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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Guest Post: Dealing with Debt - introduction

My friend Esther wrote the following on her blog in response to my post Unwilling or Unable? She believes we are missing the point of the letter to the editor which is simply a cry for help as so many people are in over their heads. I want to feature my friends post below. Comments I will have will be added in the comments section at another time. Goodnight for now.

SephardiLady (author of the Orthonomics blog) is a dear friend of mine. Her blog is dedicated to addressing financial issues in the Orthodox community. She recently has been following the responses to this Yated article, in which a rabbi expressed some sympathy toward a community member who confided his struggles with debt, then proceeded to blame it on trying to live a fancy lifestyle. The letters that followed (those which she has posted with her comments) have been bringing up the reality that some people are struggling financially and not living an expensive lifestyle.

This is obviously a meaningful topic for me, and even more so after I read today's post. SephardiLady and the commentators offers an extensive list of cost-saving techniques for grocery shopping. Now, there's nothing wrong with saving a few dollars. (Unless you end up using more gas to get the savings...) And SL truly lives what she suggests - she is an expert at what she calls the "art" of coupon clipping and finding bargains. Again, this is not a bad thing. But I came away from the post feeling like the point had been lost, and that maybe there is really a lack of understanding of how serious the debt situation is for so many families.

So we have three groups with financial problems:

1. People who make enough to live normally or even well-off, but waste their money on showing off, having fancy clothes, gigantic parties, etc. This is the group that the original article was addressing. This is basically an attitude problem, and antithetical to truly being a religious person. (In any religion, I think.)

2. People who make just enough, and can end up with a better standard of living and more savings for the future by clipping coupons, bargain shopping, etc.

3. What seems to be hard for everyone to understand is that there's a third group of people for whom even saving $1000 a year on grocery costs would make no difference to the depth of their problem. This is the group pleading with the rabbis and the community to figure out how they can do all the things that they have been told are necessary to living a religious life and still have food on the table and shoes for their kids.

The overall focus of financial advice is to look at your monthly expenses and see what you can cut. And the suggestions are usually things like switching to a cheaper car insurance, using coupons, or maybe an extreme like giving up your cell phone.

Now imagine the following (real) situations:

- No health insurance (My husband and I went without for over a year, and my kids still don't have. And I have a friend who went years without.) By the way, no health insurance means forgoing health care too.

- The same friend cut his gas bill - by letting his gas be shut off. So he has no stove to cook on.

- Wearing the same four outfits repeatedly to work because that's what I have. This is something that has kept a number of people from going to shul - they simply don't have even one decent outfit that they won't feel humiliated in. I'm not talking fancy, I'm talking about something that isn't torn.

- Paying only the bills that are threatening to shut off this month. Calling the company and asking what is the absolute minimum to prevent shut off. then not paying again until the next threat.

I truly hope that most people can't imagine getting to this point. I truly hope most people can solve their problems by shopping sales and similar measures.

But for a growing number of people, the financial issues can't be solved with these measures. What I'd like to discuss in the next few posts is another version of looking at your expenses.

I want to look at those areas (mainly in Orthodox life) which are so accepted as "required" expenses that no one wants to consider whether they can be cut or eliminated. Yet these are the high-cost areas that would actually start resolving people's problems.I came up with five categories to start the discussion: food, Shabbat/Yom Tov, clothing/headcovering (both men and women), simchas, and private school (AKA "the tuition crisis").


Tamiri said...

"Yet these are the high-cost areas that would actually start resolving people's problems"

The first thing on my list would have been: location, location, location. Having lived in four different states (including 3 years in the greater NY met area, albeit on the "wrong" [NJ] side), I can reliably say that where you live has the greatest impact on the amount you need in order to live. In the NY met area, you are doomed with 200K. Elsewhere, 80K works just fine. And you can get houses "out of town" for half or a third of what they cost "in town". And rents.... etc. We actually declined my husband's first job offer out of college because it was in the greater NY area and we knew that we could not live off 60K... and this was 14 years ago!!!!! The same salary had us in a house with a pool of our own in a diff state....

miriamp said...

But other things are expensive out of town, and in every community costs increase as you approach walking distance to the shuls, schools, mikva'ot, and Kosher shops. And salaries may not stay comparable. Odds are your NY area job won't travel with you.

So I agree completely about looking for out of town solutions, I just don't think it's an automatic win. That 80K you mentioned only goes so far, and out-of-town tuitions may be more like $10K instead of $20K, but factor in 4 kids and you're left with only $40K to live on, pre-taxes. Unless you deal with the tuition committee, of course, who may be more willing to deal with you out of town, since there probably aren't 50 choices for your kids' schooling, only 1 or 2.

I'm willing to talk about the other cost-cutting measures, (I spent $8K on my wedding, 11 years ago and certainly plan to spend far less on the assorted Bar and Bas Mitzvahs coming up in the next 3-5 years, for example) but for my family, education is of prime importance, and homeschooling is not an option for us. (Even if my MIL keeps pushing it.) Neither is public school.

