You can’t put a price tag on a mother’s worth

mom worthTable from Insure.com

If you are a stay at home mom, how many times have you felt unappreciated? If you had to pay someone to do all of the chores that you do in a given day, how much would it cost? Transportation, cooking, cleaning, childcare, healthcare coordinator, nurse, beautician, stylist, tutor, coach, personal shopper, party planner, hostess, the list goes on.

Those of us who spent years in the workforce know the motivation that comes with getting a paycheck, a positive employee review, compliments on a job well done. These kinds of motivators are in short supply when you spend your days doing what those around you take for granted that you should be doing. Expressing appreciation to someone for doing tasks that are expected of them is usually not on the daily radar.

Every year Insure.com calculates a Mother’s Day Index to try and quantify how much money a mother’s work deserves. They do this for the purpose of encouraging families to buy life insurance for the mothers in their lives, in case any unforeseen tragedy should happen. Last year’s index said the average monetary worth of a mother’s work is $65,284.

This morning, I read an article about the tragic death of a young 28 year old mother of three from Lakewood. The young mother lost control of her vehicle and crashed with her 1 year old baby girl who was strapped in her car seat behind her. Fortunately, the baby was saved with minor injuries, however, her poor mother died at the scene of the accident.

What struck me about this horrific situation is that it sounds like this young mother was a kollel wife who supported her family. She and her family had recently moved to a different area in Lakewood when the crash occurred. There is a GoFundMe campaign on behalf of her orphaned children (I encourage anyone who is so inclined to donate).

I have seen fund raisers on behalf of orphans, but usually this applies to families where either both parents or the fathers are niftar. I suppose that’s because in my circles it’s usually the father who is the main breadwinner. For example, while my husband and I both have life insurance, my husband has the larger policy because he is the one who is bringing in our income. My insurance is meant to cover the expenses of the household duties that I now provide, but would need to be paid for in the event of my untimely demise.

The Lakewood tragedy brings home that the women of that community need to have adequate life insurance coverage so that their families can survive if, God forbid, something should ever happen to them. It goes without saying that a mother’s value goes infinitely beyond her financial worth. Yet how much more indispensable is her life when she is the sole provider for all of the physical comforts and necessities of her family? May this young mother’s family find comfort and the strength to move forward.

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To build a better world, tear the old one down

demoRebecca Ross shared a guest post on her blog written by a person whose goes by the pseudonym, Mark. Mark shares his experience of having a good friend gradually cut off contact with him upon becoming orthodox. Mark and his friend Jake went on a Birthright trip sponsored by a non-orthodox organization, and Jake had enjoyed the trip so much that he started shopping around for other similar Israel trips, since Birthright only allows you to go once. Jake found that opportunity through an orthodox rabbi who offered a complete Israel trip package for $500. What Mark and Jake didn’t know, was that the rabbi required participants to begin keeping a full Shabbos with frum families before allowing them to go on the trip. This requirement was not divulged in the beginning, although the rabbi did invite the boys to have Friday night dinner with his family, after which they were free to leave.

In the beginning, Mark joined Jake at the rabbi’s house for Friday night dinner, and then they would leave after the meal to go out to bars and clubs. Eventually, Mark would leave, but Jake would stay behind to sleep over at various family homes in the orthodox community. Jake also began attending religious classes at the rabbi’s school, where he was paid a $400 stipend to attend. Jake had initially only been interested in a cheap way to go back to Israel for some fun, but had slowly become indoctrinated by a kiruv professional who hooked young adults in with the promise of the trip, and gradually encouraged them to take on more mitzvot like Shabbos, kosher, and religious clothing before they would be allowed to go.

After Mark’s experience with Jake, he began to see a similar pattern in grooming that happened to other young people who also got involved with religious kiruv workers. The relationships started out simple and undemanding, but slowly suggestions that bordered on demands influenced the targets to abandon their former way of life, including their non-religious family and friends. Towards the end of the post, Mark talks about how he recently attended Jake’s wedding. The guest list and mood were divided between two camps – Jake’s new religious friends were ecstatic and smiling throughout the wedding – and Jake’s family and old friends were somber and wondering when Jake would finally wake up and go back to being their son, grandson, and friend again. Mark said it was the unhappiest wedding he’d ever seen, at least on one side of the room.

