Wednesday, January 30, 2008

We Have Met the Enemy... And He is Us!

A cursory reading of the Jewish "populist media" (blogs, letters to the editors of newspapers, etc.) would seem to indicate that there are a plethora of "crises" plaguing the Orthodox Jewish community. From truly important subjects such as child molestation and shidduchim to the downright silly (remember the "Gedolim card crisis?") we seem to abound in crises.

Yet, after giving the matter some thought, I began to wonder how many of these situations are truly a crisis caused by external forces and how many of them are self-inflicted.

An example of a crisis from an external force would be the case of an agunah (in the classic sense, not the modern one). A woman whose husband went on a business trip and never returned is in a crisis situation which was caused by an external force -- her husband's disappearance.

The shidduch crisis, on the hand, is either entirely self-inflicted, or else greatly exacerbated by our own actions. It's a crisis that doesn't have to be -- if we wanted to change our behavior, we could either eliminate or greatly ease the problem. I'd like to take a look at several of the "crises" that face the Orthodox community and see whether or not there really is a true crisis, or one that is caused by our own behavior.

Shidduch Crisis

Since I brought it up already, I might as well start with the shidduch crisis. There are those who state that the shidduch crisis is mainly a demographic one – that there are simply more boys available for marriage than there are girls. That may be the case, or it may not. To be honest, I don’t know. I’ve seem some people who try to explain the problem mathematically, but I’m not certain that the math holds up to scrutiny. (To be fair, I’m not certain that it doesn’t either – I haven’t given the matter a really close look.) However, even if the problem is largely demographic, there is a great deal that we are doing to exacerbate the situation. We “check out” our prospective dates looking for the silliest of things (do they have plastic tablecloths on Shabbos? How would you describe the girl’s communication skills? Loafers vs. laces? How heavy is her mother?(!!!)) Instead of checking for pertinent matters (is s/he a kind person? What type of sense of humor do they have? Is there a family history of genetic illness [yes, IMHO, that’s a legitimate question]). We have singles that don’t go on dates because the prospective date doesn’t score a 100% on some odd, quirky test that they develop. And, heaven forbid they should even *consider* someone from outside their immediate grouping. And the matter is only getting worse, not better. We’ve come to the point where there are organizations that are *offering money* to people who set up boys with girls who are older than they are.

What we need to do is to make it *easier* for people to date each other, not harder. If Rabannim want to ban something, they should ban silly questions as a pre-date condition. Seriously… there are certain questions that a prospective employer cannot ask (in the United States) when evaluating a potential candidate for a job, right? Well, why not have a set of questions that you are not allowed to ask (or, even better, a limited set of questions that you are allowed to ask) of a potential shidduch before the first date? Who knows? The couple might even find that after the first date they are interested enough to overlook the fact that their prospective in-laws use plastic plates on Shabbos. Maybe upon seeing the prospective bride’s face, the young bachur won’t care as much about the fact that her father doesn’t wear the brand of hat that he prefers (or even one at all). By banning “stupid questions” before the first date, I think that it will be much easier for couples to meet and make the necessary compromises to get married. It will also allow couples to focus on the factors that are truly important and not the stupid factors that often stand in the way of shidduchim.

Conclusion: Possibly self-inflicted. But even if it isn’t, we certainly are doing a great deal to exacerbate the situation.

Tuition Crisis

I was originally going to lump this together with the Parnassah crisis, but I decided against it, as I realized that they really were two separate issues.

I’m not going to spend a great deal of time on this because, quite simply, I’ve never run a school, have never tried to run a school, and aside from the very basic generalities, don’t know what it takes to run a school (from a financial standpoint). All I know is that my kids’ schools charge a *large* amount for tuition. I know that the school has to pay the salaries of the staff and employees. They have to either pay rent or for infrastructure. They have to maintain various forms of insurance. Books, computers, furniture and other supplies do not magically appear – they cost money. Schools have very real expenses.

But do we need so many schools? I’ve often wondered if schools could combine operations and save money in the process. Do we truly need twenty Bais Ya’akovs in Brooklyn? Could not two or more of them combine their resources, buy a larger building and save money? My guess would be that they could (although I invite all the education experts out there to correct me if it’s not really feasible – I could easily be wrong) but that they don’t want to. We’re currently in a stage where we are *increasing* the number of schools, not decreasing them. New schools are added for a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s because a staff member (or a group of parents) of a school don’t like what they have in their current school and break away to start a new one. Sometimes it’s because parents can’t find a school to fit their narrow hashkafah. But rarely, I think (in New York anyway) is the reason a logistic one (overcrowding in an existing school, no existing school geographically close, etc.).

