Wednesday, March 25, 2009


I recently returned from a public forum to discuss the "tuition crisis" that purportedly plagues our population. I had earlier this month skipped the panel discussion about the "youth-at-risk crisis," and didn't even mark on my calendar the town hall meeting to solve the "shidduch crisis." Much of the reason why I don't attend these assemblies (aside from the long-on-problem/short-on-solution nature of these events) is that my time has become so constrained due to my personal involvement, as a financial planner and investment advisor, in the current "financial crisis."

Mi crisis es su crisis.

I don't mean to minimize any of the above issues. They are all important, alarming, disheartening and in need of solutions. But when every unfortunate circumstance that deviates from the relative comfort to which we feel entitled is labeled a "crisis," I do need to register some sort of protest by lending some perspective to the proceedings.

The rise of Nazism in Germany was a crisis. The displacement of Orthodox Jewry in the middle of the last century was a crisis. Even the sweeping assimilation before the Holocaust can rightfully be termed a crisis.

But having the privilege of paying for your children to study God's Holy Torah from committed, knowledgeable teachers can hardly be called a crisis.

I understand full well the prodigious pressure on parents to provide for an Orthodox Jewish family. According to my calculations, the cost is twice what it was a generation ago (that' adjusted for inflation). All in all, a frum breadwinner must put his family in the top 5% of American earners—at least $150,000 a year—in order to simply break even.

Nonetheless, it would do us all a bit of good to acknowledge all the advantages that we have today, advantages that bury the crises of the past. In terms of material comfort we are way ahead of any previous generation at any time and place in Jewish history. What would accurately be described as poverty today was an above-average lifestyle less than a century ago here in the United States, not to mention Eastern Europe. My grandfather's comment on shtetl life that "if we hadn't fasted every Monday and Thursday, we would have starved to death" is a great one-liner. Once upon a time, not so long ago, it wasn't funny.

Academically, in terms of Torah study—both quantitatively and qualitatively—we are far ahead of nearly every generation since Sinai. As lamentable as it is to watch yeshiva kids abandon their heritage, it's nothing new. In fact, it's the relative absence of such behavior that renders it a crisis. Two generations ago, staying on the derech was the odd decision. America was the melting pot and many a Jewish immigrant abandoned mitzvos or watched helplessly as his children did. That over ninety percent of Orthodox Jewish American teenagers behave as Orthodox Jews and not as American teenagers testifies to the success of our chinuch.

Anti-Semitism is at historic lows. In the United States it is virtually non-existent. When was the last time you were afraid to be seen in public wearing a yarmulka? We are a very long way from the days when pogroms were a regular concern.

Again, this is not to say today's problems are not serious and that we should not seek solutions to continually improve our lot. It is certainly not to say that we should rest on our laurels. Nonetheless, to refer to every challenge that confronts contemporary Orthodoxy as a crisis puts us in a mindset of weakness, when we ought to instead be working from a framework of success and strength.


Blogger Mata Hari said...

I wish I could share your optimism (and I'm usually pretty good about being in denial and such) but I think anti-semitism is alive and well. Witness all the anti Israel bashing....and the acceleration of anti semitic incidents in Europe (not to mention attempted bombings in Riverdale).
Regarding the financial issues...accepted standards of living have gone up since the times of the shtetl. Nowadays, someone with a large family is faced with enormous expenses (aside from tuition), and unfortunately for people who've lost their jobs, things can reach crisis mode pretty quickly.

Thu May 21, 04:16:00 PM  

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