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Friday, August 17, 2012

“If I’m going to be poor, I might as well be poor in Israel”

Whenever the financial challenges of the American Orthodox Community are discussed, there is always a choir singing, "make aliyah."

Personally, it is a choir that I find frustrating and dismissive.  Frustrating because the opportunity to make aliyah is not unknown.  It is not a well kept secret.  Many larger communities even have regular aliyah workshops hosted by Nefesh B'Nefesh and are hosted by local Orthodox institutions and Federations.  If you live in a major Jewish center, you probably even know many families who have made aliyah, are making aliyah, or just landed on the most recent flight.  And dismissive because there are few magic bullets, the solution might not be a magic bullet at all, and there are plenty of legitimate reasons to stay in the country of your origin.  

Oceans of Joy has a post "If I'm going to be poor, I might as well be poor in Israel" , in honor of her family's one year aliyah anniversary.  I believe this post is a fantastic analysis of aliyah as a "fresh start" financially with a plan to be poor.  I'm sure most my readers have heard the joke, "How do you make a small fortune in Israel?  Arrive with a large fortune."  Avivah has noted that many recent olim are coming to Israel with a plan to be poor and to them she offers the advice, "seriously consider staying in the US."  

She writes:  "If you're struggling in the US, ask yourself why your're struggling.  Sometimes a change in location will open up new opportunities and possibilities that will help you shift your financial situation for the better.  But more often, the reasons you struggled in the US will come along with you.  Making aliyah will not make you or your spouse into a motivated go-getter, provide you with education or work experience in a given field, or give you a good work ethic.  It will not improve your marriage or your communication about tough subjects like money, or make it easier to be financially responsible and live within your means.  But if you can be honest about what got you to where you were and address these underlying issues that cause the problems for you in the past, there's every reason to think that you can have a more positive experience in Israel."

I don't want to steal the blogger's thunder, so head on over there for the full post and the comments.


JS said...

I've long that it cannot possibly be good for Israel, as a country, for people to emigrate there who have no job skills and will take advantage of social services. There's a tremendous irony in the people who do that while embracing the conservative ideology in this country against unskilled laborers coming over and bankrupting our country by using our public schools, hospitals, etc.

Anonymous said...

As someone getting the ball rolling toward making aliyah next summer, G-d willing: I don't know that the phrase necessarily means what you're interpreting it to mean. Obviously, aliyah should only be an option for those who simply want to live in Israel and not in chutz la'aretz. It's not the answer to the tuition crisis, because you'll just be trading in one set of financial problems for another. However, I have used the phrase before, and here's what I mean by it: My husband and I have done the right thing, getting our advanced degrees, working hard at our jobs, prudently budgeting so as to stay out of debt etc; unfortunately, given the state of the US economy, it's like we're going the wrong way on a moving walkway- no matter how hard we try, we just can't move forward in the direction we're trying to move in. Israel, we will likely be able to get somewhat ahead, although the definition of "ahead" over there is quite a bit different from what it is here. Either way, we're going to struggle unless we get some kind of miracle windfall. But we desperately want to live in Israel and have wanted to for a long time; maybe we can't have what we want financially, but at the very least, we can have something else that we want that, truth be told, is way more important to us than money anyway, and that is the zechut to live in our homeland. That's what I mean when I say it. It doesn't mean I am planning on being poor and staying that way, I do sincerely hope we can eventually climb up past where we are right now, but it's looking like that's not going to happen so soon no matter where we are, so we might as well at least be happy about where we live.

BaltimoreYid said...

My hope for the coming year is that all the half-wits that suggested moving to Israel as a financial solution will finally shut up.

Anonymous said...

Given all of Israel's problems, please do not burden Israel with more poverty by moving to Israel with no realistic way to earn a living there.

Zach Kessin said...

let me state that I made Alyah 9 years ago and am very glad I did. It has in general worked out pretty well for me.

Now I must say it is not a magic wand, and can be stresfull on a number of levels. If you marriage is on the rocks in Teaneck, and you move to Tel Aviv it will still be on the rocks, but now you will be in a new country where often you don't know how things work and may not have the support network that you had back in the USA.

Of course how well you will find a job (with or without Hebrew) depends on a lot of factors, including what your skills are. I am in IT and have been able to work in English and right now am doing pretty well. (Of course I also published two books on programming which helped).

First the good things:
1) Companies mostly are good with you being Shommer Shabbat
2) There is plenty of work in IT, if you have skills
3) Health Care is covered
4) Schools are cheaper, (if you go to a state school)
5) Buses and trains are pretty good
6) There is no #6
7) You can choose to live a wide range of communities (Urban, Rural etc)

The Bad:
1) If you have no skills in the USA you won't have skills in Israel
2) Many jobs will require solid Hebrew
3) Housing costs are crazy
4) Car costs are crazy
5) Taxes are higher

Anonymous said...