Mark brought up a good point that the frum community spends a lot of energy and tears over people who leave the community, called “going off the derech.” There are constant efforts and new organizations cropping up to prevent “people at risk” from leaving. However, there is no acknowledgment that going off the derech works the other way too. Just as there are orthodox people lamenting the loss of loved ones who have left the community, so too there are non-orthodox people crying over loved ones who left them behind to enter a teeming sea of black and white that quickly closes ranks behind them until they are as indistinguishable to their own kin as one wave is to another in the ocean.

Mark’s story rang a bell because a few months ago I ran into an old friend of mine from college. After exchanging pleasantries, she asked “What happened to you? You just fell off the face of the earth!” You see, she and our other friends from college have all stayed in touch. Some are scattered around the country, but they still make time to have in person reunions, and those who live close by still see each other fairly regularly. I’m the one dropped out. I’m also the only one who became orthodox.

My story is different from Mark’s friend because I was never involved in a formal program, or rather, I dabbled in a few programs, but was mainly anchored by my boyfriend’s/husband’s hashkafic guidance. When I started college and decided to seek out a Jewish communal space in the form of Hillel, like Jake, I didn’t set out to become religious. I enjoyed learning about Judaism, but meeting other Jewish peers and having fun was my primary purpose. When my non-religious friends and I learned more about traditional observance, it was absorbed in an academic way. It was interesting, but had little to do with my own life. It’s kind of like how I feel now about the chumrot or cultural practices of other orthodox groups different from my own – it’s interesting to learn about how other people, say, keep Pesach, but learning about their practices isn’t going to change my own.

When I started dating my husband, I had the best of both worlds. When I was with my non-religious family and friends, I lived life as I always had. When I was with my boyfriend, I had an insider’s pass to the orthodox world. Friday nights were girl’s night out, and Saturday nights were date night. I had a place to spend Jewish holidays, a shul to attend, and a multitude of classes on any given night of the week at the synagogues in my husband’s orthodox neighborhood. Any Jewish topic I wanted to learn about (from an orthodox perspective) was now within my reach. Although I only lived a few miles away from the heart of the orthodox community, I hadn’t even known that any of these resources existed. I hadn’t even known that there were special kosher restaurants – much less that Chicago had some! I quickly got to know all of the kosher venues (and quickly grew tired of them – going from a selection of thousands to a selection of maybe eight was a rough adjustment). However, anytime I wanted to go to a treif place I could go during my time with family and friends. With my boyfriend, I stuck to the kosher stores, kind of like my family does with me now.

When someone curious about orthodoxy first meets people in the community, they are praised and encouraged. I was made to feel really good about the interest I showed and the efforts I was putting into taking classes, reading books, participating in Shabbos and Yom Tov festivities, and learning about mitzvot. I can’t really recall when it was that my teachers and orthodox peers gradually started making it clear that being orthodox isn’t a choice, but the way that every Jew is supposed to live. It wasn’t enough to learn about the Torah and orthodox practices like one would study a textbook for an exam.

As a Jew, learning about mitzvot isn’t supposed to be like a sociological study of some remote tribe in the Amazon Rainforest. Every Jew must learn about the Torah with the idea that the commandments are incumbent upon each and every one of us. Even if we were raised in ignorance of our obligation, nevertheless, we are still obligated and accountable for our negligence. Of course, someone raised without Torah knowledge is like a child captive, and is less accountable for transgressions than one who was raised with proper instruction. However, the more we learn, the greater our obligation in the performance of the mitzvot. Pleading ignorance stops working as an excuse once you become educated.

For the first time, I had fear of Hashem. Before the revelation that I was accountable for transgressions I hadn’t even known were transgressions (I always understood the stuff about murder or stealing and the like – but those are common sense ethical mitzvot that fall under the category of – don’t be a criminal!). I never knew that I could go to hell for eating bacon, or wearing a tank top, or going out for Saturday morning brunch. I hadn’t really personalized the new information I had been learning, but I was now being confronted with that mistake from multiple sources. That message caused me to become introspective.