I think looking for other funding sources for the schools, like Rhode Island's new tax breaks for large corporations when they fund a scholarship fund program should be a priority rather than asking families to pull their kids out of school. Bank of America will be paying some portion of the tuitions this year!

But I'm looking forward to the rest of the discussion, if people could please not get so hung up on "make your kids drop out of school."

David said...

The elephant in the room here is this:

there are significant financial implications of having children.

That's it. Seriously - none of the families who are in such severe straits would be there if they had waited to have children until they were more financially secure or if they had fewer of them.

THAT is the issue which the rabbis need to address - how do you balance "p'ru v'uvu" with "chai bahem."

For instance, if the only way a couple could afford children is to start receiving charity aid, should they have children?

Juggling Frogs said...

Sephardi Lady,

Your friend Esther makes many excellent points. I think we all agree that something is broken in our community's financial structure, especially in the areas of tuition and celebration expenses.

It would be arrogant and patronizing to lecture someone struggling with medical bills and no heat about clipping coupons and fluorescent light bulbs.

But, it is equally inappropriate when someone in group II abdicates fiscal responsibility, defining plastic tablecloths, air conditioning, summer camp, or $55 suits as necessities.

We need to help each other. For those in group III, that help should be giving them tzedaka.

For those in group II, that help may need to come in the form of honest financial education, including reframing an attitude of helplessness in the face of financial discomfort.

For all of us, and for the next generation, we have to solve the larger issues. But for each individual, budgeting does help.

Tightening a family's budget is not rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It's more like strapping on a life preserver as the iceberg looms.

I wish I could hand a check to each of these families. I'm not in a position to do that today. But if we share what budgeting experience we have with those families do have, we empower them to find much more than just money.

If each family can eliminate $1000 of unnecessary expenses, that's a huge help. Even with monstrous tuition bills, it would provide some relief.

But the larger live improvement is not financial. It is manifested in a shift of focus from the pain to the solution. Encouraging someone to be an active participant, rather than a victim of their situation expresses and induces faith in ourselves, faith in G-d, and support for one another.

The lady in the previous post who said "I Don't Know How to Live Poor" requires education, both in how to live on less, and in the definition of "poor".

Those in group III, don't need information, they need assistance. They aren't asking how to "live poor", but how will they live?

twinsmommy said...

We're in group 3. We have a roof above our heads and food in our tummies and yes, clothing. But it's because we're $200,000 in debt and under half of it is student loans. Sure, we can give up cable and save $40 a month, but how is that going to make an impact in the thousands of dollars of minimum payments we put out each month?

Not everyone in group 3 WANTS to accept tzedakah. We accepted $18,000 from a tzedakah organization founded by my husband's cousin so that we could have children (we're unable to without in vitro). The $18,000 paid for the in vitro and the medications associated. Taking those funds was the hardest decision of our life---- much harder than deciding when to have children or whether to go the IVF or adoption route.

Some of us, even if we're 90 when we finally buy our first home, want to live on our own means after having made past mistakes.

Ahuva said...

"Sure, we can give up cable and save $40 a month, but how is that going to make an impact in the thousands of dollars of minimum payments we put out each month?"

But it does make a difference. Say you do without cable for ten years, that's more than $5,000 you saved. That WILL make a difference. When I am "good" and take the bus instead of paying the daily parking fee, I save $3/day or a bit under $800/year. Several little cuts like that can add up to the minimum tuition payment for a child over the course of a year.

I really can't know your situation or how you're suffering, but trying to cut those little extras like cable just might add up to something that helps. (I know that I don't miss my cable-- I borrow the shows I want to see on DVD from friends. A lot of stations also put full episodes online after they air.)

Ahuva said...

twinsmommy, I hope I'm not coming off as sounding like turning off cable, clipping coupons, and setting the thermostat a few degrees lower will solve all your problems-- you're under a crushing amount of debt. But if cutting corners might delay or prevent declaring bankruptcy, isn't it worth it to try?

Tamiri said...

I am just tongue tied. Not a natural state for me. That $40 cable expense is getting to me.

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons not to "spoil" your family with a lot of toys is that who will your children marry that can support that life style. Will the prospective shiduch be judged by level of sophistication or by learning or by midos or by family or by wealth. Will your child be looked down by the family because they are less sophisticated and don't know from the finer things.

Ahavah B. said...

I agree with Tamiri 100% - if you live in an area with an insurmountable cost of living then you simply must cut the apron strings and move to a more reasonable community.

The ugly truth: What is stopping most people is an abject fear of ending up at a shul that has some other stringencies than the ones you're used to that you have been told are terrible and sinful - that these people are "less religious" than you and are unfit to be around. This arrogant attitude is shameful and needs to be stomped into extinction.

Tuition is the other albatross around most people's necks - again, the other truth is a fear of what somebody else thinks about a school in a different area or fear of what somebody else thinks about homeschooling instead of a willingness to be honest and admit that you simply cannot afford the kind of private school tuition that you have been trying to pay. As long as you're more afraid of what other people think than you are of going broke, you're going to go broke.

