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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Shalom Bayit and Finances, Tuition vs. Health

There is a new Letter to the Editor published today on Matzav supposedly written by a breadwinning father contemplating suicide due to his financial position. Oftentimes the letters posted on Matzav are straight out of the Yated, but I'm guessing this letter is not one of those. Additionally, I don't believe the letter was actually written by the person supposedly considering suicide, but I do believe that financial problems can make a person consider dreadful measures. Personally, I'm rather annoyed with Matzav for publishing a constant stream of "it's too expense to be frum" articles because I believe that this complaining, and I hear it in my own backyard too, is completely detrimental and counterproductive. What I think is highly needed is financial and frugality education, subjects I see stressed by different ministries. For my commentary on one Matzav "it's too expensive to be frum" editorial see Echad Chacham. . . . Echad Helpless Loser.

Like other complaining editorials of late, there is a lack of differentiating between needs and wants. The author mentions all of the following costs: "tuition, mortgage payments, car expenses, food bills to the sky, clothes, utilities, camp…" So long as camp or the chatunah (a subject that rears its head later in the letter for which I only have three words: Cake and Punch) appears in the same sentence as basic food and shelter, there is a lifestyle problem that needs to be addressed.

What I don't doubt about the article is that the real subject of the letter (see below), reflects the "matzav" of a good handful of husbands out there:

But is hard to appreciate the good things in life when you are sitting and staring at a bank account that is emptying out faster than it fills up. It is hard to smile when you have to tell your 12-year-old kid that he can’t go to the dentist this month even though his tooth is hurting because you don’t have the money for it. It is hard to be happy when your wife is frustrated that you are just not making ends meet no matter how hard you are working and how hard you are trying.

The letter writer believes that he has an income/lack of assistance issue. In all reality, $80,000 is a respectable income, but with a larger size family looking to maintain a healthy budget(healthy budget loosely defined as income > expenses + no consumption debt), I'm not quite sure there is more than a 4 figures available to pay tuition. So, in one sense there is an income issue, but what I believe the reader has is a shalom bayit issue. If the couple was supportive of each other, they could deal far more effectively with the financial issues.

More essential than cash flow in personal finance, is unity in approach. I believe that Chazal asserts that a couple with shalom can exist on the tip of a pin, whereas the largest home won't suffice for a couple without shalom. I think the same can be said of shoestring budgets: a family that works together on addressing their financial challenges can survive on a shoestring budget, whereas a family that does not share common vision, determination, and accomodation will struggle even on a generous income. I believe that sharing a similar approach towards finances is also what will move a couple from disatisfaction --> acceptance and addressing the issue together --> satisfaction or sameach bechelko.

One more issue I'd like to revisit is what I previously called "worshipping at the altar [of yeshiva/day school]." While I do believe yeshiva/day school should take precedence over stuff (e.g. camp experiences, European fashion, and eating out), I am concerned when supporting a frum lifestyle (and I use the term lifestyle deliberately), means neglecting health. To me that fits the definition of "worshiping at the altar."

The letter writer, whoever that is, mentioned forgoing dental care. So did a later commentor who writes:

Giving up the dentist was the hardest of all for us, we also earn income higher than this poster, but when we had no income, the school tuition committee thought we were hiding something and refused us. That was 15 years ago and we still don’t have necessary dental care—the adults in our family have allowed our teeth to rot and become diseased, and have suffered bouts of excruciating pain without seeing a dentist because we couldn’t afford it. The children who needed braces did not get them, nor did they get normal dental care. Along the way we mentioned this to a Rav whose response was What about all the Rabbi’s teaching in Yeshiva who can’t get dental care? So we just keep quiet and suffer. But at least now we pay full tuition.

All I know is that if the "letter writer" is contemplating suicide and this other commentator's children have rotted and diseased teeth, leaving the yeshiva system for public school doesn't sound like the horrific alternative other commentors are making it out to be!


The Bald Guy said...