What did I want my life to look like? Knowing what I now knew, how could I go back to my old outlook before I had been introduced to orthodoxy? Wouldn’t I now have a constant sense of guilt and fear desecrating Shabbos or eating treif, whereas only a few months ago I was blissfully unaware of any misdeed? On the flip side, I was told that living a life dictated by Torah principles brought blessings down upon believers. For any rational person, the choice should be simple. If you want a directionless life that’s likely to derail without the guidance of Hashem, don’t be religious. If you want a life guided by the Creator’s blueprint for stability and joy, be religious.

I didn’t think of all of the seeming exceptions to this choice – like my own friends and family members who weren’t religious, but still good and ethical people. Their lives didn’t seem so miserable, and I highly doubted they were cursed. However, I think I chalked it up to the idea of ignorance. Ignorance is the protection a non-religious person has from being accountable. My eyes were no longer closed, and I was now being judged along with all the other believers. Choosing not to be religious – was now a choice; an active rebellion, whereas before being non-religious was simply who I was.

The problem was that I still loved my old world. I wasn’t disenchanted with society (that came in my 40s!), and I had built a support network of family, friends, and mentors, many of whom weren’t religious. I went from having several very close friends to having a few precarious new friendships. I had a routine, which included work and outings on Shabbos, and going out to eat at non-kosher restaurants. I had goals that would be harder to achieve because of the scheduling demands of a frum lifestyle. I had stability, but I was about to demolish the foundation. I suppose I adopted the philosophy that to build a better world, I had to tear down my old one.

It’s kind of like an alcoholic just out of rehab who must separate herself from her regular watering hole and her drinking buddies. There was just too much temptation to go back to my old life, and I needed to cut ties and surround myself with people who were living the life I aspired to emulate. Maybe I was afraid that the people I cared about, and who were probably as worried about me as Mark was about Jake, would talk me out of my determination.

The religious people I met didn’t seem to miss not going out on Shabbos, or wearing jeans, or eating deep dish pepperoni pizza at Gullivers. They didn’t seem to have trouble convincing their bosses to let them leave work early on Friday, or not to assign them a Saturday afternoon shift. They didn’t seem to have issues with midterms falling over Sukkot or Pesach. It was also helpful to talk to other baal teshuvot who were a few steps ahead of me, both for commiseration and tips on how to deal with those new challenges and relations with non-religious family members.

I didn’t handle things any better than Jake’s friend. I didn’t really know who I was anymore – I was undergoing a metamorphosis into a newly religious person – and the transformation was fragile. I definitely burned some bridges along the way, and distanced myself from once close relationships that never grew closer as I found my sea legs. That kind of thing happens when you disappear on someone – just because you might be ready to reengage doesn’t mean they are sitting around waiting for your call. There were definitely human casualties in my journey to frumkeit. I know that other people have handled it better – I have a friend who is still close with many of the non-religious and non-Jewish friends she grew up with.

However, most people I know who have become religious have similar stories to Jake’s and mine. Some are closer with their families than others, but many have long since lost touch with old school friends. While it’s not unusual to lose touch with school friends the farther out you get from graduation, the distinction here is the purposeful withdrawal from friends who might compromise your religious goals. Juxtaposed against those who grew up in the frum community and often keep in touch with their orthodox classmates for a lifetime, people who enjoy these lifelong friendships in the FFB community might be able to see how the absence of those friendships would be a major loss in a person’s life.

It’s true that no one forced me to give up or distance my relationships with my non-religious family and friends, but that is a common byproduct of radically changing your lifestyle from the one you were raised with. It’s the exact same reason why formerly religious people who adopt a non-religious lifestyle sometimes end up severing ties with everyone they used to be close to. While it’s more common in the frum community for the religious family to separate from the one who goes “off the derech,” it can also be the person themselves who makes a break. To remain in their community of origin would lead to the risk that they will be persuaded to come back to a life that they have decided they don’t want anymore.

At my age, I realize that building up and tearing down is constant enterprise throughout a person’s life. Sometimes the demolition is gradual, and sometimes subtle. Sometimes the razing is a choice, and sometimes it isn’t. The problem is that the particular shake up of joining a religious community often comes during a time of youth when a person is least equipped to balance the various relationships in their life gracefully. When you are younger, things are often black and white, all or nothing.

I can’t go back in time, and neither can Jake. I don’t know how old Jake is now, but I wonder if he will regret cutting himself off from his loved ones later in life? I wonder if older baalei teshuvot who lost touch with non-religious loved ones when they were younger end up wishing they hadn’t been so hasty? It’s not a subject most people talk about.

