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Op-Ed: ‘Doing Jewish’ on $40,000 a Year

In an explosive op-ed published in the Times of Israel, a modern-Orthodox father of four explains how he was able to cut down his Jewish expenses to “just” $40,000 a year.

by a Jewish Father

Last year, I was a 45-year-old married father of four children, a member of a large American Modern Orthodox Jewish community, and I didn’t have a penny saved in the bank. I decided to get serious about my finances and sit down with a financial planner. He told me that in order for me to be able to pay for my four children to go to college, and to have any semblance of a retirement for myself and my wife, we would need to save 50 percent of our net income for the next 20 years. We began to itemize my family’s major expenses:

Day school tuition – approximately $80,000 post tax dollars a year. Currently consuming nearly 50% of our post tax annual take home pay.

Housing and utilities – near a synagogue, walking distance, big enough for 4 kids, another large sum of money.

Health insurance – my employer only pays 50 percent, leaving me with almost $900 a month to pay to cover the family

2 cars

Jewish Summer camp – with 4 kids in various combinations of summer camps, both home and away, plus all associated flights and gear, approx $20,000.

Kosher food – At times coming to more than $1,000 a month

Additional outlaysto Jewish charities, synagogue dues + building fund, and more, as well as life insurance, tolls, and random other surprises.

Dollars left for savings, investment, college tuition, wealth building: Zero

We reviewed this short list of items and my advisor said, “You realize the greatest expense to your life is your religion. It is consuming over half of your post tax take home pay. You are paying almost $150,000 a year to ‘do Jewish.’”

And that’s when I realized I had forgotten to include Passover on the list.

I’m not alone

This was the wakeup call of the century for me. I was raised to believe that religion came first; that everything was ‘holy’ and a ‘mitzvah’; that the more you spent on your Judaism the better it was in God’s eyes. And I now realized I had been completely neglecting the financial health and future of my family.

The first thing I did was to ask around how other people were managing it. Word on the street was that to do everything on my list in a “second tier” community, not something in the greater New York area, one would have to earn more than $500,000 a year. Now I work very hard and I do pretty well, but I will most likely never make half a million dollars a year. Granted, some people in the community do, but not many.

What I saw was far more people who were – if they were willing to admit it – getting steady monthly checks from their parents to survive. Adult children 50 years old still living off handouts from their parents in order to “do Jewish.” Some parents had large fortunes and were easily able to afford to help several adult children, but some were slowly being bled dry. I had one grandmother tell me, “It’s wrong that the day schools are now trying to fund themselves off the backs of the grandparents, now that they have already broken the parents.”

Even more concerning, were the large number of families, doctors, lawyers, investment professionals, who, when asked in confidence, replied that they don’t have two pennies to rub together. And that was before their children were setting off to years in Israel and very expensive college in New York.

The day I left the synagogue forever was the Saturday the rabbi preached that day school tuition does not fulfill the obligation to give 10 percent of one’s income to charity — and that from a rabbi making $350,000 a year, along with free tuition, free housing, and free food expenses. As I angrily began to walk out of there for the last time, my neighbor grabbed my tallis and told me “The day the rabbis pay full tuition is the day that the tuition crisis will be solved.”

‘You’re in or you’re out’

Let’s spend a little more time on the tuition crisis in Modern Orthodox day schools, since this was the greatest expense for me. With four kids in school and an upper middle class income, I was told I had to pay full tuition for all four kids with no sibling discounts (and no reprieve from constant fundraising calls).

At one point, I went to the school president, a major donor (independently wealthy) to the school. I explained that keeping all my kids in the school would mean never saving a penny for retirement or college, and asked if there was any plan for helping working middle class parents, such as capping tuition at a percentage of income, or providing a sibling discount. His reply: “You’re in or you’re out.”

So I took myself out.