I agree with the general message - we as a community do tend to overspend and be blind to that.
HOWEVER, I think that the tuition problem is real and quite entrenched and cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand by saying - "we spend too much". Spending $0 vs $5K on camp will help but only reduce just a bit the gaping hole yeshiva tuition leaves in household budgets.
Your thoughts?

Miami Al said...

Your kids health comes before a premium education. Untreated diseases in childhood can create lifelong medical problems.

One year in the public school system and a private tutor for religious studies will not kill anyone.

I survived 10 years in the public school system, my wife 13.

Our kids get medical AND dental care and are in terrific health.

And for the "what will the neighbors think" crowd, what do you think affects a Shidduch more: spent 4th and 5th grade in a public school, or has rotting and misaligned teeth?

Orthonomics said...

Bald Guy-I don't think I can be accused of missing the boat on the tuition problem. Tuition has been a theme right from the start.

Nonetheless, if this wife is knocking her husband's efforts (and at $80K he must be making some type of effort), their income with flounder. When companies hire new managers, they tend to prefer married over single as marriage is generally an asset and married men tend to advance quicker than single men. Intangibles are important.

A couple with lack of unity will hurt more financially. Desperation shows in the workplace and conveys a lack of trust. No one wants to entrust an employee that gives you the feeling that they need money NOW. Depression comes out when an employee lacks energy.

When families work together, resources go further. On that note, I want to thank my husband (who occassionally checks the blog). He has been taking on more tasks around the home, although it isn't "in his blood" because we are on the same page. For this I say, thank you for watching the kids while I work on Sundays and in the evenings. Thank you for helping with the laundry and dishes. Perhaps someday I will be able to come home to a warm dinner ;)

yagayaga said...

Amen! (why is it assumed that the breadwinning man comes home to dinner? why not the breadwinning woman? I used to come home and start cooking. my husband came home and started eating...

saras said...

I think it is possible to be frum and be in the public schools (I have not tried it...yet). Easy, no. Possible, yes. I know many people who do it. No, they are not yeshivish, but they manage. The rabbeim will not ever endorse this as many will probably never endorse charter schools. However, there are alternatives to letting teeth rot, having psychological stress and passing down bad midos to children (and do not think that they don't pick up on how financial woes are affecting their parents' lives or relationship!). My children already know that there will be no 'free ride' (year in Israel, expensive wedding, etc.)after high school. They must pare down or pay up.

Anonymous said...

Can we say "homeschooling"? If you can't homeschool them yourself, enroll them in Jewish Online School ( for 4 hours a day (if there are 4+ kids in the class, that should be under $6,000 a year with plenty of personal attention).

Orthonomics said...

Room 613 is another homeschooling resource. There are also correspondence school programs that many homeschoolers and athletes use. I know family who hired tutors for the Judaics, homeschooled certain subjects, and had their children in public school for a certain number of classes. Older kids can sometimes enroll for only the cost of books in community college as certain states waive the tuition for high school students.

I didn't mention homeschooling because I don't think it would be a great solution for parents who are not working from the same book yet. That seems to me to be the very core issue.

Zach Kessin said...

At some level this is an issue of priorities, if you can't set them and be willing to stick to them you will go broke. When camp comes above medical care you have them wrong.

Anonymous said...

Why aren't people aware dental services can be had for very little cost (or none) at a dental school? My mother went to the University dental school downtown for all her dental work, and I went to NYU Dental School before I had an income. You are treated by dental students who are supervised by professors. Many poor people go to the dental school, better than going without dental care.

mlevin said...

Untreated teeth could lead to death, need I say more?

tesyaa said...

Most of the homeschoolers I know really believe in homeschooling and do it out of idealistic and/or ideological reasons. If people to choose homeschooling merely because they can't afford yeshiva tuition, they may be doing their kids a disservice. If parents believe in a traditional educational approach, their kids may be better off in public school. I don't see how you can homeschool effectively if you don't enjoy doing it and your heart's not in it.

