Monday, November 24, 2008

Relying on Charity

A year or so ago, someone we're close with and I had an interesting conversation. He is married with three kids, learning for semicha, has no debt, a little bit of money put away in investments that he doesn't even look at, and all in all lives extremely modestly in a very inexpensive basement apartment. Being that it is a basement apartment, many people think it's really not a great place for them to be living with three kids and that they should move to a larger apartment or rent a house for a few years while he gets his semicha. Of course, they can't afford such an apartment on her salary alone... so someone made them an intriguing offer.

One of the sets of grandparents had a conversation with them, offering them the difference in rent over what they could afford and what the rent would cost as a gift. The couple would pay whatever they currently were paying (perhaps a little more) each month, and the grandparents would pay the difference, whatever that would be. After a couple weeks of deliberating and perhaps even some asking around as to what apartments which make sense for them were going for, they turned down the offer. The rationale they gave was that if something happened and the grandparents were no longer able to support them, there was no way they would be able to pay for the apartment. They didn't want to chance being stuck in a situation where they would be living well beyond their means and stuck in a situation they would not be able to get out of.

Unfortunately, this attitude is shared by almost nobody within the frum community. It seems as if huge chunks of the community are completely reliant on other people's money - charity, not loans - to get through stages of life, if not large chunks of it. This article on Yeshiva World underscores how much of a problem this has become, noting all the kollelim which are being forced to close or come up with umbrella funds and beg rich supporters in America - who are undoubtedly having extremely rough patches of their own right now - to make up the difference. The same concept applies to young people, especially couples, in college or graduate school. More and more people spend not just one year but two in expensive schools in Israel, a lot of which might not count toward college, and then attend college and grad school for 3 to 7 or more years. Particularly if they get married in this period of time, and often even if they do not, they are simply unable to afford to live even if they are taking out full loans for their education. They are reliant on help from parents or others - and when that money suddenly becomes unavailable, there's no real way out.

One of the silver linings in this current financial crisis is that it is a real opportunity for the Jewish community as a whole to see just how unstable it is economically. Perhaps this will allow people to realize that if we are always reliant on each other's money to simply get by, any little problem blows up the entire system. We can't continue to live well beyond our own means. This does not just mean that our spending is out of hand and we need to cut back - though that is true. It does not just mean that we can't rely on charity - though that is true. It does not just mean that we have to create self-sufficient institutions - though that is true. It means all those and far more. The attitude that things are coming to us must change. The attitude that we don't need to be completely self-sufficient must change. The "God will provide" attitude must change. The idea that it's okay to have no savings must change. The idea that it's okay to live paycheck to paycheck (or parent check to parent check) must change, and not only because "just in case it disappears". It is only after people are self-sufficient that we can look toward helping one another and our communities to support larger projects, to have extra luxuries for the community, to help people.

We have been given an opportunity to examine ourselves, and we really need to take it.