So, is it possible to combine schools? For example, do we need 10 girl’s schools in Boro Park within a five block radius? What if (just to pick two names at random as an example – if these don’t work, then just pick other names) Bobov and Pupa combine their schools? Seriously. Have them teach a core curriculum and have separate classes that the girls will go to for studies in their own chassidus. They girls will have chumash classes, navi classes and whatever else combined. At some point in the day, the Bobov girls will have classes in Bobov chassidus and the Pupa girls will have classes in Pupa chassidus. Secular studies can certainly be combined as well. This same approach could also be applied to the myriad of boys’ yeshivas that are out there as well. I’m not advocating a one-size-fits-all approach – obviously *that* won’t work. But this much diversity seems to produce an a large degree of duplication of work and monetary wastage.

Of course, there is also the issue that in many sectors of the frum community, education today is not what it was twenty years ago. Extracurricular activities, services for special needs children (disabled, learning impaired, special education, etc.), education in computers and other “modern” subjects that didn’t exist years ago, and probably half a dozen other extras that I missed have all driven up the cost of education. And while it is true that the state probably pays for a portion of these, I have little doubt that the schools cover a fair portion of it as well. Since today’s schools provide far more (in terms of services) than they did years ago, it makes sense that tuition costs will rise faster than the rate of inflation. However, to reiterate what I said at the beginning of this post – I don’t really know enough to make an educated guess as to what it really costs to run a school. These are just my thoughts on the matter, and I could easily be well off-target in my assumptions. I invite readers who do have education backgrounds to chime in.

Conclusion: I don’t know if this is truly a crisis or if it is self-inflicted. But I think we can probably do more to alleviate the situation.

Parnassah Crisis

As anyone who reads the “Readers Write” section of the Yated knows, there is a parnassah crisis. People simply cannot seem to earn enough money to support their families in a (minimally) middle-income lifestyle. Part of the problem could certainly be attributed to the “Tuition Crisis” listed above. Requiring parents to pay $8000 (on average) per kid for six kids will put a crimp in the budget of all but the wealthiest of people. But there seems to be more to the problem than that.

Part of the problem, IMHO, stems from the fact that higher education is devalued and discouraged (and, in many cases, outright prohibited) in large segments of the frum community. While one certainly can do well without a college education, the fact remains that it is far easier to earn a larger salary with a college education (and even more with an advanced degree). While it is true that correlation does not prove causation, there is still an undeniable correlation between the amount of education that one has and the amount of money that they earn. By cutting off higher education, you are limiting large sections of the population to low salaries. Couple that with the larger than average size families that are common in Orthodox families and you have a devastating combination.

By prohibiting higher education, we are, in effect, forbidding people from entering certain professions. Law, medicine, dentistry, therapy, nursing, accounting, finance and many other professions are utterly impossible (usually with good reason) to get into without a Bachelor’s degree at minimum (and, in many cases, an advanced degree). By discouraging (or outright prohibiting) people from making the investment in these fields, we are preventing them from reaping the rewards. In addition (and I know this is a bit off track), we hurt ourselves as a community by telling people that they cannot enter these fields. We *need* frum doctors, lawyers, therapists, etc. We *need* professionals who fully understand the unique religious needs of our community. If they truly had their way and there were no frum doctors, etc., we’d be a much poorer community – and I don’t mean monetarily.

Of course, there are some sectors in frum society that go beyond this. Not only do they think that secular education is bad, they disagree with the entire notion of working for a living to begin with. They feel that it’s better for a man to sit and learn all day rather than work. As such, they put extreme pressure upon men to stay in beis midrash and learn, even if they aren’t really suited to the task. This is especially true in Israel, where in order to work, you have to serve in the army. Since, in many segments, buchrim are prevented from working from working, they can’t even gain minimal employment, let alone professional. And naturally, if people can’t work, then poverty will set in.

Does this mean that I think that everyone should go to college and pursue a Bachelor’s (or advanced degree)? Of course not. Not everyone is suited for college. In addition, some people can make a nice living without a higher education. However, not everyone can do so – and, in fact, I would argue that most people can’t. There are only so many plumbers, for example, that a community can support.

Does this mean that I think that no one should learn in beis midrash? Of course not. But extended learning in beis midrash should be restricted to those who show an aptitude for it, are willing to make the necessary sacrifices for it, and who want to become the gedolim of the next generation. Just as in the secular world, where entrance to Ph.D. programs are restricted to those who have the aptitude to succeed in the field, who are willing to make the necessary sacrifices for advanced intensive study, and who are prepared to spend the rest of their professional lives in the fields that they are studying, so too we should make the same restrictions in the yeshiva world. As a community, we should work to produce people who are poskim and experts in halacha. But we should only be supporting those who are actively in pursuit of that goal, not people who are merely benchwarmers in yeshivas.