I enrolled my kids in an excellent private secular school for a third the cost of the “excellent” Jewish day school. And now, a year later, you know what I’ve found? That my kids are not running a year behind public school in their education; That kids actually have discipline and respect for their teachers; And even more importantly, that all children who misbehave are handled in the same manner, instead of letting the children of the wealthy supporters get away with murder. And even more interesting, this amazing secular school had all of…drumroll…one principal — the Day School I left had five. Enough said.

In hindsight, I remember when a Muslim I worked with asked me one day why I was so stressed out. I said because I have to make so much money to pay for my kids to go to school. He asked me how much tuition I was paying per kid and when I answered $20,000, he said, “Wow, you’re getting screwed. We in the Muslim school are paying only $5,000.” Of course their school also had only one principal.

I had now left day school and synagogue, and my life was only getting better. Not just financially, but emotionally as well. I actually didn’t have to work as hard, and started to have more time with my family. I knew fathers working five jobs to pay the Jewish bills, or taking jobs out of town, showing up for weekends at home, or even putting their families in Israel and flying back one week a month. This is no recipe for ‘Shalom Bayit.’

Kosher food came next. I set a $200 a month limit for my wife on spending in the local Kosher butcher shop. Some chicken breast, some wings. There is no health benefit to eating meat more than maybe twice a month. Now that I look at the prices, I am actually shocked the communities have not simply boycotted these establishments en masse.

Passover? Forget about it. We just do it at home now. I toss that one up there as a luxury on par with buying a country club membership or a small yacht.

Summer camp? Chabad. In fact, we have been getting more involved with Chabad. At least they don’t make Judaism all about the money. Sure, they also need community support to exist, but in return they provide full-service Judaism at a reasonable price. That in my opinion, will effectively position Chabad as the ‘last man standing’ of US Jewish Orthodoxy, as the far right Jewish communities become increasingly impoverished due to the failure to educate their kids for the workforce, and as the Modern Orthodox numbers continue to dwindle under lack of commitment, unbearable costs and attrition in the college years and beyond.

Time for a revolution

Over the past year, our family has rewritten our financial future. We now live on half of our income and invest and save the rest. And thanks to this new president, the financial markets have been doing great. We pulled our kids out of Jewish day school and they are getting a better education in a better environment, and we supplement their Jewish education via Chabad. I am now able to comfortably “do Jewish” for $40,000 a year, the sum my financial planner told me needed to be our limit. You know what, we may even be able to go away next year for Passover!

The overpriced balloon of the Modern Orthodox experience rests on three core flaws:

Jewish organizations are too top heavy, with too many positions filled by wives and cronies, and with amply-paid rabbis who are out of touch with the financial woes of their congregants.

There are too many very wealthy board members controlling too much of the decision-making for the wider Jewish community. It’s time to get some working class and even poor people on the boards of schools and JCCs.

Too many sheep just go right along, with their heads buried in the rear end of the sheep in front of them. It’s time for a revolution.

What kind of revolution?

How about launching a month-long community boycott of all neighborhood kosher markets? (Start two weeks before Passover.) Or pulling the kids out of day school, demanding charter schools, and insisting that the local rabbis earn their fat salaries by holding lowcost Jewish after-school programs in the synagogue.

As we gear up for the High Holidays – by the way, my Chabad doesn’t charge mandatory ticket fees – it’s time to take an honest look at where Modern Orthodox Judaism is going. For me it was a $150,000 a year post tax commitment, a sum of money that most people never even come close to earning.

Religious leaders have no right to complain about intermarriage rates in the US when the religion is being priced out of affordability. And don’t even get me started on the shidduch crisis, although if you look honestly at the problems of matchmaking and failure to find a mate, there too you find that much of the problem also comes back to who has the most money. It’s time to take back our religion, to make it more accessible to Jews of all financial situations.

Those who stand in the way of this progress should be expelled from the community. The legacy rabbinate and top-heavy institutions are not sustainable in the long term. They’ve bankrupted the parents. They are now trying to bankrupt the grandparents. That was never the way this religion was supposed to be.