Simchas we've talked into the ground - and most people in dire straights can't even consider overspending there anyway. As the post said, for most people the "fancy living" issue really isn't one. Either you save up and spend within your means or you don't - again failing to be prudent is a lot more about fear of what other people think than anything else.

And I absolutely 100% think that having too many children is a serious issue. In real life, more than four kids is probably just stupid unless you are already wealthy from an inheritance. But once the kids are already here, you have to deal with reality - and in spite of someone's complaint that everyone is harping on the "drop out of expensive schools" solution the UGLY TRUTH is that THERE IS NO OTHER SOLUTION. You simply cannot afford to send all those kids to an expensive private school, or even an inexpensive one if you have that many kids. Pretending that isn't so is simply insanity.

And yes, those little things do, in fact, add up - both expense-wise and budget-reduction-wise. When you're up to your eyeballs in debt you have to be honest about your situation - and every penny does really count.

It is, as someone else said, time that the Rabbis wake up and smell the coffee that they are asking impossible in financial terms. It is also time that we, as a whole, wake up and ADMIT that it IS IN FACT IMPOSSIBLE to do everything that you want to do on the salary that you have if you are that far in debt. Griping that it "shouldn't" be impossible is not helpful. The reality is something has to give - probably a lot of somethings. If you can't be honest about that then there can be no way out. Money isn't going to fall from the sky. We all have to live within our means whether we like it or not. We made choices of our own free will, and now we have to dig ourselves out of them. No one is going to solve them for us - wishing for a solution from the outside is extremely unrealistic.

Esther said...

I don't even know where to start, this is such a personal subject for me and the comments here are really getting to the deeper issues of why this seems to be such a problem in the Orthodox world. Especially Ahuvah's last comment - the role of the rabbis who are encouraging people to live this way or even essentially telling them it is forbidden to live another way. (The birth control issue being a big one there.) It is very hard to go against your rabbi and community when you genuinely have been taught to believe that you need to follow what they say. (This is in addition to the need to be popular and fashionable - I have major issues with the attitude expressed in the letter in the previous post. But I am talking about religious people feeling that they "have to" do certain things because that is what their rabbi has told them.) I intend to post more on my own blog about the specific areas where I think we need to be willing to ignore what everyone else thinks and be open to making cuts in the "frum" expenses

I just want to let everyone know that both Twinsmommy and ourselves moved from a very expensive area to a very inexpensive area two years ago for the purpose of saving money. This came after a group of us living in Expensive City did extensive research around the country and found some lovely communities where you can actually afford to raise a family.

SL, thank you again for such an extensive discussion of these issues.

JS said...


Not to change topics, but I'd like to propose my own 3 groups:

1) Those just starting out financially.

2) Those teetering on the brink of falling into debt.

3) Those already in significant debt or those who find it impossible to make ends meet.

Our discussions lately focus on group #3 in particular and #2 a bit as well. I think there are very different strategies for each group, and ideas that work for one group are unnecesary or unhelpful for other groups. For example, cutting small costs is most helpful for #1 and #2 but wouldn't help #3 (aside from helping them achieve an overall financial attitude makeover so if they ever get out of group #3 they are less likely to slip back).

I'd like to see a post about group #1 in particular which I think is often neglected in financial discussions - how to start out on the right foot. How to plan properly and save from the get go to avoid ever getting into debt in the first place. Because as I think we all know both savings and debt snowball very quickly due to compound interest and starting out correctly can help weather many a storm in the future just as starting off poorly can lead to mountains of insurmountable debt.

As an example, my parents together now make a very nice salary. But when starting out they didn't make even a fraction of what they make now. So even though they are doing so well on paper, they are still struggling to pay off their mortgage (house was borrowed against for yeshiva tuition) and live frugally. And this is true even after no longer paying yeshiva tuition or helping with college for several years now.

As I mentioned in a previous post I had roughly $100K in student loan debt when I graduated from college but by living at home for awhile before getting married (we were dating but waited) and being frugal I was able to pay off a large amount of my debt and save a lot of money (and my starting salary was not large). When my wife and I married, between my savings and wedding gifts we had more saved up in the bank than any of our friends or even older couples we knew from richer families or with better jobs.

By starting out on the right foot and planning properly I think a lot of families who are now in huge trouble (even those with very large families and low income) would be in good financial shape or at the very least not crushed by debt.

It would be good to see a post on how to start off right and avoid debt to begin with by planning properly and budgeting for the future.

Halfnutcase said...

(I posted on the previous post in response the the complain that she didn't know how for her kids to look like Shlumps, but since they mentioned the issue for people who are in JS's catagory 1, I thought I would post this.)

I think that it should be pointed out that there are ways to dress your kids respectably for shabbos using hammidown or old suits and clothes. the theme should be buy it right the first time, and then take care of it and hold on to it for years to come, and hand it down to many children.

