Photo Credit:
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

The economic unfeasibility of maintaining a Modern Orthodox lifestyle in America is hardly a secret. There are, of course, the extraordinary costs of yeshiva tuition, summer camps, kosher food, synagogue membership, and more. Families wanting to lead simple and unostentatious lives are baffled by the sums of money they are expected to come up with.

There is a pressing need for individuals in the Modern Orthodox community to engage in an open and honest conversation on how to diffuse this ongoing crisis. At stake is nothing less than the long-term continued existence of Modern Orthodoxy.

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Why, some are sure to ask, is there a need to engage in this kind of discussion when so many panels and committees comprised of highly qualified individuals have examined this in great detail? Because the root of the crisis is not merely financial or logistical – it is sociological and ideological. For a change to take place these issues need to be discussed and addressed at that level.

Over the past few decades Modern Orthodoxy has become an increasingly paradoxical phenomenon as leaders and laypersons alike have come to accept and even condone standards and lifestyles few of us can attain, let alone sustain.

I know all too many couples who have gone through the whole “nine yards” of Modern Orthodox education and ambition – twelve years of day school, a year or two studying in Israel, undergraduate degrees followed by specialized degrees followed by entrée into the world of law or medicine or finance or any one of a dozen other prestigious career destinations – and they just can’t make it.

How do we raise children telling them if they “do well” and become “successful” they will have good lives with lucrative incomes when that is far from guaranteed? Indeed, if things continue they way there are going now, today’s Modern Orthodox young people likely will have a hard time just making ends meet, let alone indulging in upper class suburban luxury.

The Modern Orthodox lifestyle in many communities has become all too similar to the Ivy League prep process, as described by William Deresiewicz in “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” (The New Republic, July 2014):

“The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term) – most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely.”

Sound familiar? This is the way all too many of our communities – and it needs to change. Why? Because the sacrifices we are making are just too great. Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, has pointed out some of the deleterious results of such a lifestyle:

“Parents take second jobs, or work longer hours, that deprive them of almost all weekday contact with their children and leave them too exhausted to make Shabbat meaningful; almost half of households are transformed, for years, from community contributors to charity recipients; children aspiring to intellectual, creative, or service work, such as teaching (especially Torah) or other helping professions, are told that these are not options because they will not produce enough money to sustain a committed Jewish lifestyle; for economic reasons, families choose to have fewer children.”

So how do we solve the crisis?

Parents, along with the community as a whole, need to evaluate and reevaluate the norms, expectations, and aspirations that have brought us to where we are. We need to consider how much these expectations are costing us and ask ourselves: Is it worth this cost? Is there a different way, a better way, to achieve some of those objectives? Once we have done that, we must act accordingly.

Only when persons making, say, $60,000 a year are recognized as distinguished – and, yes, successful – members of our community will the obsession with income and status start to wane.

Only when we no longer have a problem with the local Chabad rebbetzin, or members of the neighborhood kollel, teaching our children Chumash despite the lack of an advanced degree in Bible or education will our tuition crisis be remedied.

Only when we decide it is OK for our children to play hopscotch and ride their bikes for some parts of the summer will the burden of camp expenses be alleviated.

None of this means that achieving wealth and success are to be shunned or discouraged. It just means they should be secondary to other ideals we value more.

Yes, even if we reduce the cost of a Modern Orthodox lifestyle by as much as 50 percent, families with four or five children will still struggle. But the struggle will be easier, more dignified, and families will be able to grow as they wish.

Why am I confident this can work? Because I know what the situation is like in other communities. The average tuition for private elementary schools (Catholic, Protestant, and non-sectarian) is about $8,000 a year – significantly lower than the norm for Modern Orthodox day schools. (Tuition in yeshivish and chassidish schools is generally and significantly lower than what their Modern Orthodox counterparts charge.)

Modern Orthodox Jews have always prided themselves on the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. We have now arrived at a point that cries out for major change. People should not be forced to abandon or stay out of our community due to problems whose solutions are within reach. It is time to talk about those solutions, both for our sake and – even more importantly – the sake of the next generation.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. The role of the entire community to provide support for Jewish education has unfortunately been abandoned, and the burden is left solely to be carried by parents. Synagogues and other institutions receive far more than the rational share of contribution, all of which shold go towards the primary mitzvah of "vishinantem l'vanecha"

  2. one of the dimensions here has to do with honor-shame dynamics and the concern for high achievement… the fear that if one doesn't achieve the whole nine yards, one has lost face. the concern with registering at the top of one's peer group, which can be inspiring and motivating (kin'at sofrim…) can also become debilitating. when one's life (and one's children's lives) are lived for the sake of maintaining a style or image, then one forfeits the chance to live a life of integrity and real fulfillment. not easy but worthwhile.

  3. I'm bored with the complaints. Nothing new or unique here. I've heard it repeatably over the years that our lifestyle is not sustainable. What are solutions? One idea is to demand from civil society that it has an obligation to provide civic education to our children. English, Math, Science, Foreign language, and Social Studies should be taught in our yeshivot, provided by the State. Just because we have chosen to also provide religious education doesn't mean that we should be penalized since we are also paying the taxes for it. Put public school unionized teachers in our yeshivot. Let's share that because of anti-Catholic feelings, such a position was taken by the State. It has to end. It will also address the tragedy that Chassidic and other Charedi children are not being provided proper civic education in their yeshivot as required by the State. How do we countenance that these Jewish children are not being prepared to function in society and feed their families?

  4. The reality is that in comparison to normal American living (read; secular), orthodox living simply isn't financially compatible with middle-class living and logitics in America, and that the standards of orthodox living are set at a much higher financial and logistical bar. As a professional illustrator, married to a social worker, our salaries are fine for average American living; in our orthodox community, however, we are barely making ends meet. We can dabble all we want about the standards and meanings of "success" and "wealth", but in the end, here in America, we'll never have normality. This is why I praise every Jew who makes the go at Aliyah, fault every rabbi and Jewish leader whom fails to promote Israel and aliyah as the solution (Israeli challenges aside, as if living here isn't challengining), and also support the Jews whom have shed the excesses of rabbinic/denominational/western-inspired Judaism for a more Israeli and Karaite approach.

  5. There are several points to note.
    1. Living in Israel, aside from the Mitzvah of living here, allows most families with a profession or skill in demand to have a higher sense of financial security than in the States. Tuition for grade and high schools is minimal, university is about 15000 shekels annually and health care is not overly expensive.
    2. I am also tired of those in the US complaining about university tuition irrespective of my previous remark. I went to a local university and lived at home. Thousands of successful people went to the city universities and likewise lived at home and paid far less than those families that for some reason want to send their children to Maryland if they live in Chicago and people from Maryland sending their children to Chicago for university

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