of Pesach food – in particular shmurah matzah – and how hard it was for young families to pay what she felt were over-inflated prices in order to keep strictly kosher.

She told me in a voice quivering with anger that her grandson, a young father of several kids, was paying over $20 a pound for shmura matzah – and he had ordered over $200 worth.  She had suggested that he perhaps save those matzahs for the sedarim and Yom Tov meals, and eat regular matzah on Chol Ha’Moed.  Much to her dismay, he emphatically told her that he could not compromise his values, and that he intended to eat shmura matzah the entire Yom Tov and that if it was necessary, he would max out his credit cards so that his family and many guests enjoyed a proper Pesach.

“I have no doubt that he spent over $1000 that week on meat and fish and groceries – and that’s not counting the fancy wines he served with the meals,” she sighed.

Although he makes a “decent” living, his concerned bubby knew that he had very little disposable income and it bothered her to no end that he was being “ripped off.”   She understood that extra care and vigilance was required in preparing strictly mehadrin shmurah matzah, but “seriously,” she said, “$20 dollars a pound?”

I assured her that there was some legitimacy in her assertion that there was price gouging for Pesach products because a few years ago, a kol koreh was issued – endorsed by top rabbanim and rebbes in New York, exhorting grocers and food store owners not to inflate prices for Pesach products because many people could not afford to make a kosher Pesach.

There must have been across the board, widespread over-charging for the rabbonim to have collectively gone to the trouble of making this proclamation.

I told her that I would write about this unfortunate fact of life, but due to Yom Tov deadlines, I had already sent in several columns early, so I could not highlight this issue in time for Pesach.

But I can for Shavuot – although that Yom Tov is probably the most pocket-friendly one of all – next to Yom Kippur.

However, the woman touched on only one aspect of how expensive it is to be an Orthodox Jew these days, and hers is just one of the many voices I have heard lamenting the cost of being a frum Jew – to the degree that there is a rather sobering “joke” floating around that the best form of birth control is yeshiva tuition.

Indeed, many parents are considering limiting the number of children they have, as they cannot afford to send more than two or three children for a dozen years to day school/yeshiva. For many, it’s quality over quantity – either the few you have going to a private Jewish school or the many being put into public school. There is just not enough money to go around and as it is, many are making big sacrifices to give the kids they do have a Jewish education.

Even those households with a six-figure income are barely making ends meet – let alone younger balabatim who, if they are lucky, are gainfully employed – and not under-employed or jobless as many are in today’s sputtering economy.

As an example, I created a fictitious but plausible frum white collar-family that that I am sure many people will relate to. The father, in his mid-40’s, is a university graduate who works full time and earns a respectable living.  His wife is busy running the household and being available to help her elderly parents/in-laws, often taking them to appointments and shopping. She also volunteers for several chesed organizations. The couple married off a daughter recently, and all the festivities, including the vort, wedding, clothing, shadchanus, etc. cost over $20,000.  (Last year they got off relatively easy with a sit-down kiddish for their son’s bar mitzvah).

Since his son-in-law is learning, the father committed to supporting the young couple for several years, at a yearly cost of $30,000 (although I heard the going rate is up to $40,000).

Currently there is an 18-year-old daughter in seminary at a cost of $12,000, not including her trip home for Pesach and other expenses – like the trip to Poland.  Then there are two kids in yeshiva gedolah and one in elementary school. Tuition for the three is a bargain at $25,000.  Summer camp or a trip to visit out of state siblings and their children – so the cousins can feel connected – eats up another few thousand dollars.

For Rosh Hashanah, new suits, hats, dresses and accessories must be bought. The kids and teenagers, both male and female, need to be “dressed” even before they enter the parsha. And there are shul membership/building fund fees to be covered as well.

In the old days, one lulav and etrog for Sukkot was enough per family – now each male over bar mitzvah expects to have his own.  And of course Pesach is in a class of its own in terms of putting a hefty dent in the family budget.

So here is a man who earns an enviable six figure income, but has expenses that eat a good chunk of it – even before he has to deal with his non-Jewish related expenses:  There is still a mortgage to be paid, car payments/repairs; maintenance of the house (like when the furnace breaks down or there are plumbing issues); medical insurance/co-pays; dental expenses (crooked teeth could ruin a shidduch!); cell phone/computer costs; gas and electric bills; gifts for simchas – all in addition to the day to day  living expenses –like eating.

And of course, as we experienced recently, there are federal, state/provincial and even city taxes to pay.

Once the baal habayit pays for living like a religious Jew – over $65,000 – what’s left after he pays his taxes barely covers his living expenses. There is even the possibility that he will be in negative territory.

If a well paid professional is barely keeping his head above the financial waters – what about those who make an “ok” living, but have the same bills coming in?

A friend of one of my sons confided to him that he buys cheese with the “not so accepted” hechsher since it is so much more affordable than the ones with the universally accepted ones.  A baal teshuva, he was told in his more idealistic days that it was a mitzvah to have lots of kids, but the rav never mentioned how costly it would be to feed and educate them.   Now he is facing the dilemma of putting some of his kids in public school.  Financially strapped schools can only give so much of a break to financially struggling parents.

He is one of many who find themselves in this quandary.

Another family says salad has become a Shabbat treat because the pre-checked, bug–free salads are so expensive.  Neither husband nor wife feels they are competent enough to properly check unwashed leafy greens on their own.

With all the chumras and stringent rules that seem to multiply with each passing year, people are afraid to do anything themselves – so they end up paying more money for less product. Or do without.

In cities where there is a large frum community, competition does keep the price of food and some services down – but that is not necessarily the case out of town.

As I said, this concerned Bubby asked me to highlight this problem – maintaining a frum lifestyle is becoming an out of reach luxury for too many erliche yidden.  They are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place in terms of living a Torahdik life – and it is crushing them.

I don’t have the answers – all I know is that viable solutions are needed fast.

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One Response to “Can ‘Yoni Ploni’ Afford To Be Frum?”

  1. Moses613 says:

    $20 is cheap, sorry. Well, if not cheap, well within the regular range, and the truth is: it’s not price-gouging. I agree that many Pesach products are ridiculously overpriced, especially baked goods, but I just don’t think shmura matza is one of them. It is a *very* labor-intensive process, high-pressure, and all those workers have to be paid. Each chumra added on costs more money to the factory. For example, I heard of a chabura where there were two “production lines”: one where 5-second ‘shehiyos’ (the amount of time dough can sit idle without being worked) were allowed, and one where only 2-second shehiyos were allowed. The 2-second line required harder work and diligence on the part of the kneaders, as well as throwing any dough that was left idle for more than 2 seconds in the garbage. That adds cost! They charged $11 more per pound.

    End of the day, my opinion is that you pay for the chumros you want, and if you want more, you just have to pay more. I bought matzos from a kollel that rents out a factory for a few hours and they make matzos up to their strict standards. They are completely non-profit (of course the factory owner is making money by renting out the factory), and the price: $24/lb.

    Yours,
    Moses

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