There are certain styles of dress that are always considered respectable, and acceptable no matter where you are. Wearing a two button dark suit with medium notched lepels, inset pockets with flaps, and with pleats in the pants (but not necessarily cuffs) is one of them. Buy the suits when you don't have alot of kids, and get good ones, because those look good for much longer than others. if you're choosy you can get ones that can be let out or in by a tailor, I know most of the suits I ever had were hammidowns, and we took most of them to the tailor who made them look decent. (not to mention if you get classic styles, kids usualy grow out of clothes faster than they can ruin them, and if they are then well taken care of, IE cleaned, have holes fixed, they can be used on later children, without them looking shame inducing.)

Point collars for the shirts, and ties that are simple but match well. In particular a classic oxford (not a pinpoint) will last forever and is always acceptable, if a little less dressy.

For boys shoes one can get oxford shoes, without all the lacy decorations, black, with laces, and good leather soles that are sewn in. They are relatively expensive, but with regular polish, and a couple of trips to the cobbeler when the soles wear down (make sure you get good soles, the difference in their life span can be the difference between replacing their soles twice a year, and replacing them every 2, 3 or 4 years. and Don't wait untill its really a problem to get it fixed, small problems are easier delt with and look better fixed than big problems, such as the sole wearing though in the front and grinding the finish off the shoe.)

Have kids hat's custome made, I'm told they're about 200 dollars, but the difference is that they last forever and a day, and are not so damaged in the rain as regular hats are. (since people nolonger demand that hats be able to survive the rain and protect you in it, hatters no longer make them of quality material necessary to withstand rain.) . As a bonus, if your child is a premee you'll be able to get a hat that actualy fits instead of having to streatch it (a problem I have). When the hat gets pathetic, have it blocked, steamed, and retreated, much less expensive than buying a new one. I know my grandfather I think kept the same hat that he used regularly for ten years, and it didn't look that pathetic either, and at maybe 250 or 300 dollars over 10 years (buying it plus blocking it twice) assuming that you regularly buy them a new hat ever 2 years (at least 100 dollars each) thats a comparison of 500 dollars for the regular hat, to the 300 for the other.

oh, and learn to sew. My over coat has broken many times, in many ways and I've fixed it each time, and when I couldn't I took it to a tailor. When the buckle broke, we replaced it. When the pocket started to rip at the seam, I resewed it before it was a problem. I've replaced every button on that coat at least once, and some of them twice. (i've had it for 5 years.) it still looks at least moderately respectable, and I wear it all winter long, and in the rain. Also when the water proofing wears off, theres a spray or a paint you can buy that will renew the water proofing. Just take it to the cleaners and get them to do the best job they can, and thereyou go.

Even with undergarments, don't buy the bottom of the line because they don't last long, but don't buy the most expensive either. TJ max, if it's near you, is a great store for that kind of thing.

Oh, and I do have one suggestion vis a vis women's clothes, IE shoes: Don't buy the super high heals, of the low ones, the square toes or the pointed toes, nor the sandals. Buy specificaly a modest leather pump, with not more than a two inch heel. Those also never go out of style, are modest and respectable, and again, polish it, and take it to the cobbler when there is a problem, before it gets bad. Also, shoes last alot longer if you don't use them every day, because then they have time to recover after the last time you wore them, so keeping two pairs of shoes (and then letting them be hammidowns when the next child grows to that size) can actualy save you money in the long run. (and again, don't buy the cheap ones, because you'll be buying them again soon. Most of the payless shoes I've had lasted not even a year, and certainly were not presentable after a short time. Compare 20 dollars every year for a pair of shoes (or more) to when I got my last real shabbos shoes, 115 dollars, and they lasted me for 3 years, and when I polished them for the first time in a while, people would ask me if I got new shoes. Had I taken care of them better I have no doubt that they would have lasted longer (I shuffle some which can be a killer on concrete, although not so much with rubber soles) I replaced the soles (because they were wearing thin enough to have holes) with new ones, costed about 20 dollars, and if I'd gotten soles of the same quality I had before they would have lasted for 3 more years (or longer, I stopped playing basketball in those shoes) But instead I accidently got cheap ones which wore through so fast that it ruined the shoe itself, so I couldn't replace the sole again. Had I done it right and they lasted for 3 more years, I might could have done it again in 3 years, but even if I couldn't (and polishing it regularly you probably could) I would have expended lets say 145 on the shoe, over 6 years is about 25 dollars a year which is compared to 20 dollars a year (at least) over 6 years, or 160 dollars, for a way worse and not as nice looking shoe that shoes it's age quickly! (and if you can extend it again, it comes to 19.44 dollars, which is less than the payless shoe!) (dollars are about 2000 or thereabouts.)

seriously, for those who are worried, buying good quality timeless clothes and then using a tailor/cobbler/hatter is really the way to go if you want to both look respectable and save money!

