The Tragic Social Tsunami Facing our Community


financialBy Avrohom Birnbaum

Rabbi David Ozeri touched a raw nerve on Motzoei Shabbos at the recent Agudah Convention. While he hailed the amazing accomplishments of our community, especially in the areas of chessed, he bemoaned the fact that our rabbeim and teachers, the holy people who serve as our shlichim to be mechanech our children, are woefully underpaid.

Rabbi Ozeri told a poignant story that he himself witnessed as a young child attending Yeshiva Toras Emes in Brooklyn. He was once in the office working the mimeograph machine, when he overheard a conversation between a rebbi and a member of the administration. The rebbi said, “I understand that I will not be able to get my paycheck for the upcoming Yom Tov of Sukkos, but could I at least have five dollars of my salary so that I can buy an esrog?”

Rabbi Ozeri lamented the fact that our best and brightest rabbeim and moros are looking for other jobs because they simply cannot sustain their families on their salaries. He especially bemoaned the fact that when it comes to the expenses of making a simchah, particularly marrying off a child, these idealistic individuals are reduced to begging. He quoted Rav Shimon Schwab zt”l, who once said, “Is this a way to treat the greatest heroes of our generation? We have turned them into shnorrers!”

The solution to this terrible problem, Rabbi Ozeri pointed out, should not and cannot be found by turning to the schools or the parents. As it is, the schools are barely surviving in today’s financial environment. Parents are perhaps even worse off. Multiple tuitions and the other costs of frum life today leave the vast majority of parents unable to pay even the tuitions that are presently in place. They certainly cannot undertake more.

“Today,” Rabbi Ozeri said, “we live in a time when there are very wealthy frum Jews. Whereas once upon a time a millionaire was something very unique in our communities, today we have billionaires!” He framed the problem as a pressing need that we, as a community, would have to bang our heads together to try to solve.

Every word that Rabbi Ozeri said was emes la’amito, absolutely true. There is, however, something going on today that goes far beyond what Rabbi Ozeri related. Rightfully or wrongfully, our rabbeim and teachers have always been at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to wages. They have never been properly compensated for their meleches hakodesh. This is not something new to America. It was the same in pre-war Europe. Not only that, but there is precedent in Chazal for this. In a few weeks, we will read how Yaakov Avinu split up Shimon and Levi as punishment for their campaign against the people of Shechem. The punishment was that he made the descendants of Shimon poor people, sofrim and “melamdei tinokos,” who generally have to travel around in order to earn money.

Again, let me not be misunderstood. Rabbi Ozeri was one hundred percent right, and we should and must give our rabbeim a living wage. It is the most basic obligation that any community has in regard to its klei kodesh.

The Current Problem…Not Limited to Mechanchim

There is, however, something happening in Klal Yisroel today that has never before occurred. It is something that we, as a community, cannot afford, because the fallout and damage may be irreparable.

Until now, the people we would call the “middle class” – the lion’s share of those in our communities – were making it. Sometimes it was with difficulty, but they were pulling through. It is hard to define “middle class,” but for the purposes of our discussion, let us define it as those who are generally able to get through the month, pay their bills, raise their children, and perhaps even take a vacation here and there. We wouldn’t call them wealthy, but they were making a parnassah, earning a living wage, paying their mortgage and getting through the month. The salaries that these people earned would perhaps, in the non-frum world, be considered an upper-middle-class wage.

Today, we have reached a point where even people who can make it through the month when it comes to regular expenses cannot even get close to paying for the weddings of multiple children. Weddings here are not only classified as the wedding night, but rather the whole package, from the vort to the jewelry, the clothing, setting up the young couple, and of course the aufruf and sheva brachos.

The Dirty Little Secret

Yes, certainly, even in past generations, middle class people needed to borrow some money to get thought the crunch time of making a wedding, but they were, by and large, able to do that and eventually pay back what they borrowd. Today, with large families, multiple weddings, ever-increasing expenses and the raising of the bar, a large segment of average, hard-working households – even those with two incomes – cannot make even “budget” weddings without having to come on to other people for help. I am not talking about asking a parent or a relative for help. Rather, a large percentage have to come on to the general community, either by having someone asking for them or, believe it or not, in many instances, by having to go around to the homes of the wealthy, asking for themselves.