Upper West Side Mom said...

Raising a large family on 80G is not easy in NY (although I know that it can be done). Many of the community's financial problems stem from families having more kids than they can afford.

mlevin said...

Tesyaa - sometimes people do surprising things to make/save a buck. Besides the Yeshivah educational system is so bad, that homeschooling cannot possibly be worst. We are talking about children who graduate from yeshivah without spelling, English, Math, science or history. These people need calculators to do a multiplication table, that's how bad it is.

You may argue that not all yeshivahs are like that, yes it's true, but people who cannot afford a better yeshivah end up sending their children to schools which do not teach anything.

a therapist said...

I'm concerned that a lot of comments about this letter (see comments in
as well) seem to think that people mention suicide to get attention.

Anyone who has suicidal thoughts, no matter what their severity, is clearly someone who needs to be evaluated by a mental health professional (thoughts, intent, plan, history, severity/duration of symptoms, just al regel achat)
and should not be dismissed as being dramatic.

Going straight to the economic issues is certainly something I would expect you to discuss here; nevertheless someone who is despairing and feels without hope needs help to try to understand any options; personal, financial, community or family supports.

There are sliding scale mental health opportunities in every community. Please don't dismiss this person's despair as drama.

JS said...

This is just insane. Our priorities as a community are so completely out of whack I can't imagine how they can possibly get worse - but, I'm sure I'll be surprised yet again. I mean, what's next? No haircuts to afford tuition? Skipping meals to afford tuition? Wearing rags to afford tuition?

I can't for the life of me understand how people have such large blinders on that they can't see the obvious solution right in front of them. When things are this bad, the tuition has to go. If nothing else, pull the kids out for 1 year, regroup, see what the results are, save money, get your financial house in order, and plan for next year. I have yet to hear evidence that a year (or more) in public school will kill someone or cause them to go off the derech.

Aside from the health issues associated with foregoing dental care, don't these people think about the psychological damage they're doing to their children? It's not healthy to grow up in a household where there is constant fighting. These children will be more likely to have bad relationships with their parents when they are older and with their future spouses.

Another thing is that we can't be stuck in the 1950's when it comes to gender roles. Men have to be willing to cook and clean. Women have to be willing to work. There's no such thing anymore in general society as "man's work" and "woman's work." And the single-earner household is nearly dead. As a community, we need to get with the times. Educate and encourage women to get good educations so they can work and earn salaries to support their families. Eliminate the notion that going to a shiur, for example, is more important than helping out with laundry or vacuuming.

This is all such basic stuff I can't believe I'm even writing it. It's hard to believe you have to actually tell someone public school is better that yeshiva + rotting teeth or depression to the point of suicidal thoughts.

JS said...

Another point: People need to think about why they had children in the first place. Was it merely to fulfill a mitzvah or populate the next generation? I don't think anyone says they're having a child so they can send them to yeshiva and summer camps and have a large wedding. No one has a child just so they can work so hard that they never see their child and be so miserable that the time they are around the child is spent in frustration and fights.

Isn't a loving relationship full of time spent together and creating memories and having meaningful conversations in part why people have children?

When tuition, camps, weddings, etc being to endanger the very reason you had a child, isn't it time to rethink and refocus?

Anonymous said...


How is this person supposed to pay for therapy?If he is making 80K the sliding scale won't be so cheap for him.Plus he'll probably end up seeing some girl who just graduated that will have little of value to offer him anyhow.

Anonymous said...

Anon: If this man has health insurance through his employment, then mental health counseling likely is covered (I think the mental health parity law requires coverage for mental health issues to the same extend physical issues are covered). He would have to go to someone on his insurer's network and that might mean not a frummie, and there might be co-pays or deductibles which could be a problem for him depending on his plan, but he likely has coverage.

Shoshana Z. said...

FYI - Room 613 is $79 (!) per month. We have also done the shluchim school and I have to say that I did not find it to be satisfactory. It really is geared to the children of shluchim factoring in the skills and knowledge that their parents have, etc.

