Making Jewish life easier

From day-school funding to kosher food, why can't we make things better?

state-religion survey 224 (photo credit: )
state-religion survey 224
(photo credit: )
Last year I wrote a series of essays on the need to monitor the students who go to Israel for a year of study abroad. I noted that while few Jewish experiences are as inspiring as a year in Israel after high school, nevertheless, it shouldn't be a free-for-all: there is a need to steer some of the young people away from the nightlife on Jerusalem's Rehov Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall and into social outlets that are more rewarding. But as my second daughter prepares to go for her year next week, I only wish that my biggest worry was whether she would be monitored. Unfortunately, just days before she was due to depart, we received a message from the seminary where she was registered which informed us that due to financial constraints the school was closing. We are scrambling to find a replacement. 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 as they struggle to raise their kids. Is it really supposed to be this complicated? FIRST, THERE is the enormous cost of tuition with which all of us struggle. 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, the burden is considerable and is made all the more difficult by America's punitive measure against parents of faith who want to give their children a values-based education. We pay high property taxes (we live in New Jersey which is the highest of all), but 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 mitzvas, kosher food, religious celebrations and weddings. I'm not complaining. I wish the biggest problems in all of our lives were purely financial. But after a while, you begin to wonder how we are supposed to afford all of this. And the challenges are not just monetary. In secular homes, life seems pretty straightforward. People usually have two to three kids max. They go to school around the corner, they 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 (hopefully) and get married. In the Orthodox 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 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 university, 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 more pressure to your existing burden. And these series of complications do not even factor 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 it and because we see with our own eyes how, amid all these complications and colossal expenses, it removes from our lives 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 reading this article, 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. And 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 little 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, then surely we can make attending Jewish day schools more affordable and the availability of kosher food more widespread (which it is, to some extent, due to the miracle of organizations like the OU, 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, which would pose no threat to the separation of church and state. It is our money after all and we're not asking them to pay for Bible studies. 2. A global fund must be created to give every Jewish child $5,000 per year toward tuition for a Jewish school or university. 3. Orthodox leaders should achieve a consensus on respectable weddings that do not spill over into the overly elaborate. Not only would this be a reflection of true Jewish values, it would help parents not feel obligated to mortgage their homes to keep up with the Schwartzes. 4. In California, which I am currently visiting, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, 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. The American Jewish community should build on this model and create at least two national franchises, catering to the mainstream non-Jewish public, which 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." The writer is the international best-selling author of 20 books. His newest work, The Eros Effect, will be released by HarperCollins in January.