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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Propping up an Ailing System

Charlie Hall sent me a link to this article which describes the Israeli Chareidi system of marriage which includes a massive dowries for daughters (50-100% of an apartment, wedding costs, and possibly a small monthly stipend or "start up" costs for a young couple) which have devoured any savings that the parents might have and more often than not have put parents into enormous amounts of debts. At a certain point the spiraling debt becomes unmanageable as more and more money has been borrowed from one gemach to pay another gemach. Wolfish Musings and Harry Maryles have already offered their comments on the article, but I am entering the conversation from another angle.

I have yet to write about Israeli Orthonomic issues on this blog because I have not seen the system up close and personal. As such, I normally concentrate on the American scene. However, the particular issue of "buying chatanim," is not purely an Israeli that does not concern us. It is, or at least should be, as much an American concern too. After all, "we" are asked to support this system by door-to-door meshulachim and by the numerous letters which arrive in our mailboxes. And, we do support it at the expense of our own institutions that are oftentimes suffering tremendously. And, if the institutions aren't suffering, there are parents out there who are being crushed under the burden of tuition. As such, the Israeli Orthonomic system should be a huge concern for us.

We are supporting this system at the expense of our own institutions and we should know if we are making a sound investment, or just propping up an ailing system, delaying a near inevitable train wreck (not trying to be pessimistic or anything). I have no doubt in my mind that mass Torah learning is of great import and I have no doubt that mass Torah learning in Israel has benefited the American community at large, other European communities, as well as the entire world in the metaphysical sense. That is why I am concerned. We need to be investing in Torah, and I'm afraid that the system of "poverty by choice," combined with the expectation of massive dowries (this is not to say these couples are living high off the hog--they aren't!), and family size in the double digits, is failed economic policy that could eventually be failed spiritual policy, and as such is becoming akin to investing money into a horse and buggy factory. Building a bayit ne'eman b'yisrael is not just for something for the current generation, but is a responsibility for future generations, and therefore there must be an eye on the future.

Nearly every letter outlines the same situation. A Rabbi in America with a well known name appeals to the American community to help relieve an tremendous talmid chacham and his wife of the tremendous debt built up over the years. While there are sometimes extraordinary circumstances mentioned, nearly every time the major underlying factor of the debt mentioned is marriage debt amassed while marrying off a number of daughters, and there are still more to be married off (!). Recently, I received a letter written not by a Rabbi on behalf of a family, but by the family themselves. To me this is indicative of a worsening situation, but I haven't been on these mailing lists nearly as long as many of my readers. And, of course, there are the door-to-door meshulachim who sometimes collect for others, sometimes for themselves. And they too are often looking for dollars to buy a dirah to marry off a daughter, or are looking for help in paying their marriage debt.

One might say that all tzedakah is tzedakah. But, it remains that the best type of tzedakah is money given to help a person become self-sufficient and retain dignity (i.e. money invested for the future, not money used to pay for the past). When we give tzedakah, I think it is helpful to ask if we are "investing" in a future, or "propping up" the present or the past . I want to see Torah not just survive, but thrive, everywhere, but especially in Eretz Yisrael. And, if I am going to give my ma'aser dollars to a cause, I want to see those dollars become an investment in the future.

Unfortunately, with the Israeli system as it is (and I believe it is enormously less flexible that the American system is), I predict that after Rabbi and Mrs. X are rescued from their financial hell by the generosity of those who respond to the letters, that five years later they will have re-entered that financial hell and will be back at point A. The point I made here remains: we cannot stop the "viscous cycle of poverty" unless we invest in products that help build a better financial future.

Time will only tell the future of the current system, both in Israel and in America. Many poskim will tell you that the system is crazy but we can't deny money because this is the only way to marry off daughters in that system. But in my opinion, "tradition" is not a good enough reason to invest in the horse and buggy factory.

(On a side note: I've addressed some of the middot issues perpetrated by the American system of demanding money from mechutanim in what might have been my most popular post. Israeli Chareidim live very austere lives that we can’t even imagine for the most part, but the system is certainly are perpetrating its own middot issues as evidenced by the article. The foundation of Jewish family life is strong families characterized by ma'asim tovim-l’Torah, l’Chuppah, u’l’ma’asim tovim. Supporting strong families living in shalom is paramount. Being impractical on the financial front, while putting money at the top of the shidduch requirement list is bound to backfire. Orthomom addresses a report on the Israeli divorce rate which is rapidly increasing in religious quarters, and I have to wonder if the system is weakening marriage and family, which in turn weakens Torah. Let's hope this is not the case).