LOL about the good and the bad. Health care is covered, schools are cheaper and public transportation is good. Is it a huge surprise that taxes are higher?

Yannai Segal said...

I liked this insightful comment on the original article:

Another benefit financially to living in Israel vs living in the US- you can live in the “boonies” to save money and to homestead, and you still have access to jewish amenities like mikva, minyan, kosher food, and schools. Can’t usually have that in the US.

I think that this is the real reason that it may be easier to be 'poor' in Israel than in the US. There are plenty of places in the US where a family of 5 could do fine with a single low-skilled working-class breadwinner, but all of them are rural communities with no Jewish amenities and it would be all-but-impossible to live a meaningful Jewish life there. Jewish communities form around upper-middle class neighborhoods and the working class tend to get squeezed out.

Of course, this means that you are not going to be living in the Old City or in a trendy apartment in the German Colony, but in a not-so-nice area on the outskirts of town.

Zach Kessin said...

Is it a huge surprise that taxes are higher?
Of course not, but it can be frustrating. Hey I love living in Israel. But that comes from the fact that I accept the good and the bad.

Mark said...

Yannai - There are plenty of places in the US where a family of 5 could do fine with a single low-skilled working-class breadwinner, but all of them are rural communities with no Jewish amenities and it would be all-but-impossible to live a meaningful Jewish life there.

But I'm not sure that housing is the major prohibitive expense of Jewish orthodox life. I think Jewish day school tuition is. Especially for families with 5 kids like mine. Monthly tuition is a far larger expense for us than our housing cost (mortgage + taxes + insurance + maintenance) is.

Shabbat Shalom everyone!

aaron from L.A. said...

The really good thing about making aliya with no money or skills,is that ,you can always come back to the U.S. to schnor,especially if you have a wedding to make or an apartment to buy.Just think of it-- you can get all the money back that you gave to people knocking on your door when you were here!You can also be on the receiving list of Yad Eliezer,Meir Panim,Mesamche Lev,Yad Ezra V' shulamit,etc. how does a new career in "spongeh" sound?

Anonymous said...

Another plus to Aliya (although I recognize its a negative for some) is that your children will serve in the IDF (perhaps you will too). In the U.S. serving in the army is not a viable option for most orthodox kids and enlistment is not big for most middle class east coast white kids regardless of observance or religion so youth don't get all the benefits of arm serving in the armed forces like learning self-reliance, duty, honor, team work, how to push yourself physically and mentally and other training.

Commenter Abbi said...

I don't understand your "frustrated and dismissive" reactions. Dismissive of what? You don't really elaborate.

Will people make misinformed decisions? Will they get on that aliya flight thinking everything will be solved for them? Maybe. But many people stay in the US and continue to make foolish financial decisions even without making aliya.

For a family struggling with tuition and healthcare in the US, aliya is a sound financial consideration. Is it a guaranteed success? Not at all. But should NBN recruit in secret but not ever family will have a successful aliya? Staying in the US is also not a guarantee of financial success. If you've hit your 30s and have a couple of kids, and don't know that there's no such thing is a magic bullet for financial success, you have bigger problems than whether or not to make aliya.

Anonymous said...

Reading the comments on the blog Oceans of Joy, I saw what poverty there is, that people would actually think aliyah is the answer to their lack of parnassah. They would be compounding the problems of Israel and their own problems by making aliyah. The financial problems of the commenters on this blog pale in comparison to those of people with no parnossah and seven children.

Avi Greengart said...

"Poor here or there I yearn to make aliyah" is different from "Poor here or there, might as well make aliyah." The first attitudinally corrects for all the things that will make the second family miserable.

Mr. Cohen said...

Are the high prices in Israel because of the Arab boycott against Israel, or is there another reason?

anon said...

Israel is a small country with a proportionally huge defense budget. That is one of a few reasons taxes are so high.
We are a family of six living in Israel. I work in IT. My wife works very little, so she can be with the kids. On one income, we just make it, but with a very good standard of living. With a little more (which is likely to happen soon, God willing), we should be fine.
Besides, spiritual and national reasons which are enough for many people, there are plenty of mundane reasons to come here.
Israel is one of the healthiest and happiest countries in the world, and has one of the highest life expectancies. (Google it). It ranks way above the US in all of those areas.
There are plenty of challenges in moving to a different country. But, if you prepare well, think that you could handle it, and you want to. It is certainly something to consider. Definitely for young families, where the adjustment is much easier.
Even for young singles, the educational opportunities here are fabulous and affordable. Many communities are like families, and although it doesn't replace being near true family, it is not like you're alone. Most Israelis love to help each other (and offer unsolicited advice :)).

For best results:
come before your kids are 10. The younger the better.
Learn the language before you come.
Get an education for a lucrative profession (here or there).
Come with a positive attitude.
Be flexible.

