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Modern Orthodoxy Has Its Costs – Not Just Financial

When cost of living pushes $300,000, what else is sacrificed?

Mon, 02/16/2015 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Modern Orthodox teen participate in the Celebrate Israel Day parade in N.Y.C. Getty Images
Modern Orthodox teen participate in the Celebrate Israel Day parade in N.Y.C. Getty Images

American Modern Orthodoxy is an elitist phenomenon. According to the well-known 2013 Pew study, it represents less than 10 percent of American Jews but is the best-educated and has the largest percentage of high-income earners. No group puts more of a premium on ethical life, intellectual curiosity, Israel, or community. In the aggregate, Modern Orthodox espouses more "essentials" of Jewish identity than any other segment, and by a wide margin. Its adherents are most likely to understand Judaism as both ethnicity and religion (a mature and correct understanding of reality). This is all in addition to the large families and high rate of day-school attendance that characterize Orthodoxy in general. As its name indicates, a multiplicity of emphases and core values is characteristic of Modern Orthodoxy.

It follows that if Modern Orthodoxy is elitist, it is also very expensive. An old joke within this segment of the community has it that day school tuition is the best form of birth control. Some writers have begun to notice as well: according to a widely-discussed article by Dmitriy Shapiro, families can find themselves struggling even with annual household incomes as high as $300,000.

That such large incomes are barely sufficient is only part of a larger problem. The other side of the coin is that Orthodox parents, as stated by the OU’s Nathan Diament in the Shapiro article, are “driven to higher paying professions,” specifically law, medicine, and finance. A community that constrains the career choices of its young people incurs a cost that cannot be measured only in dollars and cents.

In a 2012 essay, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper enumerated encouraging young Jews to pursue only those professions that will support the chosen lifestyle among several “moral” costs of rising day-school tuition. We can understand why pressuring someone into an unsuitable career would be considered immoral, but beyond the disservice to individuals, the community as a whole pays a steep price.

Take, for instance, the case of Joseph Cedar, an American-born acclaimed Israeli filmmaker who is observant. At first glance, he is a Modern Orthodox dream come true. Last year, during an interview, I asked him whether he thinks the same avenues would have been open to him had his parents not moved to Israel. Despite my fears that he would consider the question counterfactual and ridiculous, he responded that he asks himself the same question all the time, and that no, he does not think he could have managed his particular balancing act had he grown up in the United States.

That is, the pressure to produce high earners discourages and marginalizes those members of the community whose calling is in music, literature, the visual arts, or the performing arts. The problem is not only that creative types will likely be unable to afford the Modern Orthodox lifestyle; the community itself tends to marginalize those who pursue artistic careers, viewing them as irresponsible. Some creative types will gravitate toward the rabbinate or Jewish education, careers that can offer a creative outlet, financial incentive in the form of tuition reductions, and social acceptability. Many will either give in to the pressure to pursue a stable, lucrative career, or leave Orthodoxy behind.

Some will move to Israel, where artistic careers are more acceptable and where, despite the economic challenges it poses, Jewish religious education is free. The Jewish state is also home to a variety of high schools and colleges for the visual arts specifically geared to Orthodox students. Yarmulkes and other Orthodox paraphernalia are ubiquitous in Israel’s music scene—from classical on down—which in turn has been tapping into Jewish liturgical and poetic traditions.

In Israel, the head of a yeshiva is also a best-selling and award-winning novelist. In America, we get excited about holiday-themed a capella parodies, newly (and briefly) observant reggae artists, paint-the-parsha programs, and novelists who do not know the difference between Tosafot and the Tosefta but know and use a dozen Yiddish words for genitalia.

A reader might be tempted to ask: “So what?” As long as Modern Orthodoxy is producing rabbis, teachers, and enough big earners to support the community’s infrastructure and personnel, does it matter that it is not producing playwrights, poets, and pianists?

It does. Modern Orthodoxy is, or ought to be, a rich and challenging lifestyle that profoundly engages a broad range of thick Jewish experiences. It has a great deal to offer the Jewish world and the broader religious world. But without a vibrant creative class, there is no communal unpacking of that experience, no collective expression or catharsis, no mirror to show the community how it looks from the outside, no legacy of the community’s unique contributions.

There is a personal dimension here as well. Soon after moving to Israel, I changed careers, from the rabbinate to writing. For the most part, I earn a living by translating, yet I still aspire, even as I push 40, to become a full-time writer, and I hope that my writing challenges readers, sparks interesting and important conversations, and occasionally blows people away with its insight and wit. If I were to move back to the U.S., I would have to give up these pursuits—this calling—to sustain a Modern Orthodox lifestyle.

