As a graduate student with children, balancing my family life with my education has been a juggling act requiring many compromises. Recognizing many young professional families may face even greater challenges, I founded Kochvei HaShamayim, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the number of difficult compromises Jewish young professionals with families have to make. (While having to leave school early to pick up one’s child is definitely a compromise, by “difficult compromises” I mean ones like forgoing having a child because of school, or conversely, giving up on pursuing an advanced degree because of familial obligations.)
Thankfully, even though it is only a little over a year old, Kochvei has already garnered some attention: several articles have discussed our work, and we have recently made it into the latest cohort of the OU’s Impact Accelerator. And while the benefit of Kochvei’s work for young couples is undeniable, community leaders sometimes question my insistence that helping young families is the key to the entire community’s success.
To frame this discussion, let’s look at an example. I was once asked by a community leader why we don’t solely focus on helping young couples going into rabbinics and Jewish education, given that they most directly impact the Jewish community. The inquirer followed up by asking, “Why should we help a budding neurosurgeon, for example, who in a few years will be making $300,000 a surgery?” (As an aside, I am not sure about the source of this figure, and I do doubt it given what I know about typical neurosurgeon salaries.)
In my answer, I first stressed that we certainly seek to help young couples going into those respectable and important fields, but neglecting couples going into other fields would harm Kochvei’s mission, and would, in fact, ultimately harm the Jewish community. There are two reasons for this: one based on values and the other purely pragmatic.
First, there are many existing organizations and initiatives that support individuals and couples going into rabbinics and Jewish education; the rest of the young professional community falls between the cracks specifically because of this thinking (“they’ll be rich later”). Helping all young professional couples is how we will ensure, for example, that everyone is given the opportunity to have a family earlier on. When young couples who are otherwise ready and willing to have children push off doing so due to the pressures of their schooling or early career, it is not that they will just have kids at a later age; they will likely have less kids. There is no reason why Jewish children born to parents working in Jewish education should be valued over those born to parents working in other fields. In terms of Kochvei’s mission, reconciling in the modern age the Jewish values of starting a family early (per the injunction in Avot 5:21, “. . . at eighteen, the chuppah. . .”) and of being financially stable before doing so (Mishneh Torah, Hil. Deot 5,11) involves helping any young Jewish couple committed to these values.
Second, the fact that Jewish education is poorly funded reflects a more general problem in the Jewish community: simply, a general lack of funds! Investing in young professionals in their hour of greatest need will make them much more willing to invest in the Jewish community once they are able to do so.
Going back to our inquirer’s example of a neurosurgeon, consider the following. Becoming a neurosurgeon in the United States requires four years of undergraduate studies, four years of medical school, a seven-year residency, and possibly an additional one or more years of subspecialty fellowships. This means that even a student who starts college directly after high school (no gap year) and takes no breaks afterwards (which is becoming rarer with the average age of first-year medical students now being 24, not 22) – even such a student can only start working as a neurosurgeon between 33-36 years of age at best. If this student was ready and able to have kids earlier, this means he or she missed out on about a decade of potential parenthood (and of course, this problem is exacerbated for female students). What is more, newly minted physicians start off with an average debt of $250,000, which would have been accruing interest since their first year of residency.
Now, say two 50-year-old neurosurgeons, Avi and Sarah, are asked for donations to support the Jewish community in some way. As a student, Avi was not supported in any way. He was more stressed during the entire duration of his training, he and his wife decided to push off having kids until after he completed his training, and he took out more loans for his living expenses. On the other hand, Sarah received support from her community, which allowed her to have three children before completing her training, reduced the stresses she faced throughout her journey, instilled in her that she has a warm and strong community supporting her, and maybe even helped her take out less loans.
And so I ask, who is more likely to donate? Avi may hesitate to give back to a community that never supported him when he needed it most, but now turns to him when he is successful. Sarah will be happy to pay forward the priceless help she received in what would’ve been her most difficult years. What is certain is that someone in Sarah’s position will almost always give more, and would be much happier to give.
Supporting professionals from their earliest years means investing in the Jewish future by forming meaningful relationships with the biggest future donors, all while performing one of the highest forms of tzedakah.
Yes, couples directly involved in helping the Jewish community are, by definition, making the most direct impact. But if our goal is to maximize impact, we must also consider those whose impact may be two or more steps removed. Investing in young professionals is exactly such a strategy.
Another community leader suggested that I, as a budding mathematician, create a mathematical model to test this. In the simple network model I created, I defined, for every individual, their “value” as a measure of some combination of their net worth, skills, time, assets and expertise: in short, anything “valuable” they can offer to their peers. One’s own value, however, is not all the value to which one has access. For example, while Bill Gates’s net worth is $125B (as of this writing), with friends like Warren Buffett, he has access to much more wealth than that (and that’s just net worth). I therefore also defined the “success index” as one’s own value plus some fraction of the value of one’s connections. This not only includes one’s immediate connections, but also second-, third- and fourth-degree connections, since these are usually also accessible (although with farther connections, one has access to an even smaller fraction of their value).
Now, consider a community of “successful” individuals – those whose members have a high success index. The cost of joining such a community is presumably quite high: blood, sweat, tears – and time – spent obtaining advanced training or climbing some corporate ladder, and perhaps many difficult compromises along the way. But what if we subsidize the cost of joining for up-and-coming young professionals, especially those with families for whom the cost of joining, and the stakes, are much higher?
After running many simulations, the results were unambiguous: the average success index of the entire community, as well as that of every single member grows exponentially faster using this strategy. I believe a key reason for this behavior is that the newest members, even if they do not (yet) have much value to share, facilitate a community that is more interconnected and more collaborative. Thus, this result becomes an expression of a principle that seems like the confluence of economics and mussar (Jewish ethics): Sharing value increases value.
What my simple model did not account for, however, is a consideration I alluded to earlier: young families receiving such help (or at least some fraction of them) will be forever grateful for and feel indebted to the community that supported them. Therefore, the connections formed with such professionals during their early years is stronger and is of a higher quality than those formed later. This can only serve to further increase the value and success of the helping community and its members. (More details about this model can be found at kochvei.org/khs-model.)
Supporting young families is thus not just one of the highest forms of tzedakah, or the modern-day reconciliation of two age-old Jewish values. It is also a winning strategy, one that promises to maximize the success of the Jewish community and every one of its members. I therefore urge the entire Jewish community to help Kochvei support Jewish young professional families, and in so doing, invest in a more flourishing and fruitful Jewish future.