By Avraham Edelstein
From the 70s to the 90s, the standard of living for the Jewish middle-to upper-middle class rose significantly. During this time, many would buy houses, tear them down and build three-story eyesores in their place.
The types of vacations also changed. It became common for entire families to visit Israel on an annual basis, the price tags of vacations often competing with the annual salaries of many Israeli families. School fees rose dramatically, from around $7,000 on average to $13,000 for elementary school and often reaching $20,000 or more for high school.
The world was looking endlessly rosy. By 1998, America had sustained eight years of growth. “America’s unique brand of entrepreneurial capitalism,” said media magnate Mortimer Zuckerman, “. . . explain(s) the stunning success . . . America’s prosperity is structural, not transient, and its lead over Europe and Asia will only widen with time. America had the twentieth century. It will also have the twenty-first.”1
It was not to be. Standards of living started eroding in the twenty-first century long before the current financial crisis. Starting in 2007, the price of grain rose significantly. Many other agricultural products followed suit. Medical insurance shot up, as did childcare. Housing prices went through the roof.
On March 3, 2008, oil had reached $103.95 a barrel, breaking the record set in April 1980 during the second oil shock (adjusted for inflation).2 Americans drove 9.6 billion fewer miles in May 2008 compared with the same period the previous year,3 but I failed to notice such adjustments in the Torah community.
There was a reason for this. By then, the standards of living were built into people’s lives—nobody was going to demolish his house and build a smaller one. Schools did not meet the economic crisis and became ever tougher on parents. In the 1980s it was not uncommon for klei kodesh to get significant tuition breaks and they rarely paid more than $5,000 per child. Twenty years later, the breaks were much smaller and a parent who didn’t pay had his child sent home.
Other sociological groups made radical adjustments. In 2008, six out of ten American parents were helping with insurance, transportation, living expenses and spending money for adult children who were no longer students.4 By 2011, 5.9 million young adults aged twenty-five to thirty-four lived with their parents, up from 4.7 million before the recession.5 But in the Orthodox community, people were either doing all that already, or their lifestyle (yeshivah/seminary and early marriage) didn’t allow for further adjustments of that sort.
In the 90s, I remember a couple from Passaic, New Jersey, where the husband was earning $130,000 annually and the wife didn’t have to work. In 2010 I knew a couple in the Five Towns where the husband was earning $200,000, the wife was working and their house was in foreclosure.
And so, there was the irony of people being impoverished by wealth. They had no way of making a lifestyle change, and making more money was not an option—they were trapped.
The types of vacations also changed. It became common for entire families to visit Israel on an annual basis, the price tags of vacations often competing with the annual salaries of many Israeli families.
According to a report by the Economic Mobility Project, men in their thirties earned 12 percent less in 2004 (inflation-adjusted) than their fathers did at a similar age.6 During the recession—from December 2007 to June 2009—household incomes fell 3.2 percent. But it didn’t stop there. Between June 2009, when the recession officially ended, and June 2011, inflation-adjusted median household incomes fell 6.7 percent to $49,909.7
Unlike Israel, America is a bad place to be poor. The consequences of not making it are tough. The social consequences are great; the legal consequences are awful. In Israel, one can easily throw away his credit cards and be okay; lose your credit rating in America and you are in big trouble. An Israeli can rack up a debt at his local makolet, go to a dozen gemachs and live happily mired in debt (not recommended). Not so in America, where the have-nots live right next door to the haves—driving the same model cars even when Tomchei Shabbos delivers food to their doors.
Attempts to reign in the affordability crisis focused on very narrow issues, such as reducing wedding expenses and tuition. Many Orthodox Jews still sent their daughters to seminary in Israel—at the cost of $20,000 or more for the year. They paid ever-increasing air fares and school fees. They faced absurdly high mortgages. Yet the restaurants in many frum neighborhoods were (and are) still full on any weekday during lunchtime. Everyone just hoped that the economy would turn around, but it hasn’t.
We have made our lists of potential solutions. Families are moving to Houston, Detroit and Atlanta. Some Orthodox parents are sending their children to charter schools. All of this is being done in the spirit of mesirut nefesh (or is it the American spirit of rugged individualism?).
But hardly a word has been spoken about changing the values that got us to this place to begin with. Note that I did not say changing our lifestyle; I said values. There is a difference between living materialistically and being materialistic. One can be a pious Jew and live in a mansion—that doesn’t make him materialistic. A materialistic person has a need to be filled up by objects. He or she might always be busy adding to his home, not using it simply as a place to live, but as a way to satisfy an urge. (By that definition, many Orthodox Israelis are also materialistic—they just have less money to spend.)
Eradicating this materialistic urge which plagues our communities requires a long process of personal and communal introspection and reconnecting to spirituality to fill the void. It requires a set of consistent messages from parents, teachers, rabbis and neighbors. Advertisements for cheaper vacations should be rabbinically endorsed; newspapers should start talking about God’s own natural wonders instead of expensive luxury resorts and thrill-seeking entertainment.
Nobody knows why Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast of American shores. We only know of its enormous devastation and inflicted suffering. But we also know of the enormous outpouring of chesed that it produced. Jews everywhere saw the pain of others and found the means to give, even when they themselves might have been in considerable distress. Jews engaged in an ancient Jewish art—the ability to turn devastation into spiritual renewal. Perhaps this is just the opportunity for filling the void.
Rabbi Avraham Edelstein is a director of Ner Le’Elef, a world center for Jewish leadership training and community outreach and senior advisor to Morasha-Olami, a global umbrella body of student outreach.
1. Mortimer B. Zuckerman, “Debate: A Second American Century,” Foreign Affairs (May/June 1998).
2. “Oil Tops Inflation-Adjusted Record Set in 1980,” New York Times, March 4, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/ 03/04/business/worldbusiness
3. “Americans Ditching the Car,” CNN Money, accessed February 13, 2013, http://money.cnn.com/2008/07/28/news/economy/driving/index.htm.
4. Brad Tuttle, “More Young Adults Are Poor, Live With Their Parents,” Time, September 14, 2011, http://business.time.com/2011/09/14/more-young-adults-are-poor-live-with-their-parents/.
6. Economic Mobility: Is the American Dream Alive and Well? http://www.brookings.edu/views/papers/sawhill/200705.pdf.
7. Robert Pear, “Recession Officially Over, U.S. Incomes Kept Falling,” New York Times, October 9, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/10/us/recession-officially-over-us-incomes-kept-falling.html.