Homeschooling really is the wave of the future. I wasn't an idealogue when I started. I just knew that the local schools were not a fit for us and that we could not pay the tuition. We are a family of six living on a tight, tight budget. Even without paying tuition, it is a financial challenge. But now that the kids are older my husband and I can both explore new income possibilities. Families who are struggling inside the school system have to start facing reality and finding alternatives they can live with.

Lion of Zion said...


"Was it merely to fulfill a mitzvah or populate the next generation? "

when i see families where one or both parents are never home, what else can be the answer? (i guess there is also good old peer pressure.)

personally i find פרו ורבו as a מצות עשה, especially when understood populary in its maximalist dimensions, one of the most difficult מצוות to understand.

(on the other hand, for all our whining and worrying, we still have it much better than our ancestors.)

a therapist said...

to those who asked-

why do you assume if it's sliding scale therapy it will be less than useful? There are some really good therapists working in clinics, hopefully with appropriate supervision by more experienced people. Whatever his income level, the base price at any clinic is significantly less than any private therapy. If someone is suicidal, they really need a trained person. And no (---ducking---), that person does NOT have to be frum to be helpful.

Shoshana Z. said...

a therapist--

You are right on the money. Mental health gets short shrift in the frum world. My husband is also a therapist and works for our city's human services agency. You are correct that there are many quality low or no cost options for people. And you are equally correct that a non-frum or even (---ducking---) non-Jewish clinician can be very helpful. Luckily this man is employed and should have options through an EAP at his workplace or a list of resources through his healthcare plan. I have not read the original article so maybe I'm speaking out of turn, but I do believe people use the word suicidal very lightly these days. Much in the way that people use the term Nazis to describe anyone they don't agree with. However, if anyone does believe that a friend/co-worker/spouse could be suicidal, they should try to get that person connected with professional help ASAP.

Miami Al said...

a therapist,

Someone who isn't Frum might be more helpful, because they'll understand the issues of peer pressure, without granting it the level of legitimacy a Frum therapist might make because they are in the system.

A Frum therapist might accept that all his "required" expenses are really required, while a non-Frum therapist might help him work through his issues from dealing with peer pressure from considering everything a requirement.

Simply understanding how many of his expenses are luxuries that he is sacrificing for his family might help him with his burden. When the local Hebrew Charter opened up, only a trivial number of Frum families opted for it, but the complaints and kvetching about tuition went away, because suddenly the parents felt that they were making a choice, instead of being forced into paying.

A therapist won't help his financial issues, but can help him deal with them, and how he handles social issues.

a therapist said...

Miami Al,
I completely agree. A frum therapist might or might not be able to separate out his or her own perspective on "necessary" expenses; a not frum or not Jewish therapist might be a little more objective.
Of course, you realize that any well trained therapist is taught to take their own perspective out of the mix; hard to do without proper supervision, which is why a clinic person may be a better choice than a private therapist who flies solo....

Anonymous said...

As an Orthodox FFB female the biggest problem is that children in the Yeshiva systme are not taught to use their brains. Yes, the letter of the law is important but sometimes the spirit of the law is even more important. This is what my husband and I impart our children everyday. Exercise judgement so you don't fall into this man's position. Can you afford a large family? Can you afford your house in the center of town? Should your wife work as well? Should all these expenses take precedence over your children's health? No, I don't think so.

frumskeptic said...

I can't get over that dental health being seen as secondary to camp.

Anonymous said...

Is there a reason why we can't have a reasonable conversation about the number of children families choose to have. If you can't afford more than 3 children, with the lifestyle (including private school, camp, etc...), the don't have more than 3 kids.

Life is made up of choices--you can't have your cake and eat it too. If you want to live a certain way (frum, synagogue membership, kosher, tuition, etc...) then you need tot make the choices that enable you to do that.

frumskeptic said...