27 Comments

  • 1. being frum wrote:

    Yes he may have a point, you can live out of the city and own a large house and pay little taxes and get free public school and even teach your kids Hebrew every Shabbos when your home, But if you are Frum you need to live in a Frum environment yes you will pay more and yes you will need to pay for school and yes there is a chance you and your kids will actually stay frum. regarding teachers making 350K not sure which school this is but had i known where i would take that job any day.
    Bottom line yes being Jewish and Frum cost more but its worth it and if want to keep it

    Reply
    • 2. teachers wrote:

      He is talking about the Rabbi for the shul. $20,000 a kid tuition would not be able to support that salary for a classroom teacher– unless you have many kids in the class with no breaks for any of them.

    • 3. Street sweeper wrote:

      A bunch of b.s. being frum does not have to cost more . Frumkeit today is big business. The education sucks have not seen so many adults that have no grammar skills like in the frum communities .
      Uneducated and close minded people is what you get from today’s frum education.

  • 4. Eli wrote:

    This person has decided that its more important to spend money on his children’s college education than send them to a Jewish school. Why couldn’t he send them to a local community college which is much cheaper than a regular major college. So maybe he hsould be redirecting the college money into his childrens Jewish education.

    Reply
  • 5. Yossele wrote:

    Every word is true. The house is not burning down, it’s cinders and ash. Money has become more important than life itself in our kehillos, Lubavitch included.

    Reply
  • 6. To #2 wrote:

    During yeshiva and after, I avoided College like the plague.
    As I was ready to exit yeshiva,
    my Rosh showed me a pamphlet of a small trade school in Burough Park.
    Soon after, school closed, owners skipped town with their students $.
    Another Rosh once told me when I and and my family asked him about Parnossah, he said “oh, you’ll be a teacher!”
    At no point did any Mashpias or Rosh say I could get a teaching degree from college or pursue any other college program.
    What a big mistake.
    Now married with kids, and struggling.
    I wish I would have got a teaching degree or maybe even law degree.
    How many teachers in oholie Torah use the kids as experiments to learn how to teach, but Chas ViShalom learn how to teach from college.
    I feel pity on you.
    I bet you don’t have much ahavas yisroel for your wife or your kids.if you have any.

    Reply
    • 7. Teacher wrote:

      No college can teach you how to have passion for what you do ! They can teach you methodology but it starts from being a rebbe because you want to ! To build our future generation not because there is nothing else to do . I am a certified teacher with two degrees and loads of student loans ….

  • 9. Yudi wrote:

    Priorities, priorities, priorities. Is it tough to live like a Frum Yid financially? Of course it is. Is it worth it? One thousand percent. The chances of his children coming home with non Jewish girlfriend/boyfriend, just went up exponentially. End of story.

    Reply
    • 10. Single mom whose family stayed frum, B"H wrote:

      Yup. He just sold Yiddishkeit for college. Modern Orthodox is a very long name.
      Looks like this guy dropped the Orthodox part.
      So now he’s just modern.
      Or in traditional Jewish terminology a born-again hellenist.
      Nebach.

  • 12. Nice article wrote:

    I enjoyed the article. For those criticizing his decision to send his children to public school, do you think having fewer children might be a solution? The saying goes, Yeshiva tuition cost is the Jewish birth control.

    forget college tuition, parents need the money for retirement. Do you think these parents should have to rely on their children for financial support? will they even be able to?

    Reply
  • 14. Anonymous wrote:

    The commenters above are so closed minded. Probably still living in their little bubble in crown heights.
    Sending your kids to a place that rips you off, but you only go there because it’s Jewish, doesn’t mean the quality will be what you’re paying for.

    Reply
    • 15. Precious diamonds are very expensive wrote:

      Yes. Because it’s Jewish! Because I pray every day that my grandchildren stay frum. That I will be able to eat in their glatt Kosher homes and not cringe at all the naked flash being exposed by so many ” enlightened” Jews.

