Making Jewish life easier

Making Jewish life easier

Last year I wrote a series of essays on the need to monitor the students who go to Israel for the year of study abroad. I noted that few Jewish experiences are as inspiring as a year in Israel after high school. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be a free-for-all and there is a need to steer some of the young people away from Ben Yehuda nightlife and into social outlets that are more rewarding.

My second daughter has been preparing to go to Israel for the year, and I wish that my biggest worry were merely about her being monitored. Unfortunately, with just days left before she was due to depart, we received a message from the seminary where she was registered that, because of financial constraints, they are closing the school. We are scrambling to find a replacement.

truth regardless of consequences
It’s a strange and alarming predicament to be in (and if anyone out there has a suggestion for a quality alternative that still has room so late in the game, you know where to find me). It’s made me ponder the enormous challenges that face Orthodox parents, in particular, as they struggle to raise their kids. Is it really supposed to be this complicated?

First, there is the enormous cost of tuition that all of us struggle with. It’s not farfetched to say that approximately one-third of my income goes to paying for my kids to attend Jewish schools and universities. For a family with nine children, thank God, the burden is considerable, and is made all the heavier by America’s punitive measure against parents of faith who are punished for wanting to give their children a values-based education. We pay high property taxes (we live in New Jersey, which has the highest of all), and not one penny is allowed to subsidize even secular subjects like math at our kids’ parochial schools.

Then, there is the cost of Jewish camps, Jewish after-school activities, bar and bat mitzvahs, kosher food, religious celebrations, and, God willing, weddings. Look, I’m not complaining. Would that the biggest problems in all of our lives were purely financial. But after a while, you begin to wonder: How are we supposed to afford all of this?

And the challenges are not just about money. In secular homes, life seems pretty straightforward. You have, usually, two to three kids, max. They go to school around the corner, finish high school, choose a university, graduate, get a job, date for about eight to 10 years, and, after they have some money, settle down (one hopes), and get married.

In the Orthodox Jewish world it’s much more complicated. Your kids often go to schools that are quite a hike from home, which involves logistical nightmares related to transportation. Suddenly, you’re not only a chauffeur, but a management guru coordinating complicated carpool schedules. And you don’t have two or three kids; you usually have five or six. Then, when your kids finish high school, it’s not simply off to a university. You have to help them find the right seminary or yeshiva in Israel first, with a whole new round of coordination challenges.

When they return and enter college, you are opposed to dating recreationally (as you should be). Your kids date to marry. And when they marry, young, they usually have nothing to start life with. So you have to help them get started, which is a pleasure, of course, but just adds to your existing burden.

And these series of complications do not even factor in how, when you travel on a family vacation, you can’t even eat at a restaurant. You have to bring pots and pans (which is why for many years we owned an RV, so we could bring a kitchen with us) and frozen bread and meat.

And we do this because we believe in this way of life and because we see with our own eyes how, amid all these complications and colossal expenses, it removes far greater complications. Since our kids are raised with real values and divinely inspired wisdom, they make healthier and more mature decisions in life that can usually translate into a more sturdy marriage, a more balanced and community-centered life, and a more spiritual and less materialistic existence.

Like many of you, I wouldn’t change it for the world. I would not only die for my Judaism, I would even live for it. I will accept all these challenges and break my back to see my commitment through to my very last breath.

Even so, it should be easier. In our technologically advanced world in which everything is being streamlined and communication has become effortless, leading a religious Jewish life should be just a wee bit less complicated.

The fact that it is not is a testament to the lack of coordination among world Orthodoxy. If Jewish philanthropists can come together to offer a free trip to Israel to every Jewish young person on earth, then surely we can make attending Jewish day schools more affordable and kosher food more widely available. (It is available, to some extent, because of the miracle of organizations like the Orthodox Union, but still not enough.)

Here are a couple of suggestions.

1. Orthodox Jewry must team up with our Catholic and evangelical counterparts to put real pressure on our politicians to make subsidies for parochial schools a reality. Our tax dollars should be used to pay for our children’s secular education in our private schools without there being any threat to the separation of church and state. It is our money, after all, and we’re not asking the state to pay for Bible studies.

2. A global fund must be created to give every Jewish child on earth $5,000 per year toward tuition for a Jewish school or university.

3. Orthodox leaders should come together to achieve a consensus on respectable Jewish weddings that do not spill over into the elaborate and overly materialistic. While this is important for its own sake, as it is a reflection of true Jewish values, it also serves the purpose of parents not feeling they have to mortgage their homes in order to keep up with the Schwartzes.

4. In California, which I am visiting, the Coffee Bean, a mainstream and highly successful franchise run by my friend Sonny Sassoon, has made its hundreds of branches entirely kosher. This means that you can find kosher cakes, sandwiches, and bagels all over the West Coast of the United States. The American Jewish community should build on this model and create at least two national franchises, catering to the mainstream non-Jewish public, that are kosher so that Jewish families can eat wherever they travel.

None of this is impossible. Creating the State of Israel was a lot more difficult, and it came about because of one visionary Jew who said, “If you will it, it is no dream.”