Seminary Gap Year in Israel – Individual Growth or Frivolous Waste of Prime Shidduch Years?

shaalvimSha’alvim for Women

How much do we value our daughter’s education? Are her years in elementary and high school merely a perfunctory exercise in preparing her for the practical skills required for running a Jewish home and providing a modest income for her family? Is higher Jewish education for a young woman a luxury or a requirement? Furthermore, how important is it that her post high school Jewish education be accomplished in Israel, rather than at a local American seminary?

These were the questions that struck me as I read an opinion piece by Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin on the Matzav website. The main subject of his article was how the shidduch crisis could be helped if only girls did not put themselves “in the freezer” during their prime years of desirability by leaving home to attend Israeli seminaries. His statement,

You don’t have to be a great sociologist or Chochem to know that a girl is most desirable and in the prime of her youth from the ages of 17, 18, 19. When a girl turns 20 she is already in a different category.

caused a great ruckus among quite a few readers.

Rabbi Rudomin clarified that he was merely making the honest observation, that despite a communal push for young men to get married younger (somehow this solution will leave fewer girls “on the shelf” past 21), these younger 20-21 year old men will still want girls younger than themselves – which means 17, 18, and 19 years old. If the girls in that age range are wasting time gallivanting in Israel, there will be no girls of that age range left in America to marry these younger, yet still older, boys. The solution to have men marry at a younger age can only work if the women make themselves available to also marry at an even younger age than the men – because men will always want to marry someone younger.

I will leave the arguing over Rabbi Rudomin’s shidduch solution to the peanut gallery, but I was more interested in the responses he gave in the comment section of his article where he attempted to clarify his position, such as this one:

A girl at 21 is not “more mature” just because she spent a great super luxurious vacation, all expenses paid by “PHD” (Papa Has Dough”) in Israel for a year or two than a girl of 18 who remains in Brooklyn or Lakewood or Monsey or the Five Towns or Chicago or Toronto etc and gets on with real life, study and everything else normal people do.

In fact, the girl who is “supported” in Israel like a princess Mamash for a year with her parents spending fortunes on her, in fact during her year “away” her royal highness has to come back to the USA to take care of “very important things” like Lemoshul, getting her tooth braces readjusted, seeing the dermatologist for a rash, attending cousin Rivkie’s wedding as well as brother Shloimie’s Bar Mitzva, and “has to be home” for Pesach as well as Sukkos (even though she has hardly settled in Eretz HaKoidesh since arriving), and she needs frequent changes of her clothes from her “Fall” to her “Winter” and then “Spring” wardrobe, not to mention constant airlifts to her of shampoos, rinses, creams and all sorts of Vaibisha Zachen, and much else, and one would think we are raising a nation of celebrities and people who will want to live in luxury and be treated like this for the rest of their lives.

Imagine, these darling Sheifalach come home and then they quickly get engaged and married and they find out that marriage is about cooking dinners, washing dishes, doing the laundry that includes doing your new husband’s socks etc, caring for a husband who is a complicated human being, respecting Ameilus BaTorah Yomam VaLaila, mopping floors, taking out the garbage every night, even going to work and hosting guests, not to mention having babies and changing diapers and running to the pediatrician, so tell me, how does any seminary program in Israel “prepare” them for that?

Teach your daughter how to get and hold down a responsible job, that will help her support a husband in learning, or how to be a happy, smart, supportive spouse and partner with her husband when he has to work and encourage this sense of Es Kumt Mir known as entitlement in English!

And then, how is any 18 or 19 year old girl who is not exposed to this fake life “inferior” or “less mature” than her 20 or 21 year old counterpart who has lived like Mamash a “Cleopatra on the Nile”?

You see, we have adopted messed up priorities, and that is why we have things like this ridiculous “Shidduch Crisis” — and we are very far from “Houston: ‘The Eagle Has Landed’!”

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin”

The glaring omission is that he fails to put American boys who attend Israeli yeshivas in the same category, and I would posit that there are plenty more reputable American yeshivas to attend for post high school boys than there are American seminaries for post high school girls.