Ariella's blog said...

Several years ago I heard Rabbi Jonathan Rietti speak. One of the things he said we should want for our children is to manage so that they live within their incomes. That goes not just for people who go overboard on luxury items but people who need to adjust so that their income will cover their day-today expenses.

I'm going to put up a link to this post.

Anonymous said...

The solutuion is a simple one: Let them go work! Enough is enough. It's criminal that able-bodied young men are "ready" for marriage but have no interest in working.

Charlie Hall said...

I am not so sure of the benefit of mass Torah learning when the learners aren't employed. Is that really a superior system to getting up early in the morning to go to shiur before davening and then going to work? I think we may be forced to consider the possibility that Rambam may have been right.

Orthonomics said...

Well, I'm partial to the Rambam. :) And, when it comes to my own kids the Rambam is our guide.

When I think of mass learning, I am not particularly thinking of mass learning into one's 20's, 30's or 40's, but the fact that in Eastern Europe, those who went beyond the 3rd grade in "full time" were few and far in between. I'd rather see the elite learners be supported respectfully.

I do think WORK is a necessity and that it is the only solution. I am aware that Israel has a number of different factors that make it near impossible for those in the Chareidi system to pick up quality work young.

I also don't believe that work excludes learning, as I know people who are very accomplished learners who are quite accomplished professionally.

Somewhat Anonymous said...

I'm somewhat sympathetic, at least in theory, to the "Let them go work" camp as far as kollel economic issues go - although it bothers me when that line of discussion degenerates into wholesale (or even retail) bashing of the kollel/yeshiva/chareidi world in general (which to her credit SephardiLady tends to avoid). That being said, its not like Jewish history isn't replete with people needing to raise money to marry off their children, and I don't think the economic condition of the global Jewish community has ever been what we would call "sustainable" since a sometime during bayis sheini (if even then), so perhaps these issues have really been with us for a long time, and are not just the product of the modern kollel system.

Anonymous said...

These are very important issues that deserve our attention. After all, if RMS views the war that RAK viewed as requiring every Ben Torah as over and that we should move on to the next battle, then the issue should be whether every young man and woman should only view themselves a sucess if he is a Kollelnik and a kollel wive. As I have stated elsewhere, the system cries for some means of evaluation such as regular bchinos, chaburos, writing and speaking requirements to see whether the young men in question are growing in Torah or not.

Anonymous said...

Ready for marriage? Wonderful. Pay for your own wedding. Can't spend thousands? Too bad. Get ten men and a chuppah and do it in the Rav's office. Your marriage will still be beautiful--- who needs a fancy wedding?

Harry Maryles said...

The economics of the Charedi lifestyle in Israel is massively dependant on the largess of outside sources, whether it is the generosity of American philanthropists, parents of American Avreichim living in Israel who subsidize them, or the Israeli government.

There are far to many non income earners and under-income earners there. It is anything but self sufficient. And it's current ideology precludes any hope of self sustenance. It is ultimately a house of cards.

The insistence on the purity of Torah learning without including any preparation for Parnassa any in the Yeshiva system is a prescription for self destruction the system cannot continue indefinitely this way.

If there is nothing done to change the mindset of our rabbinic leadership in Israel, it will self destruct at some point. It is only a question of time. A Torah nation cannot exists if everyone is pushed into becoming a Yissachar and no one is trained to become a Zevulun.

Charlie Hall said...

"A Torah nation cannot exists if everyone is pushed into becoming a Yissachar and no one is trained to become a Zevulun."

Is it necessary to choose between being a Yissachar and a Zevulun? My neighborhood is considered a strong orthodox community yet we do not have a full time kollel. We do, however, have a lot of learning -- early morning, late night, midday, daf yomi in most of the shuls, lots of shiurim by resident and guest roshei yeshivot.

(And I now sign off so that I may wake up in time to get to the early morning daf yomi shiur that I attend before davening and work.)

Anonymous said...

when i read these posts and comments all I can think of is three words:
"responsibility" and "birth control"

if you can be responsible to take on the financial burden of marriage and family, then perhaps you should wait.

likewise, children are not cheap and i don't understand how any rabbi can say no to birth control when an additional child(ren) means everyone will suffer.

Anonymous said...

oops, just realized i had a typo. . .

i meant to say
"if you can NOT be responsible to take on the financial burden of marriage and family, then perhaps you should wait."