I hope that this suggestion helps some people. (oh, and sometimes its hard to differentiate the good from the bad, so it is desireable to find someone who has alot of experience with what lasts and what doesn't, if you don't want to make mistakes on the way.)

Halfnutcase said...

Oh, the other thing you can do to both dress fashionably and save money is: Learn to sew!

While granted suits and pants take increadible amounts of skill, shirts somewhat, alot of girls clothes, especialy skirts and jumpers, don't take to much skill, and when handmade can be made to look good and last a long time, and they're so much cheaper than going to the store!

And if you daughter insists on wearing the latest fashions, enroll her in a sewing classes and tell her to make her own clothes. (I would say to do that with your boys too, but likely yeshiva scheduals don't allow the boys enough time to sew their own suits. Not that you shouldn't enroll them in sewing classes anyway.)

Oh, and the better home and gardens cookbook tells of plenty of ways to get difficult stains out of cloth (talking about a table cloth but it applies everywhere else too I'm guessing).

oh, and another thing, learn to knit and knit your kids their sweaters, instead of paying alot of money for expensive sweaters. It's time consuming, but can be very rewarding, especialy if you've gaines some skill at it.

(I suspect that between my suggestion above and the one below, it might save enough money to make being a stay at home mom even more feasable. that is not to mention making your own clothes makes it so much easier to be properly tznius, especialy out of town.)

Ahuva said...

Actually, knitting is more of a fun hobby than a money saver. A cheap yarn won't hold up very well and a sweater knit with "nice" yarn can easily run $100-200+ in materials.

Basic sewing/mending skills, however, are a really good idea.

SephardiLady said...

JS-I plan to do a post on your number 1 where we can look into the future with a clean slate and ask "l'chatchila" what should a young person be doing?

Tamiri and others-I think we should talk about having many children. I will put the subject out there. . . . . but everyone must be extremely careful to be polite!

Tamiri said...

For the record, have 5 and no idea how that happend :-)

ora said...

I understand that the subject of family size needs to come up, but I'm sick of the comments that basically say that large families are completely unnecessary and a poor financial decision. It's not so easy to just decare more than four kids "stupid" or to say that one boy and one girl is definitely enough. This is not such a simple issue.

IMO it's important to consult with rabbis before coming up with our own (almost certainly less halachically informed) decisions. That doesn't mean it's important to ask davka a rabbi who believes in 17 kids per family and no birth control ever, but it is important to realize that there are halachic aspects to this.

I know large Jewish families that get by on relatively low salaries, even in America. They do it by living way "out of town" (I don't think that the residents of those towns would be so happy to hear themselves described that way), and by sending their children to the cheaper hassidic private schools and not the $10,000-15,000 per year modern orthodox or yeshivish schools.

Basically, I think everyone can pick one aspect of Jewish life, or maybe two, that they absolutely have to stick to. If someone believes that birth control is problematic and that large families are a blessing, they need to be flexible on location and schooling. If someone absolutely has to live in New York City, they might not be able to support many children. IMO the Torah/Tanach mentions family size a lot more than "In town" or "Beit Yaakov," and so I think that family size should be a higher priority than location or even education (to a certain extent).

As a personal example, I would love to have many children and hope to never use birth control. In order to make that work, my husband and I are willing to live anywhere in Israel, including the Golan, the Negev, and other as-yet-undeveloped areas. We are fairly flexible regarding careers, and while we both have certain paths right now, we're willing to do whatever jobs are necessary to support a family. We prefer the semi-private schools (at about 500 shekels a month), but if those get too expensive, we'll go with public religious schools over restricting our family size. Unfortunately I can't say yet whether or not we'll succeed, but based on budget calculations and families we've talked to (with 8-14 kids) I think it will work.

JS said...


I think your post is excellent.

I think the most important part of your post is the sacrifice and planning you're willing to make in order to have a large family. I think the issue others have with those with large families is not the large family in and of itself, but that some are unwilling to sacrifice or plan appropriately.

A couple, regardless of how many kids they want to have needs to sit down and think hard about the kid of lifestyle they want to have and how much that lifestyle will cost. I don't know if rabbis help in this area, but if not they should help couples have realistic expectations. If the couple doesn't realize it themselves, someone needs to sit them down and say "OK, you want to have 10 children, baruch hashem, but you only have an income of $50,000. Maybe 10 children is not appropriate given your situation. But, if you truly want 10 children maybe we can try to figure out how to make this work and what you will be willing to give up to make this happen."

Also, I'll add that it's not just an issue of financial planning but emotional planning as well - can one emotionally handle that many children and provide for them in terms of quality time and individual attention and love as each child deserves?

Tamiri said...

This is not financial: Quote "Also, I'll add that it's not just an issue of financial planning but emotional planning as well - can one emotionally handle that many children and provide for them in terms of quality time and individual attention and love as each child deserves?" Unquote.
For the record. I see far more desolate and emotionally lacking children from small families than those from large ones. Once you have a bunch of kids, assuming you are a good parent, you realize that the cliche's of "emotionally handling... quality time... individual attention and love" are just that: cliches.
I do see far more children from large families going without MATERIAL goods than those from small families, but that is usually a given.

