Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dealing with Debt - introduction

SephardiLady (author of the Orthonomics blog) is a dear friend of mine. Her blog is dedicated to addressing financial issues in the Orthodox community. She recently has been following the responses to this Yated article, in which a rabbi expressed some sympathy toward a community member who confided his struggles with debt, then proceeded to blame it on trying to live a fancy lifestyle. The letters that followed (those which she has posted with her comments) have been bringing up the reality that some people are struggling financially and not living an expensive lifestyle.

This is obviously a meaningful topic for me, and even more so after I read today's post. SephardiLady and the commentators offers an extensive list of cost-saving techniques for grocery shopping. Now, there's nothing wrong with saving a few dollars. (Unless you end up using more gas to get the savings...) And SL truly lives what she suggests - she is an expert at what she calls the "art" of coupon clipping and finding bargains. Again, this is not a bad thing. But I came away from the post feeling like the point had been lost, and that maybe there is really a lack of understanding of how serious the debt situation is for so many families.

So we have three groups with financial problems:

1. People who make enough to live normally or even well-off, but waste their money on showing off, having fancy clothes, gigantic parties, etc. This is the group that the original article was addressing. This is basically an attitude problem, and antithetical to truly being a religious person. (In any religion, I think.)

2. People who make just enough, and can end up with a better standard of living and more savings for the future by clipping coupons, bargain shopping, etc.

3. What seems to be hard for everyone to understand is that there's a third group of people for whom even saving $1000 a year on grocery costs would make no difference to the depth of their problem. This is the group pleading with the rabbis and the community to figure out how they can do all the things that they have been told are necessary to living a religious life and still have food on the table and shoes for their kids.

The overall focus of financial advice is to look at your monthly expenses and see what you can cut. And the suggestions are usually things like switching to a cheaper car insurance, using coupons, or maybe an extreme like giving up your cell phone. Now imagine the following (real) situations:

- No health insurance (My husband and I went without for over a year, and my kids still don't have. And I have a friend who went years without.) By the way, no health insurance means forgoing health care too.

- The same friend cut his gas bill - by letting his gas be shut off. So he has no stove to cook on.

- Wearing the same four outfits repeatedly to work because that's what I have. This is something that has kept a number of people from going to shul - they simply don't have even one decent outfit that they won't feel humiliated in. I'm not talking fancy, I'm talking about something that isn't torn.

- Paying only the bills that are threatening to shut off this month. Calling the company and asking what is the absolute minimum to prevent shut off. then not paying again until the next threat.

I truly hope that most people can't imagine getting to this point. I truly hope most people can solve their problems by shopping sales and similar measures. But for a growing number of people, the financial issues can't be solved with these measures.

What I'd like to discuss in the next few posts is another version of looking at your expenses. I want to look at those areas (mainly in Orthodox life) which are so accepted as "required" expenses that no one wants to consider whether they can be cut or eliminated. Yet these are the high-cost areas that would actually start resolving people's problems.

I came up with five categories to start the discussion: food, Shabbat/Yom Tov, clothing/headcovering (both men and women), simchas, and private school (AKA "the tuition crisis").

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Derech

Yesterday our family and a good friend went walking at the Arboretum. This is a huge nature center with a lot of hiking paths, called things like "Blueberry Walk." I was thinking that the set-up illustrated the issues with the concept of people "going off the derech." There are two things that people might mean when they say this:

1. There is some behavior that is negative by all accounts - using drugs, stealing, etc. In the Orthodox context, this would also include things like eating pork or purposely ignoring Shabbat. This is a genuine concern for a family and a community.

2. However, most people use the phrase to mean when someone stops following the specific way of their sub-section of the Orthodox community. In many yeshivish communities, it would be "off the derech" to stop wearing a black hat and start wearing a knitted kippah. And a lot of parents, rabbis, and schools make a huge deal about things like this. But what is the actual problem? Who cares if you want to hike on the Blueberry Path or the Butterfly Walk? And, in fact, it may actually be more appropriate to try to get different people to follow different directions. Just as hiking trails are more or less difficult, and therefore might be appropriate for different people's skill levels, people have different orientations of what works for them. Some people need a huge amount of structure, and a very formal religious life is exactly right for them. Other people need a creative aspect to their religious life in order to have feeling towards it. (When I was in Israel, there was a class where they would learn some Chassidic teachings and then sing and dance the concept, or make art projects about it. For me, this was weird. For the people who enjoyed it, they had a very spiritual experience.)

My husband also posted on this thought.

AND - right after I finished posting, I found Rabbi Gil Student's great post on a similar idea.

Monday, October 22, 2007


One of the things my husband and I never liked about Los Angeles was the lack of community feeling. Yes there are a hige number of synagogues, and each one is huge, but (or, rather, because of this) there was really no sense of being part of a community. Looking back, this reflects a lot about Los Angeles as a whole from my experience. There is little feeling of "this is my home town."

I grew up in a home where we were not so into sports. More importantly, my father held onto to supporting his homwtown team (Philadelphia), especially in baseball. And being in a city where you can get away with that, I grew up with absolutely no feeling towards the Dodgers as being "my team." Of course, since I wasn't from Philadelphia, my connection to the Phillies was also more for fun, a way to be close to my father, rather than genuinely caring. And it never really affected my life because I didn't run into people who were INTO the Dodgers in a major way. (We openly cheered for the Phillies at Dodgers Stadium, and the only thing that was ever said to us was when this ditzy woman said "You're cheering for the wrong team.")

My father liked to give dramatic readings of "Casey at the Bat." for those of you who are not familiar, it's basically about a minor league team in small-town America who are in the final game of the season, one run behind in the ninth inning. The whole poem describes the emotions as their star player comes up to bat with the bases loaded. The last line is, "There is no joy in Mudville, mighty Casy has struck out." This poem always bugged me. Not only because I had to sit through multiple dramatic readings, and not only because I generally don't like emotional descriptions in poems. I really thought it was stupid that their whole universe revolved around this sport. Who cares?

Then we moved to the Midwest.

Now, obviously, I don't think life should revolve around sports. And, in Cleveland, it doesn't as much as in other cities. However, when you live in a smaller city, you have a closer feeling toward your home team. You have a closer connection with your neighbors, and everyone is supporting the team, so you feel more of a community spirit. And, in practical terms, anything to help the economy is a big deal here. The best the city could come up with for a motto last year was the boring "Cleveland Plus", yet for the last two weeks there have been banners everywhere, people wearing Cleveland gear everywhere, and the radio playing "Cleveland Rocks" and "Mambo for the Tribe." Sports promote a city like nothing else.

I was just speaking about how it's good to try to understand what experiences have led people who have different views than yourself to hold those views. I definitely understand why there was no joy in Mudville.