Anon: "Is there a reason why we can't have a reasonable conversation about the number of children families choose to have"

The reason is, is because alot of todays JEw mentality revolves around the "Hashem will provide" concept.

Until people understand that Hishtadlus involves things other than davening and tehillim, nothing will change for the positive.

mlevin said...

Anonymous - these people would rather forgo dental care than camp or smaller bar mitzvah. Do you really expect to have a reasonable conversation about smaller family size?

Lion of Zion said...

"Of course, you realize that any well trained therapist . . ."

there are many uncredentialed and undercredentialed therapists plying their trade.

Shoshana Z. said...

Every state has a database of licensed therapists that can be accessed on-line. Ask any potential therapist about their training, credentials, license and if they are in good status.

Anonymous said...

Social expectations that assume everyone has access to wealth---theirs, their parents', etc.--- need to be reexamined.

Chaim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chaim said...

I think we are working with a fundamental misunderstanding as to why Yeshivas/Day Schools takes such a central role in the lives of Frum Jews. One of the articles in Lawrence Kelemen’s “What We Know About Jewish Education (2001 Torah Aura)points out that the primary reason Frum Jews send their children to Yeshiva Day Schools has nothing to do with religious education or Mesorah. The point is that Yeshiva attendance is MANDATORY if the parents want to have any standing in the community.

So the question isn’t private school vs. dental care, it can be better stated as a choice between being a member of the community vs. dental care. People in the Frum community are willing to do extraordinary things to remain in the community (think of Orthopraxy). Thus, Yeshiva is a “basic” necessity

The scary part is I am afraid that other things such as camp and extravagant weddings have morphed into a similar communal standing issue. This means people would be willing to trade even the most basic physical necessities to keep their children in camp.

The standard objection I have heard to this argument is based on Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.” In Maslow’s perspective in which the lower needs in the hierarchy MUST be met before a person can reach the higher level needs, it is hard to understand why people would trade their safety, (a much more foundational need), for communal acceptance (a self actualization and much higher need).

The answer I believe can be found in Aldefer’s ERG theory. Alderfer’s three levels, “Existence, Relatedness and Growth” are not stacked like Maslow. Alderfer says that people may be willing to sacrifice some of the more basic “Existence” needs to satisfy the “Growth” needs e.g. let their teeth rot so they can be part of the community. I believe this was the dynamic in play in the original (pre-entitlement era) Kollel ideal.

As long as Yeshiva is seen as a prerequisite for communal standing, I don’t see this changing.

Anonymous said...

I've read the comments to the "letter writer" on Matzav and the comments here and there is a world of difference in the basic outlook. The comments on Matzav are religious in outlook - tefillah, Moshiach - and also very compassionate. Many commenters say they are in exactly the same situation and they totally understand. The comments on Orthonomics are highly practical and rather disdainful of people who put frum values ahead of balancing the budget. In fact, none of you really seem to understand the religious way of thinking. I have often read on this blog criticism of lack of birth control in the religious community - why do they have so many children? When I have commented that birth control will never be accepted in the frum world, I have read comments like "why not?" The point I'm making is that people who are religiously motivated and people who are motivated by practical concerns will never be able to understand each other. Oh, the reason frum people will not accept birth control is not because of community pressure - it's because first, frum people believe it is a commandment from the Torah to have children, second, they LOVE children, and third, they are willing to live at a very minimal level to sustain a Torah life. Visit Lakewood and see how most families there live. You will see that they truly believe in a Torah life, and while these are not your interpretations of what the Torah requires, they are admirably consistent. They are not motivated solely or even primarily by community pressure. They are motivated by BELIEF.

Anonymous said...