Conclusion: Largely self-inflicted.

I hadn’t counted on this post being so long, and there are still several crises that I haven’t even gotten to address yet. I’ll have to save those for a future post.

What do you think? Do you agree with what I said? Do you think that I’m totally off base? Let me hear from you.

The Wolf


Ezzie said...

I think (hope?) that to some extent we inherently recognize that these are self-inflicted. That's why we see so much discussion about them: Because the assumption is that we can do something about them. The problem is more when people either refuse to acknowledge that it's self-inflicted, or more commonly, they argue that we have to have those self-inflictions for a reason, so now we need to come up with some other way out of the mess.

For example: We "need" to ask all those questions before the couple goes out, because otherwise they're wasting time on dates that are not shayach. Or we "need" to have different schools, because there's this or that difference between them. The problem is often the increasingly narrowed view everyone gets of what their "Judaism" is, and they no longer recognize that those minute differences do not require increased separation or preclude a young couple from figuring out for themselves what they can/can't deal with.

The Hedyot said...

Regarding the shidduch issues, I agree wholeheartedly with your perspective, but I'd just like to put a bit of a finer point on it: The problem is not that people check up for the stupidest things or ask about the most inane details; it's that they actually care about those stupidities and inanities more than real substance and character. The inquiring of such trivialities is just the logical result of one who has such a value system.

Baal Habos said...

Not only is it self-inflicted, but the community tries to make it look like it's heroic when it addresses the issues. This is called Munchausen Syndrome - See here and here

Orthonomics said...

Part of the "parnasah crisis" is the rule of time. Late into the job market, late into saving, late into buying a home, etc, etc, makes it impossible to catch up (even if you land a great salary).

I agree that these crisis are largely self-inflicted and we only make them worse.

Orthonomics said...

BTW-We are thinking along the same lines recently. Did you see the Jewish Press article on poverty that listed causes (large families, high cost of Jewish living-that I would argue is artificially inflated, and kollel)? The solutions given did not address the causes. I think only cold reality will solve the issues.

Commenter Abbi said...

I also think who exactly the "self" in "self-inflicted" is needs a closer look as well.

Particularly in Israel, the frum community is a tightly controlled community. One would think big rebbanim would have great influence in solving these problems rather quickly, the way they solve the "tznius crisis" or the "cell phone crisis".

But when it comes to actually controlling something ugly and harmful to the community (violence and parnassah problems instantly come to mind) all of the sudden, there's really no control, nothing really to be done, changes have to take time, blah blah blah. So which is it?

Either rabbanim have control or they don't.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree with your solution to the tuition crisis. Combining the schools (I was given the impression that you wanted to "clean the desktop of unused icons", is that what you meant?), wouldn't solve any problems. The student:teacher ratio would still need to be kept down to at least 1:20 to be really effective, IMHO.
There are K"AH just too many children in Boro Park alone to make this a savy move.
The schools would still need to pay just as many salaries as before. They would still need to finance building costs and upkeep (and a larger building wouldn't reduce those costs in any way).
I don't have any solutions to said crisis, but I think that yours doesn't quite fit the bill either.

G said...

It would appear that the issues of tuition, parnasah, education and kollel are all tied together.

Increased kollel membership and decreased education mean those famalies are more likely to be strapped for cash right off the bat.
Regardless of financial status most of said famalies receive breaks on ther tuition. Sometimes bec they truly do not have the money and sometimes bec whoever is putting up money for them to live on does not see why they should pay full tuition if the couple can get a break.
The ripple is increased tuition for others to make up the shortfall, which causes those families added financial burden.
However, one who works full time and whose salary is in the same ballpark as the kollel couple's (real or not) is not given the same treatment.

I honestly think that the community at large is fine with the idea of subsidizing costs for those who devote their lives to klei kodesh, but everything has a limit and eventually one has to look out for one's own family.

I have both family and close friends who work on the financial side of schools and tuition is going to be the thing that brings it all to a boil in the not so distant future.

Anonymous said...

One thing all the "crises" you mention have in common is they stem in large part from an attempt to greatly narrow the definition of Judaism far beyond the "arba amot shel halacha"

Lion of Zion said...


"separate classes that the girls will go to for studies in their own chassidus."

do they really teach chasiddus in the girls' schools?


"I don't have any solutions to said crisis"

perhaps because there isn't really a "crisis" in the sense there is something fundamentally wrong that can be addressed.

for the short term, i think transparency is the best bet for lowering tuition a bit