Halfnutcase said...

Tamiri said...

Tamiri, I've seen that what you are saying is a lie. I know of pleanty of kids who went off the derech because their parents never had any time for them, and basicaly decided that their parents didn't care for them because they were stupid enough to have more kids than they could emotionaly care for.

You might could comfort two kids at one time, but three is a stretch, and at somepoint, someone always needs some comfort and attention, and when you have a small child, that someone is going without.

(I know one family in particular who's boy is totaly out of control because his mother keeps on saying "I have 9 children, and don't have time to deal with this." although now that 3 of her children are out of the house and a 4th is in school far away... but still the damage was done when the boy was younger and everyone was home.)

Ahavah B. said...

My apologies, Ora, for saying "stupid," but I have strong feelings in this area, as I have seen several friends buried under the weight of trying to deal with a household full of kids and no money to feed them - and it was "consulting the rabbi" that caused the problem in the first place. If you aren't willing to use birth control, then there is no such thing as "planning" for children - they come when they come and if you choose not to regulate that then you're at the mercy of biology.

I have said before that I have four natural born children and one foster child. Guess where the foster child came from? A family whose electricity and water and gas had been cut off because the credit companies were garnishing wages and they had nothing to eat at all. Social services came when a meter-reader turned them in, and there are very few Jewish foster families out there - and the state doesn't care. If there are no Jewish families that can take the kids they will put them anywhere that has room. So we took one of the kids - an aunt took one, and so on. The family is basically devastated, and worse, the father basically has no marketable skills whatsoever - there aren't enough yeshivas and dayschools in the world to employ all those yeshiva "graduates" and that's something else no one's talking about, either.

It makes me very angry and I'm sorry I said "stupid." We aren't exactly rich, either, but I do my best and it's a full time job all by itself.

My point is that pretending that Hashem intended people with little income to have double-digit children is simply not a viable plan (non-plan, actually) and we have to live in the real world. There isn't any money falling from the sky (as the Rabbis promised) people if they just daven "harder" or give to the "right" charity. Hashem expects us to use those brains he gave us and not be sheep following shepherds that are causing our problems instead of helping them. We aren't factories whose point is to churn out as many kids as possible - each child has to be raised properly and in order to do that you need a certain amount of resources per child, and you have to have time for each individual child, and you have to be realistic about what each child needs in terms of attention and interaction. And if we fail to give each child what they need, then they will just be another bunch of "at risk" kids or worse, kids who are off the derech in private and have no faith in their hearts. That's the reality of raising children - it is our responsibility to turn out quality, not quantity.

Halfnutcase said...

ahava, what you've said makes me even more sure of my desire to adopt at least one frum kid, or at least take them as foster parents.

Or possibly two or three, depending on my finances. I may not be able to have children, in which case I'll take a number of siblings.

Ahavah B. said...

We're not actually "foster parents" in the legal sense of the term. To be a state approved "foster parent" you have to do this three month long training program and all that - and this was an emergency, we didn't have three months. Instead, the boy is our legal ward, I guess you would say - his parents signed custody of him over to us "voluntarily." I'm not sure I would want to be an "approved" foster parent because the way it was explained to us, children are assigned on a sort of first-come first serve basis to available "approved" foster homes and you can't be sure you'd always be raising a Jewish child - not that I have a problem with that, don't even get me wrong - but having to learn halacha suddenly in the middle of a traumatic family event seems like it would not be a good idea for a child who wasn't already used to operating a kosher kitchen, etc, if you see what I mean.

So anyway his parents signed custody over to us and we are his legal guardians. Because we aren't "approved" by the state we aren't "really" foster parents and we don't receive any support from the state, which is fine. He has been friends with our oldest son for years and it was a smoothe transition for him and for us. As a matter of fact, he had been so much in the habit of having dinner at our place (in the months prior to things falling all to pieces) after their classes that it was a joke to us until we found out how bad things were at home: we'd laugh and say, "It's time for dinner, where's _______?" Needless to say, it wasn't so funny when we found out why he was eating with us so often.

I am amazed that people would get in that condition and try and keep it secret - and I'm just amazed that people would get in that condition, I guess. That's "old country" stories we used to hear - that stuff isn't supposed to happen here in America in this day and age. But I'm very much concerned that not only is it happening, it's going to happen more and more often. The bankruptcy laws have been changed heavily in favor of the credit card companies - and they can even confiscate retirement funds and social security benefits to pay back student loans now. Most people are unaware of how out-of-control things can get in a hurry if they don't get realistic and get out of debt.

My "thing" is more macroeconomics than everyday financial issue but there are a lot of things going on in the world that our communities are simply not prepared to deal with. We should be, as a community, way more self-sufficient than we are.

Halfnutcase said...

ahava, if you have any suggestions about how to go about seeing that frum kids in that situation don't end up in non-jewish homes (g-d forbid) please by all means let me know.

