Friday, April 27, 2007

The New Orthodox Affluence

Although the Orthodox remain the most economically disadvantaged segment of American Jewry, largely because of the many who are in Jewish education or other communal positions as well as the many who have decent jobs that do not sufficiently meet their family and religious needs, there are expanding pockets of affluence, including individuals and families that rank among the superrich. For the Orthodox of a more modern orientation this may not be surprising because their career trajectory is not necessarily unlike that of other Jews or, for that matter, other Americans. That there are fervently Orthodox who have amassed great wealth is a bit surprising.

This development echoes in a fascinating way what occurred in the early decades of the last century when Jews who were a generation or perhaps two removed from the poverty that enveloped East European Jewish life went into business on these shores and prospered through a combination of ambition, hard work and creativity. Economic hardship and discrimination frequently blocked educational and professional opportunities. What was left was the opportunity of entrepreneurship and it was eagerly embraced. These days, among the fervently Orthodox, the downgrading of secular education, notably at the college and university level, closes off a great number of nominal career paths, leaving the more ambitious – and perhaps those who are in the right place at the right time – with business as the best bet.

A similar dynamic has been at work for years among chassidim, particularly within those groups for whom yeshiva study after marriage is generally for a limited duration, so that there is the familiar pattern of young men going into business when they are still in their early twenties. Many have succeeded in an impressive way. For all of the convenient talk of chassidic poverty, and it exists, I reckon that the chassidic sector of Orthodoxy is in better financial shape than the yeshiva world. Because identification with the Rebbe brings status and stature, affluent chassidim tend to be charitable and they concentrate their charity on the groups’ institutions and activities, primarily those that are educational. Relatively little flows outward.

Yeshiva-world affluence is a more recent phenomenon. There is now a cadre of superrich individuals in this sector, including billionaires. This new wealth is primarily derived from success in real estate, which is how some of the great American Jewish fortunes were made in an earlier period. The indicators of this new wealth are in transactions such as the still-pending effort to purchase Starrett City in Brooklyn, a deal by a firm located in Lakewood, New Jersey, to buy from Blackstone a hotel chain for eight-billion dollars and much else.

The Orthodox give more of their income to charity than other Jews. Still, with the exception of chassidim, it is questionable whether they sufficiently meet their religious obligation. My strong hunch is that they do not, especially with the upsurge in wealth. They are, however, bombarded by a multitude of institutions and causes beseeching support. Unlike chassidim, there is little coordination.

When the issue of charitable giving within the yeshiva world is viewed from the perspective of yeshivas and day schools, what emerges is a less than satisfying picture. These vital institutions are the responsibility of the yeshiva world which launched the day school movement more than two generations ago when Orthodoxy was considerably weaker and certainly less affluent than now. The yeshiva world also took responsibility for day schools with an outreach orientation and those that served immigrant populations.

Over the past decade or more, there has been a steady dwindling of charitable support as a percentage of the typical yeshiva or day school budget. As a consequence, parents, most of whom are struggling, are being required to carry an increasing share of the budget. There is, in short, no indication that the new Orthodox wealth affects religious Jewish education at the elementary and high school levels. In the New York area where there is a large concentration of yeshivas, facilities are often in woeful condition, as I can attest from my school visits. There are students who cannot find a school to accept them, while enrollment in immigrant and outreach schools has gone down. Despite increases in the cost of living and tuition increases, salaries at yeshiva-world schools have, in the main, stagnated.

This reality is not being addressed by yeshiva-world leaders, rabbinical or lay, unless expressions of pain over the tuition crisis is an acceptable surrogate for action. The large number of causes associated with the yeshiva world do not justify this inaction. Interestingly, in this sector and throughout Orthodox life, there is now a tendency to emulate the secular example to give priority to chesed causes over the educational. When yeshivas are funded, likely they are either special situations and not the run of the mill of religious schools or Israeli institutions. The latter are favored and not only because Israel is always a deserving tzedakah beneficiary. Rather, there is a mindset that seeks ego gratification through association with the outstanding rabbinical figures in Israel who are regarded as more eminent than their American counterparts.

There are exceptions to this pattern, as I well know, but not many. As Orthodox affluence increases, there is at once an opportunity and a responsibility relating to yeshivas and day schools whose fulfillment requires leadership and collective activity of the sort that has been lacking. Is it too much to expect that a religious community with members who can make billion-dollar business deals should have the spiritual and financial resources to address the tuition crisis and the hardships faced by the educational institutions that are its most glorious achievements?

This requires rabbinic and lay leadership and here the Orthodox seem to be impoverished.