Orthodox Middle Class – A Tale of Two Countries

It is no secret that it is difficult to raise an Orthodox family and pay the bills. The economic downturn has just exacerbated the situation. One of the blogs that I usually read covers this topic, and this past week Orthonomics had a post about a family that decided to limit themselves to two kids – because of the high cost of Yeshiva tuition in America.

This got me thinking – and I decided to make a comparison between what it means to be “rich and poor” in America and in Israel – as it relates to the Orthodox family. No, I am not an expert, and these thoughts are not “scientific” – but I think I represent the situation fairly.

It is obvious that being very poor is a miserable existence wherever you live, and being extremely rich is a comfortable one. The real question is for those in the middle.

An Orthodox family has a list of “needs” that are somewhat stable, wherever they live. They need to live within walking distance of an Orthodox synagogue and a mikveh, they need to be able to send their children to a Jewish school, and they need to be able to purchase kosher food.

In America, these things are relatively rare (in comparison to the country as a whole). In Israel, they are not (again, compared to the country as a whole). As in everything, the law of supply and demand affects prices. Therefore the cost of living an Orthodox life in America is higher than in Israel.

The houses within walking distance of a synagogue and mikveh in America are usually expensive in the larger cities, as they are in high demand. In the smaller cities the cost may be reasonable – but some smaller cities may not have a Jewish school. Housing in a very small community in America may be cheap – but there may be no synagogue or Jewish school at all. The same is true for kosher food – it is easier to purchase in places with a lot of Jews, and harder to get in a place with fewer Jews.

The largest expense in America for an Orthodox family is tuition. Since the government does not subsidize Jewish schools everyone must pay for private school. Sending your child to a public school is in 99% of the cases not an option.

In Israel, the situation is very different. There are some neighborhoods in Tel-Aviv and Haifa without synagogues, and there are secular kibbutzim and moshavim that do not have services, but in 90% of the country you can find a shul within walking distance – in both expensive and poor neighborhoods. (Since the conservative/reform movement is extremely small here, the vast majority of synagogues are Orthodox). The same is true for mikvaot. Since the traditional community uses the mikveh almost as much as the Orthodox do, you can find mikvaot in 90% of the country – even in places where there is no synagogue. As far as kosher food is concerned – you can find that anywhere. Granted, those with extremely strict levels of kashrut cannot find their hasgachos (kosher supervision) everywhere, but the “average” Orthodox family can shop wherever they want.

Schooling is also very different in Israel. Anywhere you live, you can find what is called a mamlachti dati school (public religious school). In some places your child will need to be bussed some distance – but there is one available from first grade, and there is no tuition. Granted, some families will want to send their child to private religious school, in places where the public one is “not suitable” (an individual choice based on too many factors to discuss here). But even here the tuition is reasonable. Schooling gets more expensive in junior and high school, especially for boys who are sent to dormitory, but again, it does not compare to the costs of tuition in America.

I am not saying that making a living is easy in Israel. Our taxes are very high and some things are very expensive compared to America. What I am saying is that being “lower middle class” in Israel and living an Orthodox lifestyle is an option – and you’ll have plenty of company!!!!


9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jizzah
    Jan 10, 2010 @ 10:38:25

    I think Orthodox families are creating their own problems with all those restrictions and rules. I feel sorry for their little kids, because I don’t think their life is normal.

  2. neshama
    Jan 10, 2010 @ 18:09:28

    A very nice post and a necessity for those families considering moving to Eretz HaKodesh vs remaining in America (with the coming socialists reforms). Discussing the bare basics is perhaps the most important.

  3. ronny
    Jan 10, 2010 @ 19:15:51

    I found the entire article incredibly disturbing. This concept of limiting the number of children you have so you can fulfill G-d’s will by sending them to the “best” yeshiva seems to me a lot of deceit.

    I can understand if someone doesn’t want to have children, I can understand if someone is incapable, or if someone is just plain selfish. It’s possible to work with that. But someone who throws away one of the first commands of G-d so he can fulfill a command he was never given? That’s a joke.

