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We’re all open-minded…until we’re not — A response to ‘I can do Jewish on just $40,000 a year’

How 'A Jewish Father' led the way out of the echo chamber

I have spent a lot of time over the past year or so preaching the gospel of “radical moderation.” We’ve got to open our hearts and minds to those across the proverbial aisle, I proclaimed from my (imagined) pulpit. We just have to listen to each other, am I right?

Thing is, I really believe it. I think we’ve forgotten how to listen, how to open ourselves up to other viewpoints. We have all gone into our proverbial corners and hunkered down – and I have been railing against it for years. And this is why I felt particularly taken aback, even ashamed, when I fell into the very same trap.

This past week, an anonymous essay posted on The Times of Israel began to make the rounds in the Jewish educational world and beyond. The author, a self-described “45 year old married father of four children, a member of a large American Modern Orthodox Jewish community,” laments the oppressive financial burden placed upon him by simply “doing Jewish.”

The author rattles off a list of causes for the inflated price tag associated with Jewish life, among them summer camps, kosher food, and tzedaka. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, he sets one item most firmly in his crosshairs: Jewish education. The “tuition crisis in Modern Orthodox day schools,” he reports, consumed “nearly 50% of [his] post tax annual take home pay.”

Now, I’m no stranger to the question of the tuition crisis. I have quite simply lost count of the number of panel discussions and symposiums on the subject that I have participated in. I feel very strongly that much of this has to do with creating a superior product that parents feel is truly worth their investment and finding a way to streamline the financial aid system so that it allows people to maintain their dignity. Cost-savings, government funding, resource sharing, blending learning models — these are all important parts of the discussion as well.

But while I’m quite happy to discuss the contours of the tuition crisis with anyone reading these words (I have even invited this anonymous author to a discussion of the issues), that is not the purpose of this piece. Many smart and thoughtful responses have been written on the matter in the last week on both sides of the issue. I want to focus instead not on the arguments made in the piece but on my reaction to the piece itself.

My experience of reading the essay was that of becoming slightly annoyed, then moderately perturbed, and finally, downright upset by the words on the page. I began to conjure in my mind’s eye an image of the individual who penned this letter and, I will admit, the image was not pretty. He seemed like a curmudgeon with a bone to pick. He seemed petty and small-minded. Further, I was upset by his reckless and hurtful insinuations. For instance, he remarks that his kids in public school “actually have discipline and respect for their teachers,” a not-so-subtle jab at teachers in our Jewish day schools. By the end of the piece, having been worked up into a angry sweat, I found myself discounting both the individual and his argument. He didn’t get it; frankly, he probably never would.

I started furiously drafting a response. I was going to take on this uninformed and angry individual and show him, and all of his online supporters, the error in his ways. I sent a first draft to a friend who suggested I might be able to have a greater impact if I took out the descriptor “ignorant jerk” from the first paragraph. (Well, maybe I’m exaggerating with that last part, but the draft was decidedly harsh.)

As I sat in shul on Shabbat, my frustration having subsided a bit, I was able to gain some perspective not only on the piece, but on my reaction to it. It was plain to see that I had been placed firmly on the defensive. I interpreted his argument not as a submission to a communal conversation but as a personal affront. He was talking to me, wasn’t he? He was trashing me, as they say.

“Jewish organizations are too top heavy, with too many positions filled by wives and cronies, and with amply paid rabbis who are out of touch with the financial woes of their congregants.” This guy is looking straight at me. I work at the “top” of a Jewish institution; my (awesome) wife works at the school, as well; I’m paid a very competitive salary. Not only did this piece not fit into my “mental model” or my “echo chamber” — it seemed to try and take a sledgehammer to many things I hold dear.

In that critical moment, I forced myself to do something that flew in the face of everything that I was feeling in that moment. I read the piece again, but this time, with a determination to remove all personal bias. I didn’t read the piece as Ari Segal, Head of School, but as Ari Segal, human being, someone who was ready and willing to tap into the anxiety, pain, and frustration that another Jew was laying bare to the world. This person was struggling — struggling to make the finances work, struggling to establish a place for themselves in their community, struggling to balance responsibility and reality. But because I had to protect my ego, to cover my bases, I had missed that chance to connect with this anonymous person on the most human level.

Do I suddenly agree with his conclusions and with the actions that he took? Honestly — probably not. I have a number of issues on which I would push back firmly and I’d have to pick his brain some more. But in some ways, it really doesn’t matter, because I emerged from this interaction with something far more important: empathy.

I think that my mistake is one that is made the world over with increasing and alarming frequency. Whenever we read or hear something that doesn’t align with our deeply held beliefs; something that doesn’t fit into our mental models, we instinctively brandish our fangs to protect ourselves. Everything becomes an affront. Everything an attack. And rather than using it as an opportunity to hear another opinion in an attempt to increase empathy or refine our opinion, we dig our heels in even deeper. The very underpinnings of identity are at stake with every policy issue and every news cycle. In dealing with one another, we’ve developed hardened shells. And why shouldn’t we? How else are we to protect ourselves?

On these Yamim Noraim, let’s buck this trend. Let’s put a stop to the ways in which we crowd out empathy. And we pray that the Ribbono Shel Olam will now crowd out empathy for us. Let’s listen to each other, with the intention to build and not to tear down. So that God will listen to us with the intention to build us up and not tear us down. Let us seek out the very best in with everyone that we encounter in our own lives, so that as we approach the Ribbono Shel Olam, He will seek out the very best in us.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Segal is Head of School at Shalhevet High School, in California.
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