Anonymous said...

marykaygal beat me to the punch:

I have 4 children, thank God, and will have 1 bar, and 3 bat mitzvahs to plan, and presumably 3 weddings on which I'm on the hook for most, if not all of the cost, and who knows about the 4th. (Thankfully, my oldest is 8, so I have some time!)

It's all about living within means. I am, again thank God, gainfully employed making a nice living. But I fully plan on throwing modest bar and bat mitzvahs commensurate with the act of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah. It need not be an extravagant affair. Same for weddings. If need be, 10 men, a chuppah and a rabbi will suffice. Even if more people are invited, they're coming to be m'sameach chatan v'callah, and a lot of food need not be provided.

Additionally all the extras are just that, extras. Nobody bought me an apartment. (Well, student loans did, but it wasn't the shver). Nobody gave me spending money. I have no intention of doing that with my children. My goal is to get them through college debt free. From then on, I'll help if I can, but even that's not a guarantee.

There is an easy solution: Stop enabling them. I don't do the "help marry them off" except for the gemachs and other wonderful organizations that help arrange marriages for orphans. I don't care if someone has 12 children to marry off: that is a choice, not my responsibility, particularly if the father is learning in kollel all day. That is their choice. And all choices have consequences.

Orthonomics said...

JDub-We think a whole lot alike. You've given me an idea for a new topic. Thanks. :)

Anonymous said...

jdub--- my goal isn't even to get my kids through college debt free. If they want college, great. They'll take on debt. We did. And because we'll be paying for OUR college and grad school into our 50's and 60's, we won't be able to save for theirs. Viscious cycle.

David said...

One of the reasons my brother joined the Army was the GI Bill. That paid for his college education (and interestingly enough, he met the woman he married because she "wrote to a soldier" during the first Gulf War).

There are ways for people to pay for college which have nothing to do with parents.

Leah Gayle said...

My husband and I had the "economy" marriage described above, and while once in a while I think it might have been nice to have a big, fancy wedding, as soon as I look at our monthly budget with four kids I get over it. It's time, as another person said, for us to live within our means, get out of debt and stay there. I only have one daughter, but I will make it plain to her groom that he's not getting any free ride from us, and we will give an equal amount of help to our son's families as our daughters when they marry. This barbaric medieval custom of dowries needs to stop. Both the bride and the groom's family should equally help the newlyweds set up housekeeping.

Ariella's blog said...

To Ahava bat Sarah, I say "right on!"
Jdub, I also have 4 -- the oldest a boy. We are on the verge of his bar mitzvah now, and it is really modest (not just by 5 Towns standards). Just this past Sunday, we picked out a bar mitzvah suit and hat (not a Bors-about $80). In the same store was a father and son for a Feb. bar mitzvah. When I asked about their plans, the father told me that they will hold the bar mitzvah in a hall in Brooklyn b/c it is much cheaper than in the 5 Towns. But this is on a way higher scale than my affair. My guest list would not fill a hall, and my daughters will not be wearing gowns as his will (granted from a gmach -- but that is not free and indicates a higher price tag even altogether) My mother-in-law took it for granted that we would have a professional photographer-- not part of the plan. The only reason I'm having any live music at the melave malka is b/c I was able to work out a barter deal with a one-man band. I plan to post on what we did to economize on invitations, centerpieces, etc. For my daughters (as they are in RW school that exempts one from too lavish an affair for a bat mitzvah) I would do something even smaller just for their classmates.

Somewhat Anonymous said...

One way to pay for college would be to go to CUNY (or whatever your local State school is for non-New Yorkers). Its a solid education at a bargain price, and you can do pretty much anything (medicine, law, accounting, business, etc.) from there.

mother in israel said...

I've noticed that the RW boys' schools don't seem to make any restriction on the bar mitzvahs. Interesting.

Anonymous said...


I'd be very interested in what you have to post. One savings we have is no hat for my boy!

what dumbfounds me is that people think extravagant bar/bat mitzvahs are appropriate. This is about a kid becoming religiously obligated for their own actions. To me, a modest party says more about priorities than an ungepatsche affair.

Anonymous said...

If mass Torah learning is so important, why not encourage retired men to sit a learn all day for the rest of their lives. Let that be the model of the new kollel, and young men should be working or learning a trade or profession.

Anonymous said...

Some girls schools do not allow any form of Ba(s/t) celebration.

The money saved, it turns out, would not be added to the money saved by not buying a hat for a boy (JDub), since it's unlikely for a family to send the girl to the above type of school and the boy to the Modern type presumably referred to by JDub.