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On the Brink: Life in Frum America

The cost of living a religious Jewish life is high enough without having to keep up with the Cohnses

The American economy has changed. While recent improvements are hopeful, there is unanimous consensus among experts that the American economic landscape is not what it was. The last decade or so has seen the rising costs of all basic living expenses, not to mention the incredible rise in education, housing and the disappearance of the middle class. The gap between rich and the ever growing poor in America is growing rapidly. In fact, the only thing to not skyrocket or even rise has been the wage. [1] This can be felt in all of America and yet, the so-called ‘standards’ of the frum community have only gone up.

In accordance with the zeitgeist of 2000s economics, many in big cities have been forced out due to the excessive rise of housing costs. As untold numbers of frum families are leaving New York and coming to cities like Baltimore, (which is the focus of this article but the issue is nationwide) the cultural differences are notable. This and the effects of New York’s capital gains tax, has meant the opening up of frum neighborhoods never before expanded upon in Baltimore. This can be seen in such thriving areas where the building of additions and whole new houses, mansions really, are no longer a rare sight. While orthodox Baltimore still remains the most centralized frum community nationwide, there is a gentrification occurring within that community that is hard to ignore, though we’re all supposed to.

There has always been the expense of frum life in America of kosher food, living within the erev and tuition. All of these big ticket items have escalated, except now there are other pressures- social pressures- that are seen by too many as necessities. Examples are: a Kiddush or bris that now requires party planners, caterers, photographers, rental of a hall etc., designer clothing and shoes for children are becoming the norm, summer camps and vacations, new and leased cars, jobs for teens and young people are frowned upon today, weddings are now expensive, extravagant affairs, and the list goes on and on. While personally a believer that all are entitled to their own money and how they wish to spend it, it is troublesome that all are meant to follow the lifestyles of the wealthiest members of the community and that it is almost disloyal not to.

Some of these costs are impossible to escape (like housing in the erev or the cost of sheitels/mikva) but most are actually boogeyman (like the pressures to ‘fit in’). This ‘fitting in’ where the very wealthy set those standards, whether intentional or not, is very real and very dysfunctional. The frum community appears to be built upon conformity, materialism, competition and one-upmanship. The reasoning for most of these qualities and expenses is that it is necessary in order to ‘make a Kiddush Hashem’ or for the ‘beautification of the mitzvah’.

A prime example of the peculiar situation in Baltimore and others, is the Mikvah. Within the last year the Baltimore mikvah underwent a much needed expansion to accommodate the growing population. That it needed to be bigger was no surprise, what was surprising however was the massive increase in cost. It had gone from $12 to $25 with no warning and for many, this would be a hardship. The issue was brought up on a popular facebook group for frum women in Baltimore. If anyone had an issue with it, they were told two things. One that now the mikvah was a place of beauty- marble and crystal chandeliers were there to beautify and therefore the cost is acceptable. And two, that if anyone had an issue with it, they should just tell the mikvah attendant upon arrival and surely, they would just pay what they could. Aside from the fact that running a mikvah is undoubtedly a massive expense, the fact that the aesthetics was the common reason given is very disconcerting and very telling.

The responses are troublesome not just because it shows the deep magnitude of the value of materialism in the frum world, but because they lack the feeling we are supposed to have for our fellow people. It is bothersome because it follows the trend of financing another new frum standard of extravagance in the name of Judaism. Only, this time, there is no choice for an Orthodox Jew as the mikvah is integral to the religion. The well-meaning commentators were sending a message of unfeeling, of detachment to the real problems of countless people who will never speak up on a forum that the cost was too much because it’s not the only rising cost of this life. That, this was not the only thing they are being inundated with. Aside from paying an exorbitant amount for frum housing, schooling , car payments, taxes and health insurance. There are the additional costs of food, clothes (not designer), and other household necessities, not to mention supplies and fees for school, Shabbos and yom tov, sheitels and sheitel maintainace and endless other expenses frum families now face.

It was a response that was dismissive of how difficult and exhausting it must be for so many faced with yet another expense. It did not acknowledge the shame and humiliation felt by those who cannot afford just one more bill. An expense that they have no control over but must pay. An expense that all must pay but for those with less, it can be crippling and people were just talking about how absolutely stunning the facilities now were, as if this is a justification. (This is not an attack on the mikvah which is a place of definite holiness and beauty, in fact, running a mikvah is a huge feat and this should have been the reason given by all). Based on this thread, the disparity and the effects of this peculiar gentrification was glaring.

It is an inherently American quality to find shame in not succeeding financially, the frum community seems to have taken this to the next level. So many people cannot make it, so why are we continuously raising the bar? What message are we sending our children about religion and frum culture? For the children of those who have and have not, it is hardly an ideal message. For those who do not have, it teaches that a frum life is grueling and full of choices and sacrifices and ultimately, not for all Jews, however much the parents try to avoid this. For those who have, it can teach that this frum life is all about maintaining an image that is very much tied to money. Empathy is lacking and the love and exploration for the actual religion is lost when everyone is just trying to make it. Whatever ‘it’ seems to be at that moment. Everyone loses in this shallow and myopic reality we’ve created for ourselves. When reaching and maintaining these artificial standards outweighs the need to feel for the Torah and for your fellow Jew, there is nothing notable for our children to carry onward.

[1] Mattews, Dylan. “Between 2000 and 2012 American Wages Have Grown…Not at All.”

About the Author
Esther is a history buff and lives in Baltimore, MD.