Ahavah B. said...

The only way to really avoid that, as far as I know, is to act before social services gets involved in the first place. And I have no idea how that could be done. Once the state gets involved a family's parental rights go out the window, they can't insist the child be sent to a Jewish foster family (and the social worker who inspected our house and interviewed us said she didn't have any Jewish foster families in her files for her jurisdiction - apparently it's very rare, especially among observant families that tend to be big to start with).

I did tell the social worker and the attorney involved that if it ever happened that they found themselves with another Jewish family that needed foster care to please call us, and she said they would - but I don't imagine that they are obligated to do so, and that woman might not work there forever. And I imagine they prefer to work with their "approved" sources, which are more closely supervised than an voluntary custody arrangement. They came to inspect our house once every two months or so, some sort of state-wide safety requirement, but other than that they pretty much left us to ourselves. I imagine they would rather have more say in things than a voluntary custody agreement entails. At that point it's much more between you and the parents than it is between you and the state.

So really, I have no idea. I can't imagine anyone deciding to ask relatives or friends to take custody of their kids as a preemptive measure - on the flip side, if you saw a sibling or good friend in a bad situation situation, what would you say to them??? Hey, want me to take some of your kids off your hands for a while? Somehow I just don't see that going over very well.

Zach Kessin said...

Ahavah, maybe its time to get some of the powers that be in your community to sit down with the child services people and say "can we come up with a way of dealing with frum kids in problem families so that they stay in frum families" At least as much as possible. I don't know what they will say but it sounds like it is worth working on.

As for living on what you can I have heard plenty of stories like that in the USA, just not from Jewish families. When I was at Brandeis the cleaning lady for the Math Department had a PhD in math from Cuba, now she cleans the floors, but she is putting food on the table.

GilaB said...

Something that I think people forget about is that hundreds of years ago, while a couple might conceive a dozen children, perhaps the majority of those didn't make it to adulthood. Before modern medical care and public health advances, women lost many more pregnancies, and many babies and children died of causes we don't worry about any more. Communities made of families with double-digit levels of children are a modern phenomenon, even though birth control in of itself is also pretty recent.

Ahavah B. said...

Well, Zach, first you have to get the powers that be to admit there is a problem...

Then you will have to get them to actually respect and work with the secular civil authorities and not try and hide things from them or go behind their backs (ha!)...

And then you have to make sure the Rabbis don't abuse whatever "program" is put in place giving them this great new power in their communities to decide whose kids might be "eligible" for removal from their parents ...

Frankly, I'd rather just leave my name and number with social services.

The Rabbis already can wave a piece of paper and retroactively invalidate people's marriages, conversions, adoptions - they can already force or withhold divorces as punitive measures, blacklist people's kids from schools and from marriage arrangements...

And you want them involved in "facilitating" removing children from homes?

Ummmm, seriously, you must live in a MO community. To be perfectly frank, a place that is usually considered to be extremely hot would have to be covered in ice before I would give the Rabbis that sort of opportunity.

mother in israel said...

Gila, you are half right. Mothers nursed their children for extended periods, causing natural child spacing (usually at least three years). Modern nursing patterns do not usually lead to extended periods of infertility.

ora said...

mother in israel--

Exactly what I was thinking. Many families were large, since people often married in their mid-teens and so had about 20 years of fertility (I doubt there were as many 38-45 year old women giving birth then as there are now). BUT, with breastfeeding they just weren't pregnant as often. You can see this in many western African countries today, btw. While most children do live to adulthood, families are relatively small because women get pregnant every three years or so instead of once a year (poor nutrition probably plays a part in this as well).

People seem to be assuming that an average woman will give birth to 10 or more children if she doesn't use birth control. In my experience that is simply not the case. The only women I know who ended up with that many children either:
1) Did not breastfeed at all.
2) Had at least one set of twins.
3) Had their first at age 16 or 17.
4) Had their last at age 45.

Most women I know who started their families at age 22/23 and did not use birth control had between 6 and 9 children, spaced 20 months to three years apart.

ora said...

ahavah b.

It sounds like what upsets you is poor planning and bad parenting, not large families in and of themselves. In which case, I agree with you. As I said, my desire to have a large family is something that I'm thinking about and planning for even now.

Also, while I personally don't want to use birth control, that doesn't mean I think it's always wrong. What I have a problem with is people who attempt to plan their families down to the last detail (how many kids and when), not families who after having several children need a break for reasons of health, sanity, or not being able to afford food (btw when I say "have a problem with, I don't mean I think it's my place to decide when people should have kids, I just think it's generally better to leave it to Hashem when possible. I know people who had children without adequately planning their financial future, but I also know several women who used "family planning" and later regretted it).

As for giving attention to each child, even a mother of two will sometimes be in a situation where two children need her and she's only one person. It's inevitable. Fortunately, children aren't emotionally scarred by those rare occasions when they have to wait for comfort--they're scarred if the comfort never comes, or when their needs are always ignored.