Is there a remedy, or will Modern Orthodoxy export and outsource creativity to Israel? Let this important conversation begin.

Elli Fischer is a frequent contributor to these pages.

Modern Orthodox, Pew Study

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Enough about a small part of the Jewish world. Let them be well and let the rest of us enjoy being Jewish our own way.

I invite you all to move to lakewood NJ, where for $6000 a head you will have paid full tuition, have gotten a world class Jewish education , a basic secular education , have a much larger family, and the opportunity to chase any artistic career your heart desires.

To clarify, I feel it is a mistake for any Jewish parent to not give his child a Torah education. My mention of the "Orthodox parent" was simply focusing on the group that generally has the background to appreciate this message.

1. In addition to the high end careers and the arts, there are other fields, like the blue collar arena, the lower paying careers in health (eg nursing and the therapies) and various careers within kodesh which should be embraced as well. Hashem endows each person with unique skills and inclinations (and shortcomings), and we need a culture that accepts and offers comfort for everyone.
2. I'm as hard pressed as anyone else, and we are blessed with a large family. Yet, I humbly feel that for Orthodox parents to send their child to a non-Jewish or non-Orthodox school is inexcusable. If it were cost compelling, would they send their child to a school that made their child physically sick? The Rambam talks about cholei haguf and cholei hanefesh. Distancing a child from Torah is even more harmful than physical sickness. The Rambam also writes that a person is drawn after his or her surroundings. How much more so is that true for a child, who like a new immigrant in this world, absorbs everything around him. There are solutions. They just require the level of determination that us Jewish people are known for. Sometimes, it means swallowing one's pride and begging for the scholarship. Sometimes it means running a creative fund raiser. And it may mean moving. There are now many wonderful low cost communities and many of them even have government subsidy for tuition, such as (but not limited to) Milwaukee and Cincinnati. We want to live near our parents and siblings, but does that justify compromising the upbringing of our children? And Connecticut even has low cost living areas near NY. This all assumes of course that following the author's lead to E"Y is a non-option.
3. I think the schools should invest less in being cutting edge and more in scholarship funds. To emphasize the former is to convey apathy towards those Jewish children who they are chasing away. (But misplaced values on the parts of the school board or the philanthropists who can affect change is still no excuse for a parent to harm their children by depriving them of a Torah education.)

There is another high cost to Modern Orthodoxy. There are those who use the label to conceal their real motives and excuse their lax versions of Torah observance. While the extent and form of Mr. Barry Freundel's unsuitability as a leading Modern Orthodox rabbi could not be imagined about 20 years ago, his blatant disdain for the truth should have been an indication that far worse was possible. His "scholarly" distortions of the Torah in the name of Modern Orthodoxy were not truthful and should not have been accepted nor excused for years by his synagogue. Unfortunately many have now paid a very heavy price for timidity in the face of such a charlatan. I made a huge mistake 18 years ago in just walking away. I won't make the same mistake again.
In Las Vegas there is also a charlatan "Modern Orthodox" rabbi whose perversions, apikorsus and dishonesty are even more blatant than Freundel's were. His parent organization has used FORGERY to hide his crookedness from the Jewish community. I ask and urge anyone reading this post to speak and demand that YOUNG ISRAEL obey the Mishpot of Hashem delivered by Bais Din a decade ago and enforce their excommunication verdict so that we will not have another huge Chilul Hashem like that caused by Freundel!

These are the same issues even non-orthodox families deal with, it is only a question of degree. The piece has a little bit of the narcissism of an artist. Artistic, creative and performing people traditionally have starved for years trying to "make it", with only a tiny percentage achieving success. (Barbra Streisand worked nights at switch board operator and could not pay rent.) That's the price of perusing the arts as a career. You will not be able to support a Catholic family of 3 in NY being a waiter while you write a book or audition for movies. And the author doesn't seem to realize the days of doctors and lawyers making the big money are over. This is a very confused piece of writing as mixing apples and oranges. Apples are the high cost of what people consider to be "necessary living", and Oranges are place for artistic expression and development in the Orthodox world. Both are, have been, and will always be major issues as there are built in contradictions and limitations of resources. The author's piece is a bit of a kvetch. He/she does not address the issues, the trade-offs, the hard choices. He/she wants everything, but can't figure out how to pay for it.

Your article raised some very serious issues and some very serious emotions. i remember as a kid i went to a dayschool and i always felt like the odd one out because my parents didn't make a million dollars a month. as opposed to when i got to high school which was a public school i felt accepted by jews and everyone alike. I always felt i got a better education in all aspects of my life. and most importantly i came out of it a better person and a better jewish one.