I live in the type of community that you describe, and while I'm sure many of my friends and neighbors are motivated by BELIEF to have child after child, this is not always the case. Some who I know feel the pressure to keep up with Mrs. Klein, who "was in my graduating class and now has six compared to my five!", some are ashamed to stop or slow down, "Everyone will think that I don't have enough bitachon!", and some are motivated by other factors, such as, "If I have another kid, I have a valid excuse for not finishing my education/getting a more lucrative job/doing something other than running a playgroup in my house."
Yes, there are certainly idealists, but sometimes they don't exist in the same family, and certainly do not fill the streets and neighborhoods of this town. I personally don't feel that I have an obligation to run myself into the ground having child after child infinitely. I truly BELIEVE in a Torah life, but I also truly believe that chesed begins at home. It is a chesed for me to do everything I can to provide well for my family, and I also believe in quality over quantity -- five children will get more of my time, my love, and my resources.

Dave said...

Yes, that BELIEF is that the working people of America are too compasionate to let those children starve; even if the parents aren't willing to work to feed them.

Anonymous said...

Let's address a very simple issue:
Jewish education should not, morally, fall on the parents alone, just as the whole community is obligated to pay for a mikva. Just as the women who go pay fees to the mikva, but the whole community is expected to build it and maintain it for it is one of our religious institutions, everyone should support the schools. But when you set up a system where the parents have to pay all, then singles feel like, why should I help now, I have to save up to help later, and grandparents feel like, I already paid my share.
Next, we have to stop throwing money at many organizations - for example, there are wonderful charities out there, but is it fair for the community to sponser kiruv things or singles' shabbatones at the expense of day schools? Parents making 80K - even if they only have 4 kids in schools - explain their budget to me if the school charges 8K per child. Out of the 80K comes taxes, housing, food, car, clothes, the occasional toy or plumbing bill, utilities, life insurance...- where do they have 32K to give a school?

Miami Al said...

Anon 2:27, correct, it is a communal responsibility. However, when you look at the quality of education provided when it was provided by the community... well, you wouldn't be happy with it.

The community has an obligation to provide ALL Jewish children with the basics of religious instruction. The Day Schools attempt to provide a religious and secular "preps school" environment, which is certainly not an entitlement.

The "community" could hire a Rabbi and a Hebrew language instructor for free "tutoring" after school for a fraction of the cost spent subsidizing the kids in day school.

Down here, in a one Shul town, the Shul runs the Mikveh. In established areas, there are multiple ones, and they charge various rates. A Jewish owned spa has a private Mikveh service, that is combined with a massage and spa treatment, that charges a premium.

I'm pretty sure, no matter how poor you are, nobody will turn you away from the Shul Mikveh, even if you can't pay.

Nobody gets to go to the private spa for free.

Anonymous said...

it's because first, frum people believe it is a commandment from the Torah to have children, second, they LOVE children, and third, they are willing to live at a very minimal level to sustain a Torah life.

If they LOVE children, why do they jeopardize their children's health by refusing to pay for dental care? If they LOVE children, why do they leave them with paid caregivers so the fathers can sit in kollel? I don't think that the level of LOVE for children higher among frum people than among the general population.

Anonymous said...

If they LOVE children, why do they not recognize the all things, including children, come with an economic cost, and plan accordingly?

Shoshana Z. said...

Your comment was excellent and gave me a lot of food for thought.

aml said...

Anon 10:15: Please get down off your pedestal and quit pretending that you love your kids more than I love my own. You want to look down on me because I take a rational approach to family planning? Because I am realistic about what it takes to raise a child? Because I'm unwilling to sacrifice my children's health or education at the expense of a larger family I cannot possibly afford? If anything, these ARE acts of love.

Yes, I've been to Lakewood and I've seen what you speak of- ignorant, misbehaved children running around in rags. Exhausted mommies who are in poor health. Fathers with little dignity: able-bodied men unable and unwilling to provide for their families.

From my vantage point, none of this is LOVE. It is drinking the koolaid; it is failing to think for yourself.

And this blog, IMHO, is taking serious issues plaguing the Jewish community and bringing this to light- making sure they are not swept under the rug. You'd be doing yourself a favor to sit back and be humble- read and try to learn something from SL.