  • 16. I agree with this EXCEPT wrote:

    sending your kids to public school or
    Secular private school is. No no. You
    Don’t need a $20k elite school,
    There are far cheaper Jewish schools than that.

    Reply
  • 17. really wrote:

    ide like to know where in ch there is a mainstream school that has space and a reasonable tuition. I am being forced to place our children in a non Chabad school now . 10 to 15 thousand per child, a year is not reasonable.

    Reply
  • 18. Bitochen and mazel not the college degree wrote:

    I wish people would really come to terms with the realities of life.

    EVERYTHING is up to Hashem!!

    The college degrees guarantee nothing (yes, my spouse and I both have master’s degrees and we have always struggled financially), but Hashem has had rachmunis on us and saved us from other tsoris.

    It all adds up in the end. Having money may be a trade off for other important things: health, marrying off kids, shalom bayis, peace of mind, decent tenants, decent boss, trouble free house and/or car, etc., etc.

    Wake up and smell the coffee. Appreciate the brochos that Hashem gives you, even though they may not come with a dollar sign. The fact that your kids are ba”h well and the boiler didn’t break down on a melamad”s salary means more than you realize.

    Reply
    • 19. Chosid with a college degree wrote:

      BH, Hashem has blessed me with a college degree and has had rachmunis on me and saved me from other tsoris.

      Reading #6 made me cry. So many of my friends cry to me for financial help (I try as best as I can) and have completely lost faith in our Rebbe and mashpiim who they blame for not going to college.

      Shame on you for writing such a note after reading about the hardships of others. Maybe write them a check instead and encourage them that it will all be good.

  • 20. What happened to ruchnius here? wrote:

    You dont need to be saving for your retirement at the cost of the kids education. You do not have to go to a resort hotel every pesach or have 2 cars. You dont have to have luxuries and expensive meat every day. But nowhere in this article is it acknowledged that parnosa comes from hashem. Maybe sending his kids to a frumer school and not worrying abouf paying for college and having so much gashmius would help. Who knows how frum his kids will remain. Notice he never consults his wife just orders her to have meat only 2x a month. What about seudat shabbat? Why is he upset the rabbi said to give maaser? If he did he would have hAshems bracha. He cares just for gashmius not ruchnius and shows no bitachon in hashem.

    Reply
  • 22. went through the system and still lives in the Heights wrote:

    I wish the new board of Bais Rifka complete success.
    I wish them that they continue to increase their personal Parnasa.
    They are all wealthy individuals. In my opinion is unable for them to fully grasp to struggle to pay tuition, keep kosher and live in Crown Heights.
    A common suggestion has been to leave Crown Heights and moved to another more affordable Jewish neighborhood i.e. Pomona.
    However, New York City is the job market for a lot of people.
    In Williamsburg to wish and his $2000 per child At $5000 per family. And if you go to college your thrown out of the community.
    In the 5 towns to wish and is roughly $25,000. You are expected to go to college to be able to pay for tuition.
    In Crown Heights tuition is $12,500 and the girls are lectured about the evils of going to college. As are the boys.
    How then can our institutions expect to collect such high tuition?
    Why is the meat in Williamsburg so much cheaper than in Crown Heights?
    The answer to the tuition and meat issues are fund raising and more fund raising.

    Reply
  • 24. Anonymous wrote:

    Don’t kid yourselves. It seems like the college-educated sponsers keep the Chabad houses funded.And can anyone explain why Chabad is on so many college campuses if college is such a terrible thing?

    Reply
  • 26. Another overlooked point wrote:

    In this numbers crunching article, he fails to mention the actual cost of the Jewish services that are provided to him by his local Shliach and Chabad house. It may be offered to him at little to no cost, but the Shliach has to go out there and raise the money to pay for it. The author of the article should recognize that, and ensure that he helps his Shliach to the best of his ability, and not save for retirement and the Shliach’s cheshbon.

    Reply
  • 27. Anonymous wrote:

    To #23-so you’re saying that Chabad is on college campuses to discourage the students from going to college?

    Reply

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