There is another HUGE cost that I am sorry I didn't think of until now...

Absentee parenting!

The parent is not only pushed to certain careers, they are pushed to a career that tends to have longer hours and heavier burdens to justify that larger paycheck.

So, the child has a yeshiva education, but far less at-home contact with parents. And the parents are more stressed out, have less energy and patience for them once work is over and they get home.

I completely relate to the challenge of trying to make ends meet despite a healthy income. However, I am not sure of the connection to a celebration of the arts. The arts are largely eschewed by Orthodoxy, despite heroic role models like Bezalel, because they aren't valued at any price.

I made my living as Creative Director of a world class advertising agency and have been fortunate enough to become its President. The only place I could get a decent arts education was at the (secular) university level. Fortunately I've been privileged to send my children to Ramaz and SAR, institutions that truly do celebrate the arts.

When I approached Yeshiva University with a plan to develop a graphic arts and advertising program I was told that this wasn't a career in which their students were interested. That, as the author notes, is a reflection of a small minded morality and very, very sad.

This is an incredibly important conversation to have, but I don't think the issue is about whether or not American Jews can afford a Torah-observant lifestyle. Many people talk about the trade-offs involved with the decision of whether or not to live a Torah-observant life, as though it is a lifestyle choice, like becoming a surfer or eating a paleo diet. Living by the Torah is not a choice, it is a commandment, as well as a blessing and an opportunity. And like any obligation, it is required that we figure out how to do it, not decide whether or not to do it.

Toward that end, we have to look at the luxuries in life and decide how we are going to live without some of them in order to accommodate and fulfill the obligation. Pesach programs. Expensive cars. Large houses. Ivy League prep day school educations. These are the things that make living a Torah-observant life unattainable for all but the economically elite Americans, and the absence of many of these things makes a Torah-observant life more attainable in Israel. If we could start living with fewer unnecessary luxuries, and start sharing more of our disposable income and resources with our communities, then we would have a better chance of having larger, more sustainable Orthodox community, with poets and teachers and rabbis and lawyers.

This is a very tired trope and nothing more than a puritanical red herring. The unaffordability of day school tuition and the other costs of an observant lifestyle in the US has nothing to do with disposable cars or Pesach vacations. It is unaffordable because it is unaffordable. The prices rise faster than wages and inflation and we can all agree that the system is unsustainable by its own nature.

I really appreciate this article and the issues you raise. I find it's rare to see fiction written from a Modern Orthodox or Centrist perspective. If you do, it’s either coming from Israel or written from a sour perspective, interested only in the blemishes, not the beauty. Interestingly,in the yeshivish world you have a captive audience: they’re not likely to read anything else out there so you’ve got a cottage industry of people wanting to read about themselves. The Modern Orthodox isn't as limited. The whole world is their library. That’s great, on the one hand. But so few then will bother to write fiction. It really bugs me that the few Modern Orthodox publications that do exist don't bother to publish fiction. They should run contests with real monetary incentive. Believe me, the writers who supposedly don’t exist will come out of the woodwork. Because If we don’t encourage this kind of writing and creativity, you’re going to keep on getting sour work or nothing at all. What is the Modern Orthodox kid going to be reading on Shabbat? He’s not going to be picking up Mishpacha and reading about a kollel life or the drama of a Lakewood shidduch gone awry. It’s simple. If we don't creative literature about our own world, maybe we're not serious about preserving that world.

What is the point of getting guys to become religious who aren't doctors, lawyers or IBankers? All your doing is setting them up for ultimate failure.

Really thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing.

As if the ultra orthodox don't need money for their large families and kollel support for their married children....
In addition to tuitions and life cycle simchot

Given the role Religious Zionism plays in Modern Orthodoxy, it is inevitable that it will "export and outsource creativity to Israel". The ideology literally encourages its idealists to move there. While some embrace the ideals of supporting those who stay behind, or otherwise reprioritize Zionism so that they stay in the States, the idealism drain as a statistical trend is inevitable. And a measure of success, not failure.

Regardless of the economics.

As a secondary effect, this means that much of Modern Orthodoxy's educators are coming from other camps. "As long as Modern Orthodoxy is producing rabbis, teachers"... but it isn't. The chareidi communities produce Judaic teachers who wouldn't think of picking up skills that pay better, and the idealistic Modern Orthodox person who cares less about pay is also less likely to end up aiming to stay in the states When your children are learning from Yeshivish Judaic Studies staff, the wearing down of those beliefs that distinguish the two camps is inevitable.

great article.