    Our people are such wonderful people. The non Jews must really love us for our piety in keeping the world safe from being overrun by Jewish children! /sarcasm off

    What jackasses! Do these fools not realize that most of our problems come from our incredibly small numbers? How many of us would there be in the world today if we simply acted in a natural fashion as we were intended to? The more Jews there are, the more love and good and peace there is in this world. And yet, if it’s not enough that we are attempting to commit suicide by ethnically cleansing Jews from the West Bank (the only ethnic cleansing that is OK), we intentionally limit our numbers with moronic rationalizations that we are saving the planet and in the case of the incredibly stupid people above – they actually have managed to convince themselves that they are doing the will of God! Has anything so heartrendingly idiotic been seen by any other people?

    And you read what most of the commenters say. They shake their heads and blame the community leaders for a low birth rate. Morons! Stupid people! Those who limit the number of children do it because they simply choose to! Even if you gave such people everything they could possibly want they would still find some brilliant excuse not to have another kid! If it were not so, then logically the extremely rich would have huge families – when in fact the exact opposite is true! Go to Great Neck, or Laurence, tell me, do you see families of 8 or 10 children walking around? No? But these are the richest Jews on the planet, so why not? BECAUSE THEY DON’T WANT IT.

    Look, I don’t care if you want a dozen kids, or only one, or none at all! By Heaven, if a man wishes to have vasectomy, then by all means, snip away! But don’t give me some deceptive garbage about how you are doing it for the kid, or for the planet, or for whatever. When it’s really because the person just doesn’t want to deal with the hassle.

    /rant off

  4. westbankmama
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 06:21:35

    jizzah – define “normal” please, before you criticize…

    neshama – thank you..

    ronny – It makes no difference whether you send your child to the “best” yeshiva or the “worst” – in America they are all terribly expensive. These people have a legitimate problem in how to pay the bills. For those who reject the idea of living off others (welfare?food stamps?)trying to pay for all of the necessities is a real problem.

  5. Shimshonit
    Jan 11, 2010 @ 18:35:13

    Boy, does this post ring true! Many of the people who make aliyah these days do so not just for love of Israel, but as economic refugees from the cost of being frum in America. Of course, taxes here are high, and salaries low relative to the US. But as you describe, the overall quality of life here for people in the Orthodox camp is higher. There really is no comparison. We’ve been here 3.5 years now, could at last “afford” a fourth child, thank God, and could never see ourselves living in the US again. The US is nice, and Israel isn’t the ONLY place for the Jews to live. But we think it’s the BEST place for Jews to live.

  6. capnc
    Jan 12, 2010 @ 22:50:21

    Slightly tangential issue regarding education: there is another issue — if you have a child who has special needs, or even just a different learning style, you don’t have to choose between sending your kid to an educationally appropriate school -or- a Jewish school. Back in the states, the private Jewish schools seemed unable to deal with kids who were “outside of the norm”, meaning many parents had to choose between having their children’s educational needs properly met (i.e. in a public school with trained special needs teachers) and sending to a Jewish school. Here in Israel, you can get special needs met in Dati, Jewish settings.

    We were blown away when we discovered that in Israel there is a thing called “Gan Safa” (language Kindergarten), specially targeted for children with language issues. Classes are small (12 kids max, instead of the more normal 25-35), and children receive a variety of professional therapies as needed, all part of the standard public school system. And there are religious Ganei Safa, so kids can get all this in a religious Jewish environment!

  7. Batya from Shiloh
    Jan 13, 2010 @ 04:27:39

    Darling, great post, but you left out shul membership, camp etc. Here in Israel there are discounts for large families and low income. Most important, priorities are different.

  8. Sarah
    Jan 18, 2010 @ 14:09:59

    I just published an article in last week’s Jewish Week about this very topic:


    Sarah Bronson

  9. Yankev
    Jan 20, 2010 @ 18:17:08

    Another Orthodox need that’s much cheaper in Israel — sforim here in the US can cost 3 times and more what the same sefer costs in Israel.

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