Thursday, March 19, 2009

No More More

The worldwide economic depression is a transformative event. Hopefully, strong governmental action will stem the decline, this despite the mean-spirited and even mad hope of Rush Limbaugh that the stimulus package and other Obama Administration measures will fail. When the dust settles, as it must, although probably not anytime soon, the economic and social landscapes will be different and a great number of lives shall have been changed. Tens of millions of jobs shall have been lost, major industries decimated, careers and relationships destroyed, dreams shattered or abandoned. Banking will be different, but not at the ordinary consumer level where greedy executives will continue to work overtime figuring out how to prey even more on those whose sin is to entrust these institutions with their money.

Yet, in most ways, life will be as it was. Most of us will continue to live where we have lived and work where we have worked and the inner structure of our lives will not be much affected by the economic storms around us. People will go on spending, some foolishly.

There will, however, inevitably be lifestyle changes. These will include, to an extent, a quenching of excess, a measure of restraint and fightback against the impulses imposed by conspicuous consumption. What will the effect be on Jewish life? We are a people who in the aggregate have learned to live the good life. We have been on an ever-expanding spending spree since the end of World War II, both at the communal and personal levels. Doubtlessly, there will be less charitable giving, an impact that is already strongly felt throughout much of our vast institutional and organizational sectors. There already has been downsizing throughout the Federation world and many organizations. This crisis is likely to accelerate, with some agencies closing, while others may merge. We should not expect a huge reduction in the army of American Jewish organizations. Many have survived serious crises, including nothing useful to do.

The most intriguing questions concern individual choices and changes. We are contributing less and probably already spending less on ourselves, but it will take a lot more to wean us away from our addiction to extravagance. We have indulged relentlessly on trips to everywhere and erehwon, on additional homes, on expensive remodeling of existing homes that are in perfectly good condition but do not meet the latest extravagance in design and on all kinds of luxuries. We are, again in the aggregate, a nation of shopaholics.

I know that this portrait is overdone. Not all of us are bitten by the spending bug and there are more than a few poor Jews, although not close to the number projected by our povertycrats who confidently claim that we are among the poorest of America’s ethnic groups. We are in behavior and attitude, if not in money in the bank, an upper-middle class group and this entails a heavily developed instinct for ostentation.

The greatest impact of our hedonism is on our children, too many of whom have been conditioned to believe from the time that they were in the cradle that money and what it can buy comes from a water tap that can be turned on at will. The absence of restraint is accompanied by a declining sense of responsibility, as parents come to accept that they must avoid saying “no” to their children, else they will feel deprived. Of course, when adulthood comes, reality usually sets in and the notion of entitlement is no longer sustainable in most families.

Our transformation into a society of wanters is expressed in the recent newsletter of Ezrah, a wide-ranging Orthodox-sponsored chesed project in Bergen County, New Jersey, which provides significant voluntary assistance to a large number of local families. According to a statement attributed to the late Rabbi Shalom Schwadron, a well known religious figure for decades in Jerusalem, “In the past we wanted what we needed. Today we need what we want.”

Now that the economic crisis is here, and there is a downturn in spending, the question is whether we will turn away from extravagance, from needless luxuries, from behavior that marks too many of us as show-offs. There still will be much discretionary money to spend. Prospects aren’t promising that there will be a fundamental change in behavior and attitude. Old habits never die easily. Our sense of community – as for example living together in clusters in suburbia or the inner city – paradoxically diminishes the likelihood for restraint because communal living enhances the pressure to keep up with the Jonses. Maimonides makes the point in a memorable passage in Hilchos De’os. We are powerfully influenced by environmental factors and Jewish environmental factors do not induce confidence that we can turn away from patterns that are already engrained.

The challenge is articulated in a “Dear Community Member” letter sent by the Angel Fund which is based in the close-knit Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn: “We are very concerned about families at every level of our community since many have not recognized the seriousness [of the financial crisis] and have not changed their spending habits.” It continues:

“Many in our community have lost their jobs or are about to. Many business owners are having a difficult time, and some may be forced to close because the banks are not lending and there is nowhere to go. Yet most in our community, both wives and husbands, are in denial. Many are still spending and shopping, taking vacations to Aruba, leasing expensive cars and continuing to plan lavish weddings and bar mitzvahs – all while owing money to banks, to friends and are struggling to pay tuition.”

When will we understand? Are we prepared to say no more to the powerful instinct for more?