The conversation began a long time ago. First of all, the author is basically correct. Second, though, not everyone pays full tuition. Third, not everyone has to live in (expensive) major metropolitan areas. Fourth, not every Torah-observant Jew has to be modern Orthodox.

One of my first reactions to this post was "why do they keep referring to it as a "modern orthodox" issue? All Jewish Day schools are exorbitantly expensive. Even Litvish, or Chassidic schools were 5 or 6 years ago a minimum of $12,000 a year tuition. It's hard to be anything but a doctor, lawyer, or CEO to afford it. Never mind being a nurse or a teacher either. One would think that schools would want students and be generous with scholarships but this is often not the case. The more modern orthodox schools send your tax return to an independent analyst and $27,000 per year tuition is reduced to $12,000 per year. The Litvish or Chassidic schools use a much more subjective approach. The criterion for financial assistance seems to be that you'll receive it if you either have multiple children to send to school, (not just one), or the husband has to be a Rabbi. Also, there seems to be no seriously acceptable alternative to giving your child a Jewish education in the minds of Jewish leaders. Neither high quality community-based learning, high quality after school programs, home schooling, high quality summer programs, or tutoring seem to be taken seriously. I think many times, community leaders and Rabbis work for Jewish Day Schools and so have a vested interest in seeing that schools get their tuition money. Jewish education needs to be subsidized by the wealthier members of the Jewish community if we are to take educational choice seriously. It shouldn't be that choosing to send a child to Jewish Day School means that parents fall into debt, can't buy a home, can't save for retirement, can't pay for higher education later so their children have good employment choices, or can't have freedom of career choice themselves. Articles like this are important for a couple reasons: we might find a solution to the madness if the issue is out in the open, and parents won't be misled when their children are small and they are considering sending their children to a Jewish Day School. Believe me when I say many middle and working class families have no idea what they are getting themselves into.

Your comments, along wit the the authors, couldn't be more true. Im a married drum father of five, wives been working full-time since we're married as a school teacher, while I manage real state and mage a jewelry store. We struggle to make tuition, with a discount already in place, and I was also given talent to sing Sinatra. So I still sing at night and produce albums but Ive never met too may modern orthodox people like me who can find the time when you're always behind the 8 ball. I think the day school model for modern orthodox has to change. Perhaps a joint FRUM public school like the Charter ones but perhaps a bus would pick up kids from public school and bus them from 2-4 to jewish program with many other kids....? If we don't resolve the issue soon, we will follow suit and make aliyah. Perhaps this is Gods desire...

Of course it's God's desire!

This is so spot on it depresses me. I'm also reading it at almost the precise moment I've come to terms with the fact that I will not be able to afford to send my daughter to Jewish schools.

I taught for eighteen years at Jewish high schools in America, ten at an Orthodox school near Detroit and eight at Gann Academy, a pluralistic school near Boston. Most students with creative careers in mind left Orthodoxy. At Gann, as tuition rose the percentage of Orthodox students fell. (I offer this as observation, not as analysis.) At Gann, faculty salaries were relatively generous and the faculty included many highly creative men and women who encouraged their students to follow creative paths. But overwhelmingly, the lure of wealth producing academic or professional tracks drew students away from creativity. Modern Orthodoxy almost disappeared in thestudent body and was rare in the faculty as well. I published an artical on this some years ago: See The Arts in the Jewish High School: http://www.edah.org/backend/coldfusion/search/document.cfm?title=The%20Arts%20in%20the%20Jewish%20Day%20School%3A%20A%20Case%20Study&hyperlink=3_2_cod.htm&type=JournalArticle&category=Jewish%20Diversity%2FRelating%20to%20the%20Non-Orthodox&authortitle=&firstname=Ed&lastname=Codish&pubsource=not%20available&authorid=576&pdfattachment=3_2_Codish.pdf

This essay deals with both the difficulties and rewards of an arts centered cuture.

This is an important article that brings out the following three points: 1. Indeed it is difficult to make spirituality (learning Torah, spiritual pursuits) the main focus of one's life when one has the burden of having to earn well over $200,000 "just to make ends meet". 2. No wonder so many Orthodox Jews are moving to Israel (to avoid that burden and tuition) or moving to the right within the Orthodox world in the States (to try to keep one's priorities straight-) money should be the means to an end and not sap out all the strength of a person. 3. School vouchers from State funds would help- (even if only somewhat) and it is only fair considering all the State taxes the Orthodox high earners shell-out.

So they are religious, pro Israel and their children become doctors and lawyers. Definitely a crisis.