Why then, doesn’t he describe the boys who put themselves in the freezer in order to have a “great super luxurious vacation, all expenses paid by “PHD” (Papa Has Dough)” in the same category? Why isn’t he exhorting boys to get married right out of high school and skip the Israeli gap year (or two)? At the very least, why aren’t boys encouraged to attend American yeshivas where they can study and date simultaneously, instead of being supported in Israel like a prince Mamash for a year with his parents spending fortunes on him?

So far, I’ve only had one child go to Israel (two are quickly following, one later this year, and one next year) and that child is a boy. He spent one year learning full time in Israel and part of one year learning full time in America. I can tell you with the certainty of actual comparison that it would have been much cheaper to have him skip Israel and learn in America. Girls might have different expenses when they are studying abroad, but boys have just as many expenses, just different.

One big expense many Americans can expect to pay for their boys is on food. Most Americans aren’t used to the sparse Israeli diet that many yeshivot offer – count on supplementing their school’s meal offerings by a lot – especially if he’s over 6 feet tall and built like a linebacker. Eating out at restaurants, fast food joints, or buying snacks at the local makolet is a staple of the yeshiva diet, and I’m willing to bet the guys eat a lot more than the girls.

Another area which wasn’t mentioned in the original article, but applies to both boys and girls, count on paying out of pocket medical expenses while your child is in Israel. Israel is a much more physical place than America. What I mean by that is that America is a nation on wheels. We are used to driving everywhere and have to make a concerted effort to get physical exercise. Many orthodox American Jewish day schools either have no physical education program, or offer some kind of gym class one period per week. To suddenly come to a place where walking most places is a requirement, steep hills are common, school sponsored hikes, zip lining, and water trips are standard, all done in searing heat – you have a recipe for injuries. Alternately, if your son plays a lot of sports, it’s likely that he’ll injure or re-injure himself throughout the course of the year. Thanks to football league, basketball, and an old back injury –  visits to the chiropractor, physical therapist, and a new and better mattress than the one the dorm provided were among our expenses for sports related injuries.

Also, just because they are boys don’t discount the need for a new wardrobe (clothing that is appropriate for Chicago weather isn’t necessarily appropriate for Israeli weather), expensive new pieces of luggage, and sundries (American shampoo, body wash, deodorant, toothpaste, cologne, etc.). Of course, another equal opportunity expense are the plane tickets, which cost the same for both men and women.

The point is, the year in Israel for boys isn’t much cheaper than it is for girls. Back in the 1980s, before it became standard for every boy (or every girl) to go to Israel after high school, there was more scholarship money available. My husband had no problem getting money for Israel, and we weren’t prepared for the high cost of our son’s education. We assumed that because our son had good grades and references that he would be offered a sizable merit scholarship. Think again. The truth is, that in most cases, the tuition from American students goes to subsidize the tuition of Israeli students, as well as to fund the overall operational costs of the yeshivot and seminaries. If an American student is truly impoverished, there are scholarships based on need to be had. However, anyone who can seemingly afford the full tuition on paper, will need to haggle to get even a fraction off of a tuition bill that seems to average between $23,000-$25,000 for the year. Merit scholarships of any significant size are a throwback of the 1980s.

When our son decided to come back to the US for a second year of learning, instead of remaining in Israel, there is no question that the tuition was cheaper. However, it was a completely different experience. It wasn’t better or worse, but it was different. Going to Israel was one of the best years of my son’s life. He wouldn’t have missed the opportunity for the world. Did he have fun? You bet! Did he immerse himself in Torah in a way that is only possible in Eretz Yisroel? Definitely. Maybe if you don’t have Zionistic leanings, learning in Jerusalem or learning in Brooklyn are interchangeable. Those who have a love of Israel, and want the chance to see firsthand not only the holy historical sites of our people, but whether or not aliya might be in their future, can have that opportunity by studying in Israel during their gap year. When would most of us ever get the chance to spend one or two years completely devoted to Torah study without the stressors of college courses, jobs, spouses, children, bills, etc.? The post high school years are the only brief period of time when a person can grow and develop as an individual, without the crushing weight of adult responsibilities.