Miami Al said...

Might be a true statement for people... apparently wealth = happiness is only true up to subsistence (starving people are not happy), after that, it is heavily driven by relative wealth, relative to those around you.

In Israel, you presumably can pick a neighborhood that you afford, so people will be making similar incomes to you, and therefore, you won't be "more poor" than your neighbor.

In American Orthodox Judaism, you pick a neighborhood based on how your wife dresses, then like/cheat your way into a mortgage, therefore there are many people in the communities that are distinctly middle class or even upper middle class that are "poor" because they live in an upper middle class neighborhood that they can't afford. Even people that his upper middle class incomes in their late 30s can feel that way if they moved into the neighborhood (with kids) in their mid-20s, and therefore lack any of the financial stability of their successful earlier peers.

Yannai Segal said...

But I'm not sure that housing is the major prohibitive expense of Jewish orthodox life. I think Jewish day school tuition is. Especially for families with 5 kids like mine. Monthly tuition is a far larger expense for us than our housing cost (mortgage + taxes + insurance + maintenance) is.

True, but an overall lower cost of living results in lower tuition because teacher salaries, operational expenses, and capital costs are much lower. Also, low cost-of-living (rural) areas tend to spend less per-pupil on public schooling and therefore have lower property taxes. Urban neighborhoods with low property values relative to their surroundings also offer significant property tax savings. Since the Orthodox community does not utilize public schooling, we should be doing what we can to minimize what we pay into the system.

On of the reasons Houston is being heralded as a great hope for Orthodox affordability is that the existence of the low-cost Fondren neighborhood where the Jewish community does not have to pay (through property taxes) for high-quality public schools they do not use.

JS said...


Even very high property taxes on the order of $20k is minimal, by comparison, to tuition of $60k for 4 kids in elementary school (and that's not even considering the significantly higher tuition rate for high school). And let's not forget even in expensive areas, most people do not have taxes anywhere near that.

Don't forget property taxes pay for more than just the public schools so the entire tax amount cannot be considered payment for a service that is not used. Besides, you do use it in the sense that higher taxes and better schools equate to a better neighborhood that good people want to live in which tends towards higher property values and nicer communities.

It's a mistake in my opinion to seek out cheap housing in neighborhoods with bad schools. It quickly turns into expensive houses propped up by Orthodox demand to be within half a mile of a shul with bad schools. It severely limits communal options should public schools gain broader social acceptance (not to mention personal options should an individual have a child that needs or is better suited for public school).

Anonymous said...

I disagree that these costs don't matter, they are a huge issue.

Look, for an individual family, 20k in property tax is one third the 60k in tuition, so it looks crazy. But communally, they both may be a wash.

If you model the Orthodox Community as the entity, and look at it's GDP, taxes go nearly 100% out of the community... sure you benefit from nicer parks and a police presence, but with almost 0 Orthodox police officers, those generous salaries and pensions are leaving the community.

When you look at school costs, about 85% is in salaries, mostly for other Frum Jews. So 15% leaves the community (though some vendors may be community members), plus maybe 25% of the salary number (taxes leave), so really only around a third of the tuition money actually leaves the community, around 20k.

The "bleed" from Orthodoxistan is roughly the same in your 20k property taxes and 60k tuition.

But higher cost of living is a multiplier EVERYWHERE. There is an informal policy to pay Rabbi's a "breadwinner" salary to support their family in the community without a second income (assuming free tuition). Raising housing costs by $10k means increasing Rabbi pay by $15k (yes they get parsonage, so it should be tax free, but the last dollar out is taxed, and the parsonage levels are usually percentage based, not reality based).

The driver of tuition is the cost/student and the collection percentage.

The collection percentage is inversely proportional to the scholarship levels, so as the pricing exceeds "affordable" this plummets driving costs up further.

The driver of the cost/student side of the equation is salaries.

The driver of salaries for these monopsony hired positions is the cost of living in the area, it's not competition for this labor with the outside workforce.

Nobody running a Yeshiva budget ACTUALLY thinks that their staff could leave for the private sector, it's a desire to pay a "fair" salary.

Yannai Segal said...


Miami Al said it better than I could.

Anyways, I think the point of the original comment I quoted was that it's not just socialized tuition costs that make it easier to be 'poor' in Israel. Socialized kashrut, eruv, mikva and other Orthodox lifestyle requirements makes those amenities available in 'the boonies', where the cost of living is very low. In North America desirable low-cost fum-amenity-filled neighborhoods suffer rapid price escalation (as you pointed out), but in Israel there is an infinite supply.

in the vanguard said...

I hate to break it to you but being "rich" or "poor", as Pirkei Avot tells us (if you think the sages have something worthwhile to teach you) - is nothing but a mindset. You can have much money and be poor, or very little money - and be exceedingly wealthy!