The dirty little secret in many of our communities – and yes, it is a dirty little secret – is what Rav Shimon Schwab said: “Is this a way to treat the greatest heroes of our generation? We have turned them into shnorrers!”

Today, this is not limited to the families of our heroic and valiant rabbeim. It applies to our heroic and valiant middle class, tayere Yidden who are working to the bone to sustain their families, and then, finally, when it comes to marrying off a child, it is a nightmare.

The Tragedy: Middle Income Families Reduced to Begging

Although those who are younger or not involved in the chasunah scene do not realize what is transpiring today, anyone who has made a wedding or is involved with those making weddings realizes that it is very difficult for anyone but the wealthy to make multiple weddings in fairly close succession and survive without having to beg.

Reducing the average family to begging or borrowing way beyond their means, or resorting to all kinds of get-rich-quick schemes, is a recipe for social disaster. We, as a community, are on a collision course with a social tragedy, a tragedy that threatens the very stability and viability of the majority of frum families in our communities.

There are no easy answers, but it is our obligation to come together and devise strategies to deal with this in a responsible way.

There has been much discussion recently about leadership. If there is anything that requires leadership, it is ensuring that rov minyan and binyan from those in our communities are not reduced to being shnorrers, because our communal focus is too preoccupied with other less pressing items rather than trying to address the most burning needs of Klal Yisroel. This requires real rabbinic and lay leadership. Slogans won’t do. Innovative ideas will have to be devised if we want to ensure that most of us don’t plunge over the cliff. Otherwise, chas veshalom, we may be reduced to a situation where, in addition to the scores of Yidden from Eretz Yisroel who we see collecting daily in our shuls, many of our own neighbors may join the collection scene.

That would be an unforgivable tragedy, especially because it is one that could and can be avoided with principled leadership.

This article first appeared in Yated Ne’eman.

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  1. Remember a few years ago when Gedolei Israel tried to make takanas to simplify simchas ,do away with vorts,etc.This was pretty much ignored throughout the frum American world. I remember one gadol warning of dire consequences if things didn’t change.Instead the materialistic spending has only increased. Baruch H’ we made aliyah and left this behind!!!

  2. I respectfully disagree with the author in regard to how much money we need to raise for weddings. You see, chinuch is and always should be our number 1 priority. More and more people are turning away from this career which is as necessary for our children as is air to breathe. Understand, after being in chinuch for many years, I can assure you nobody goes into this field for money. They do so for a pure love of being mechanach yiddisher kinderlich. Do we not understand that we must provide properly or our children are at risk of not having the right people help mold them? On the other hand, the way the whole chasunah package has exploded into is the problem. If people would understand that weddings can be nice affairs without abnormal frills, things would be different. “Everyone has to follow the trend.” In our days it took years (and maybe never) for women to walk away with the jewelry that a Kallah of today gets. And the Bachurim are golden and deserve to be supported in the most fashionable way. There definitely should be a gemach to help people if they have a financial need to meet their chasunah obligations, but what standard have we created? The best of everything for our dear children. We can not watch them struggle in any way. And we think we are doing our children a favor. And this lifestyle continues as we provide for them the nicest homes and children gear. We must do everything “right” so all the “right” people will be impressed. Is our over generous attitude, in the name of loving our children, helping them to develop into self-sacrificing, caring individuals. I was once told that a little struggling is very healthy. Yes, we should definitely help those in need, but are some of us creating that need because society has set a standard which is almost impossible for most frum people to achieve. Of course we should help kollel couples to learn for as long as we can. To me it has always been the ultimate zechus. But when my husband sat and learned I had minimal of everything and was happier than some of the children of today.
    The first things we must do is to change the standard, which is very difficult unless the kehillah is under the strict guidance of a Rosh Yeshivah or Rebbe which they will adhere to. I have been at such weddings in Boro Park and I must tell you Kol Hakavod. The richest people- the simplest affairs as per instructions. In conclusion, we need for wealthy individuals to donate to yeshivas to help with rising costs-many which already do. Secondly, there should be an organized fund to help those for basic wedding needs.