Emotional needs are something I've carefully considered as well (I'm from a small family, so I wanted to make sure my plans for a big family wouldn't leave my kids needy and unhappy). Every single person I've talked to from a big family (5-15 kids) has told me they loved having lots of siblings and enjoy being one of 5-15. Some of the people I asked were from dysfunctional families, where the parents were too selfish or too absorbed in their own issues to properly raise their kids. Those people told me that their parents would have been dysfunctional with 1-3 kids, so it was still nice to have siblings, b/c that way at least they had some form of support. For the most part, a good parent can be a good parent to a lot of kids or a few, while a bad parent will be a bad parent even with one. Those whose families weren't dysfunctional said they felt loved and wanted, and were OK with their parents occasionally being busy or missing a soccer game.

(All of this is leaving out extreme situations, such as parents who felt extremely unready for kids but had several due to social pressure, or parents who had an average of one or more children per year. I haven't talked to kids from families like those.)

This family you mentioned, who couldn't pay their bills and ended up losing custody--were they living in a big city/area with high property values? Did they have college degrees or job training? Were the kids in private Jewish schools? I ask because I would like to test my financial theories--I hope that's OK.

Finally, and I hope not to offend, but given your most recent comment, maybe you should find new rabbis. I can't imagine living in a place where I trusted the average layperson more than my rabbi. My rabbi and the other rabbis I know would NEVER use personal status as a coercive measure or blacklist a fellow Jew, and I can't imagine living in a place where the rabbis would do that.

Ahavah B. said...


They did not have secular college degrees. The mother had some basic skills but didn't go to college - the father was a "yeshiva" product. Yes, they would not send their kids to public school. I think you will find that is, as others have pointed out again and again, the huge elephant in the room. People have had their conversions never granted or revoked for sending their kids to public schools in some communities/shuls (we were involved in one)- their rabbis are simply not going to allow it. That was part of the way their rabbi was the cause of their problems - that and the birth control issue. There are also plenty of communities/shuls out there who strongly discourage young men from going to a real college or learning anything marketable except Torah - which frankly isn't really all that marketable. Yeshiva bochur are a dime a dozen - where are all these young men going to work?

I did move away - I don't know if I have made that clear - we moved to my husband's hometown some years back (he's a convert). I'm from the DC metropolitan area originally and the cost of living is not cheap by any stretch. At the time I decided we couldn't take it anymore it was NY. (Our oldest son attended yeshiva in Monsey.) Where we are now, slightly east of the mid-west area of the US, is much, much better. I honestly believe we could have ended up in that condition ourselves if we hadn't moved. My husband never attended college, either, but he has worked and acquired good skills in the secular market and now works for the government. The pay isn't high (since college degrees do get much better pay) but we have good benefits (at least so far!). I've both worked at home (typing and transcription) and been a stay-at-home mom depending on our situation at any given time. Right how, with my oldest son getting ready to be married, I am thinking of looking for a job outside the home. (Our youngest will be bar mitzvah early next summer, so they don't need me home all the time, I think - though one friend of mine has urged me not to, she says teens and pre-teens need just as much attention and supervision as small kids - and I feel conflicted about it. We get by, but it would be nice to have some extra spending money.)

Esther said...

It's really nice that we are discussing this in a respectful way. I think the most imporatnt point is that it is a CHOICE to not use birth control and have a lot of kids. It can be a great choice - but if that is what you have decided, then you need to make other life decisions in accordance with that. It is the same as the choice to have a husband learn in kollel, the choice whether to have the mother work or stay home with the children, etc. These are decisions that need to be made. Not just, "I'm Orthodox therefore we can't have any family planning." This was exactly what I intended by my post (even though I did not specifically mention family size but I am really glad it came up in the discussion.) The same way we choose to clip coupons, shop at Walmart instead of department stores, and look for other ways to not go into debt - we need to take the same approach to "Orthodox" expenses. It is not a given that I need to: wear a sheitel, have husband learn in kollel, only eat chalav yisrael, have 10 kids, live in New York....Whatever the expense, each one is a decision. Each family will come up with a different combination that works for them, but as Ora said, choosing one means being more flexible in others. And people are scared to recognize this because they have been told by rabbis and community members that making these cuts will keep their kids from getting a shidduch, or will mean that they are not a yiras shamayim, or no one will eat at their house.

Ahavah B. said...


It's not just "they have been told." This stuff actually happens.

Anonymous said...

We live in Israel and often have only hand made challa, soup, veggies, and one chicken to share for all of shabbos. During the week potatos, cucumbers, and bread. No cell phones, working telephone about half of the time, threats from the iriyah for arnona, electrical and gas. Since we are BT we have no help from either family and my husband is sick from liver problems and a damaged back from working as a firefighter when he was in his 20's. We couldn't live in the US because of our anti torah family influence on the children and school costs. Hashem gives us what we need but there is so much shame in asking our friends for help and having a surprise bill come out of the bank and bounce several checks.