Good intentions aren’t enough

I recently read a thoughtful article by a rabbi about “minyan weddings,” a coronavirus cultural phenomenon of weddings with an extremely limited number of guests in venues that permit them. Without proposing that post-covid-19 guest lists be limited to 12 people, he gently suggested that now might be a good time to bring such issues to the fore, and begin to rethink communal norms and consider dialing back expectations. (Hat tip to my sister-in-law, Andrea Penkower Rosen, for bringing this article to my attention.)

The rabbi was not alone. Covid-19 has brought a new explosion of discussions of Jewish spending to social media and opinion and letters-to-the-editor pages of Jewish newspapers. I call this the Double FD problem — financial difficulty and fiscal discipline. Or to be a bit blunter, Jewish observance is too expensive and we spend too much money. (Reminds me of “the food is terrible and the portions are too small” joke.)

Let me briefly discuss both issues — and I say briefly because we’ve all been there. Who hasn’t been impacted by at least some of the additional expenses of observance, whether it’s buying an etrog, lulav, shmurah matzah, new tallit, sheital, High Holiday seats, or homes within walking distance of a shul; paying for more expensive kosher food (especially since so much of our weekly and holiday celebrations revolve around eating), bar/bat mitzvah lessons, and constructing and maintaining an eruv; and supporting so many important community and Israeli institutions like shuls, mikva’ot, schools, youth organizations, orphanages, free loan societies, and federations, to mention just a few of a vast array.

And, of course, the biggie — yeshiva/day school tuition. Much ink has been spilled about the tuition crisis, so let me just tell you a story. When I started working for J.C. Penney in the early 80s, I had two children in day schools. A part of Penney’s compensation was paid in a lump sum in early February. My boss, explaining this to me when I was first hired, advised me to dump that payment into a special college tuition account, like he did for his 12-year-old son. My (unstated) response was that it already was allocated to my young children’s current tuition.

On the other side of the ledger, we’ve also been accused — probably with some justification — of spending too much: on lavish smachot from brit/simchat bat to weddings and every other possible rite of passage; on sleepaway camps and Israel trips; on gap year and Pesach programs; on ever more extravagant homes, house renovations, expensive cars, and luxurious vacations; on clothing, jewelry, furnishings, and screens and technology for our kids (and ourselves); and on — well, search your checkbook and credit card records and fill in your own extravagances. They probably won’t be too hard to find. Mine weren’t.

This serious Double FD problem has been exacerbated by the worldwide adverse economic effect of covid-19, which also has impacted our community. And so, ideas like minyan weddings — as strange as weddings without dancing may sound to some — as well as other decreases in communal and personal spending are being raised, discussed, and debated.

And that’s all to the good. It’s often important to take a step back, rethink practices that have become enshrined over time, and consider other — possibly more effective and correct — paths. In doing so, however, we must be careful to look at all sides of the issues and consider all possible consequences of serious changes in lifestyle and community practices. Because if we don’t, the Law of Unintended Consequences — the warning that an intervention in a complex system tends to create unanticipated and often undesirable outcomes — is likely to emerge the deeper we get into the details.

Let’s take proposed sumptuary laws, which are designed to restrict excessive personal expenditures in the interest of preventing extravagance and luxury. Sounds easy. Limit, for example, bar/bat mitzvah bands to a one-person keyboardist, wedding bands to three pieces, and all simcha flowers to artificial ones, and mandate no smorgasbords and strict maximums on invited guests and food courses. Simple. Done.

But not really. Limiting band size means that the trumpet player who sits next to you in shul or clarinetist who carpools to pre-school with you are suddenly out of a job and may have difficulty meeting their tuition payments. Artificial flowers and less food might, indeed, help the wallet of the host, but their childhood friend who happens to be a florist or caterer might have trouble keeping alive their business, which they built over decades of hard work. Limiting guests cuts the bill but for some families also means that the first cousins you grew up with won’t be celebrating with you.

Such laws also conflict with the democratic and autonomous ethos that is strongly felt in large parts of our community once we move beyond strict halacha. Moreover, people who have worked hard to acquire wealth and are open-handed in giving large sums to individual and community charities may feel less generous when confronted by a community that seeks and takes their donations on the one hand while prohibiting them from enjoying the fruits of their labor as they feel appropriate on the other.

With respect to days schools, some complain they are too top heavy with administrators and “bells and whistles,” which they seek to cut. Doing so, though, is not simply massaging line items on a spreadsheet. Rather, the assistant principal or art/music teacher/guidance counselor/psychologist/reading specialist/special ed consultant you take a Zumba or chumash class with, who’s been cut, might suddenly have difficulty making their mortgage or rent payments. And the programs and people cut, even if truly a bell and whistle to you, might be essential for the children of that lovely young couple who just moved in down the block.

Curtailing sleepaway camps and Pesach and Israel programs certainly would save lots of money. But much of it will be coming out of the pockets of members of our community and friends and family who made aliyah and who have devoted themselves for years to our needs, wants, and demands. It’s their careers and businesses that may disappear overnight as a consequence of significant changes in how our community operates, something we’ve sadly learned about during the past few months.

To be clear, I’m not saying that everything’s fine and we shouldn’t make any changes when life starts to return to some type of normal. Rather, I’m suggesting that we carefully think about all members of our community, including our kosher supermarkets, butcher stores, Judaica shops, and similar businesses, which are here when we need them (as we often do). I’m suggesting that making changes is extremely complex because of the nature of our intertwined community, and what appear to be simple tweaks here can have devastating effects there. I’m suggesting understanding the significance of foresight, the danger of unintended consequences, and the importance of both the baby and the bath water, neither of which should be thrown out carelessly. And I’m therefore suggesting serious deliberation and great caution, with slow deep breaths and lots of thought, debate, analysis, and discussion.

In sum, I’m suggesting that the tornado in the butterfly effect can wreak havoc on our community if we aren’t cautious about where and how the butterfly flaps its wings.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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