Posts Tagged 'Affordability'

From Entitlement to Enlightenment: The Plague of Living Beyond Our Means

In Bo, this week’s Torah portion, we build toward the climax of the exodus from Egypt with the last of the ten plagues. There we read:

Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his friend and every woman of her friend, jewels of silver and jewels of gold.”(Exodus 11: 2).

Why would God have the Israelite slaves take resources from the Egyptians? From one side we see this as completion of what was foreshadowed by and promised to Avraham in his sojourning in Egypt. From another side we see this as giving them the resources that they would need to build the tabernacle in the desert. On an even simpler level we can see this as some form of restitution for their lives of servitude. But why does have them “asking” for it?

The ninth of the Ten Plagues to be visited on Egypt was the plague of Darkness. There we read:

No person could see his brother, nor could any person rise from his place, for three days; but for the children of Israel, there was light in all their dwellings.”(Exodus 10:23)

What were the Children of Israel doing while the Egyptians languished in the darkness? Here the Midrash answers that the darkness provided an opportunity for the Israelites to circulate in Egyptian homes to determine the location of the valuables that they would later borrow. When Jews later asked to borrow these items, Egyptians could not deny owning them because the Jews would point to where they were hidden. (Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 14:4)

Today it feels that we are all similarly in the dark when it comes to the rising cost of Jewish living. How might we move forward?It seems paralyzing thinking paying for our children to have excellent Jewish experiences. While we have no trouble talking about those in our community who wealthy or poor, for a vast majority of us that are in the middle class it seems there is nothing to say. In many respects it seems that the middle class of committed Jews are plagued by shame and silence.

I do not think we can assume that any of us deserve Jewish life being given to us. There is no doubt that we will be struggling for years because of the unintended consequences of major philanthropists giving away large ticket Jewish experiences for free. In some ways the future of Jewish life is being held ransom to “free” Jewish life.

How might we switch from this entitlement to enlightenment?

In many ways it seems that we are creating amazing experiences to attract people to Jewish life that people who are committed to Jewish life cannot afford. We are adding many bells an whistles that price the middle class out of being consumers. As a thought experiment I wanted to suggestion an approach inspired by the Midrash quoted above. What would it look like to do an accounting of what we can all afford ( our gold) and only build experiences based on that? We would not have it all ( the tabernacle) , but we would be liberated to live within our means.

Commitment Zeh B’Zeh

In Behar Behukotai,this week’s Torah portion we read:

They will stumble , each man over his brother as if from before a sword, but there is no pursuer; you will not have the power to withstand your foes (Leviticus 26:37)

The plain meaning of this is that they will live in fear unable to help each other. Rashi interprets it that they are living in religious and not existential fear. He writes that:

“they will stumble, each man over his brother” means one stumbles through the sin of another, for all of Israel are guarantors for one another. (Rashi on Leviticus 26:37)

The Gemara in Sanhedrin sites our parsha to prove that we are each others guarantors. There we read, ” Kulan Areivim Zeh B’Zeh– All of Israel are each others guarantors.”(Sanhedrin 27b)

How will we go about trying to protect each other? It seems that the plain meaning speaks to Jewish peoplehood and our being bound up in each other in our very being. Rashi in quoting the Gemara transforms this bond into a conversation about faith, sin, and religion. But at the core of the Gemara is the language of Areivut, itself is a monetary term. 

I think these different approaches are interesting given some current discussions of the accessibility of Jewish Day School Education. No matter how we cut it we are stumbling all over each other trying to figure out how to make Jewish Life sustainable. This was brought into focus this week by a great article by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper. In his article The Moral Costs of Jewish Day School he wrote :

 …parents receiving day school financial aid have no guarantee, and often no idea, of how they will be affected by tuition hikes or whether the school will take account of a job loss, a new baby, a car’s breakdown—or, on the other hand, a gift from a parent or extra income from a second job.  They cannot make future plans; they are chronically dependent on other people’s decisions.  They are deprived of economic dignity. 

For some day school education represents their commitment to our people and others it is a religious rite, but for all but the very wealthy it is a crushing burden of expense. Rabbi Klapper shares a model in which there is a restoration of dignity by creating a flat 15% cap to the amount that any one family would pay. He noted that this did not take into account other schools. And it does not take into account all of the other positive Jewish life choices that cost money like trips to Israel, camp, synagogue membership, JCC membership, and of course the smachot. I am curious to see it work, but I am concerned about who will pick up the tab. 

In light of the Gemara I want to put forward another option. What about a guarantor? I like the predictability and transparency of a cap, but what if we offered a free loan for the remainder. This would eliminate the scholarship culture for the middle class. Hopefully this would remove the stigma of the mandated handout and encourage more families opt into Jewish life. We would need to amortize a loan sensibly and sensitively over the course of their lives with their other expenses in mind. Eventually they would deal with this debt and eventually we would recoup the money. The question comes down to who will step up to be the guarantor. And if we are afraid that people will not be committed to pay back their loans, then this is just a bad investment. If nothing else our schools should be teaching commitment Zeh B’Zeh.

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