Rabbi Rudomin’s solution would rob young women of that opportunity. As he mentions, once a woman marries and has children, her life becomes a cycle of dirty dishes, dirty laundry, dirty diapers, and a series of other chores that need doing again as soon as they are finished. Why have them start these responsibilities any earlier than they need to? Why not give them time to themselves to study, daven, see a bit of the world, live away from home and learn to be more independent (many girls living at home have their mother doing their laundry, the dishes, the cooking, the mopping, the grocery shopping, the financial budgeting –they might learn from observation, but nothing prepares a person more than doing for themselves).

Some communities have set up a system where appearance and youth are everything for girls. They can’t then be mad about the expense required to maintain that beauty and youthful appearance that is now required for shidduch consideration. How can  girls be told that they need to attend the “right seminaries” in Israel because staying at home will be a red flag on their shidduch resume, and then have parents be angry about spending the cash needed for their tuition and expenses?

I’ve had conversations with people who claim that some seminaries are merely businesses designed to take money from rich American families who can afford full tuition in exchange for their daughters having the “Israeli Seminary” box checked off on their shidduch resume. These are institutions opened by amateurs who have little educational background, but do have a lot of connections in the community who will send their daughters and their tuition dollars. I agree that for families who care more about the checkbox than the depth of learning and unique environment that Israel offers, spending a seminary year in Brooklyn is a far wiser choice than attending such a school.

However, for those girls who really want to challenge their intellectual and spiritual growth, nothing can replace the Israel experience. I haven’t fully looked into Israeli seminaries for girls yet, although my daughter is just about at that point, but schools like Sha’alvim for Women, Darchei Binah, Michlalah Yerushalayim, Nishmat, Migdal Oz, Michlelet Mevarseret Yerushalayim, to name a few, are intense programs for serious minded students who aren’t looking for an Israeli Disney Resort experience.

The implied meaning behind the article seems to be that for women, going to an Israeli seminary is frivolous, while for men, taking time off for Israeli yeshiva is worthwhile (Holy books for men! Picture books for women! ~Yentl). If the sum of a woman’s worth is to be a wife and mother, than any other pursuit is merely a distraction from achieving her true purpose. With this mindset, it makes sense that sending a daughter to an Israeli seminary is simply a costly and misleading detour to her eventual destiny, which will be anything but glamorous.

So, how much do we value our daughter’s education? No two communities will have the same answer, just as no two families will have the same answer. It could be that Rabbi Rudomin’s opinion makes a lot of sense given the culture of the community in which he lives. If the main objective for the women in his community is to get married and start families as early as possible, perhaps spending a year in Israel is a waste of time and money.

Those of us in different orthodox communities who value higher education for our daughters, value the opportunity for them to build a spiritual foundation independent from the influences of the men they will be dating (it’s all too easy for a girl to agree to take on the customs, stringencies, or religious laxities of a boy she wants to marry, only to be regretful of the compromises she made after marriage), and value the experience they will have managing their own space away from home as preparation for managing their future marital homes, might have a very different take on the importance of sending our daughters to seminary.

We know that there are different methods of education that appeal to different communities when it comes to younger children. For example, it has been widely reported that Jewish day schools in some communities emphasize secular studies for girls, while those subjects are downplayed for boys, because Torah studies are primary concern for males, while supporting future kollel husbands and children are the goals for females. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that people from those communities are questioning the validity of sending post Bais Yaakov girls for further Torah study, when that was never an area of emphasis before. Likewise, it should come as no surprise that in communities where boys and girls receive a relatively egalitarian education with equal emphasis on religious and secular studies (even if the classrooms are separate sex environments), there should be equal importance placed on giving both males and females further Torah education at the geographical epicenter of Jewish spirituality – Israel.

I find that I no longer get outraged or angry when I read articles like this one by Rabbi Rudomin, because it would be the same thing as getting outraged on behalf of an Amish woman who isn’t allowed to adorn her shoes with buckles or becoming inflamed upon learning a Mormon woman can’t drink caffeinated coffee. These restrictions are a part of their culture, and they might be totally ok with it. I’m not part of the kollel community, and it isn’t my culture or lifestyle. If the men and women of the kollel community are fine with a woman’s primary route to spiritual greatness being through marriage and motherhood – who am I to protest? The communal attitude of my culture is equally as foreign, and in some cases objectionable, to those in the yeshivish velt. Thankfully, there isn’t only one derech to rely upon, and those of us who have different attitudes than our neighbors about women’s education or life in general, have other avenues available to us.