  3. There is no one solution to this problem. There are multiple factors which need to be addresses that will help alleviate the problem.
    1. Chasuna hall – in Lakewood you can make a beautiful chasuna for under 15k complete (everything included). Every major community should speak to their gavirim to build a chasuna hall & work with a local caterer, musicians, flowers, etc. to create a similar situation to that in Lakewood
    2. Gifts need to be given at a bare minimum. Is it really necessary to spend $600. on leather machzorim for the kalah?? Each community should work with their Rabbonim in changing these standards even for those who can afford it.
    3. Housing – gavirim should help to create new developments with affordable/subsidized housing.
    4. Gavirim should work with their local elementary schools to help subsidize tuition for middle (not lower) class parents. Same applies to summer camps.

    The above are a few major areas that we need to focus on to help alleviate the middle class financial burden and stress.

    Every community and Klal Yisroel as a whole has sufficient gavirim to work with. This should become a national effort, so that those who can help will understand how dire the Matzav is for the middle class. I know I’m one of them & I sit next to you in shul, at Simchas, etc.

  4. Two more points: 1. Also when it comes to Mechanchim we reached a point where it’s ‘cheap labor’ – not in the negative sense ח”ו, but just talking numbers, and wages are naturally effected by demand. 2. Although the Takanos were largely ignored, there were many positive outcomes, as the one-man-band became much more acceptable, as well as other reductions that became plausible rather than embarrassing.

  5. It is not sufficient or productive to just make across the board takanos that say what you “cannot” do, without trying to implement a system where families are able to be provided with opportunities with “chasunah packages” showing them what they “can” do. Perhaps, part of the solution is to emulate the way that some large chassidic groups have tackled this problem. They have not forced all to to make “takana” weddings but what they have done is make comprehensive takana packages that save each side many many thousands of dollars. The package consists not just of the wedding hall, but also themusic the photographer, the Jewelry, the other presents and the house furniture. With their ability to buy in bulk they literally enable mechutanim to pay half of what it would otherwise cost. If in places like Lakewood they would have sufficient communal organization and rabbinic backing this type of thing could be a tremendous help.

  6. How can we expect to solve this problem when the people of today’s generation are living with 3 cars and 3 vacations a year and then we wonder why we have no money. Isn’t it common sense that food, clothing and tuition for our children come first?


    Tips for you include:
    1)sit down with your spouse today and make a budget. Keep an account of every expense and both of your incomes so you know where you are holding. Example includes if a person eats out only once a week instead of his usual twice a week then by next year he will have enough money saved to pay for his children’s tuition.

    2)don’t count your money and hide your credit cards and debit cards behind regular other cards (library or insurance etc…) this way you will come to stop spending tons of extra money by throwing your plastic card at cashier’s and think its free money.


  7. The “elephant in the room” that is being ignored is: How come klei kodesh feel a need “to keep up with the “gevirim?Answer:because the gevrim were often the ones in who were mediocre /avg. ones ack in school,while the klei kodesh who have sacrificed so much to be “givers” (and who followedthe guidance of their rebbeim)were superior to them and possibly ought to be, but are made to feel inferior and are”ranked” below them

  8. Flatbush, that idea for a chasuna hall is nice but I don’t know if it will work OOT. There isn’t the volume of kallas and a lot of people make chasunas in Lakewood because either there is already a lot of family there, or the machutanim ask. Sometimes as a precondition.

    And yes, I think we need to start living more simply. Though some of us are already doing that.
    A BIG problem is the demand for support. For many of the ratzon is there but the means are not.
    Support was not a given 30 years ago. Why? My parents and in laws, bnei Torah and talmidei chachamim and their wives, had profound chashivus haTorah.