By Stuart Hoffman
I am a child of the immigrant generation in the USA. In general, they had a hardworking, no-nonsense, honest, and practical approach to daily life. They focused their efforts on building or rebuilding their families and their Jewish communities. They also had a strong hakaras ha’tov to this wonderful country, a true medinah shel chesed. Pundits have labeled that group “The Greatest Generation” for having successfully endured the adjustment to the new country, survived the economic hardships of the Great Depression, fought and won World War II, and contributing to the greatest post-war economic boom in American history.
When it came to their children’s career options, there was no mistake about their priorities. The words we heard over and over again from a very early age were, “What will be your tachlis?” “Tachlis” was the code word for “career.” That generation worked with their hands and backs, but their children and grandchildren would strive to become professionals, merging yeshiva learning with a profession. This urgency was even more pressing when the parents were Holocaust survivors.
The 1960–1980s generation of yeshiva bachurim was generally successful in achieving serious yeshiva learning and acquiring professional degrees. The “learning only” yeshivas in the United States were much smaller than the yeshivas that combined Torah study with acquiring a profession. In that era, traveling to Israel was uncommon.
Today things have changed. The paradox is that the professional generations, the grandchildren of the “Greatest Generation,” have different priorities. Parents, many with advanced degrees in medicine, law, finance, economics, business, and academic disciplines seem tolerant of or even supportive of their sons’ being engaged in full-time Torah learning without acquiring any technical or marketable skills to earn a parnassah to support their families. What are the intended and unintended consequences of this new paradigm?
I am not an economist or a demographic futurist. If we assume that everything that occurs in the Torah world today is outside the laws of nature, then the rest of this essay is moot. But if you believe that even in the world of Torah events are played out al pi derech ha’teva, in accordance with laws of nature, then read on.
The law of supply and demand. Using a little common sense and thinking globally, we can surmise that this new paradigm cannot be sustained much longer. The reason is very simple: The large numbers of full-time and even short-term learners who avoid acquiring the necessary job skills to support their families will exceed the ability or willingness of their extended families and the government to support their learning. In short, the demand for economic support will exceed the supply of funds to meet that demand.
Baruch Hashem, it appears that that most of today’s long-term kollel families have adjusted their finances and their material expectations to reflect their need to lead simple, debt-free lives. They are focused on sustaining long-term learning. They are not the main economic problem facing K’lal Yisrael today. The main group that remains at economic risk is the short-term learners and those who wear the “uniform” of learners but are not really kollel material. In increasing numbers, this group has avoided acquiring any relevant job skills until the sudden economic realities and an impending financial crisis stare them in the face.
For example, the phone calls I receive from kollel men seeking federal job and career assistance often involve a husband age 27–32 with a few children at home, a wife who may no longer be able to mix full-time working and child care/home management, and family financial assistance declining or about to end. When I ask these young men about their educational background, it is often only a “yeshiva degree” with no practical work experience.
What is such a person going to do? What practical and honest advice can I offer such a person when his family is facing such an immediate financial crisis?
My first thought is usually to ask myself a series of short questions: 1. Where are the parents? 2. Where are the in-laws? 3. Where is the spouse?
Where are the parents? Frankly, I’m at a loss to answer this question. It is without a doubt the responsibility of parents to provide their sons with the ability to earn a parnassah to support their families. Let’s consider a few pertinent Gemaras:
1. “A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a firstborn, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: To teach him how to swim as well” (Kiddushin 29a).
2. “Kol mi she’eino melamed es beno umnus k’ilu melamdo listus—Anyone who does not teach his son a profession, it is as if he has taught him to be a thief” (Kiddushin 29a).
3. “Rav Meir omeir l’olam yelameid adam li’bno umnus kallah unekiya—Rav Meir says that one should teach his son an easy and clean profession” (Mishnah, Kiddusin 82a).
It is time for parents to wake up and have an honest dialogue with children about their future career options before that financial crisis hits home. Kollel learning in the early years of a marriage is wonderful, but what about articulating a “kollel exit strategy”? The couple needs to know their future direction before events dictate their uncertain financial future. The couple that begins a non-long-term kollel life but after a few years faces termination of that family financial support may also face a real-life crisis that may impact their shalom bayis and their domestic relationship.
At a wedding a few years ago, I ran into an old friend who had moved to another city. He told me that he had been supporting his daughter and son-in-law in kollel for the past 15 years, but he planned to retire in two years and then the support would end. I asked him if he had informed his daughter and son-in-law of that fact. He replied that he had not. I urged him to do so sooner rather than later. To leave a family with multiple children without their anticipated financial support where the husband has no readily available job skills is unfair and just not right. Parents and in-laws need to be up-front and honest about their financial commitments to their married children so that a realistic kollel exit strategy can be developed and the shock of a sudden end to their kollel life can be averted.
There are parents who have tried to advise and lead their adult children towards a financially responsible and independent life style, only to be unsuccessful in gaining their children’s compliance. These parents are to be commended for at least trying to do the right thing.
Where are the in-laws? As a potential shiddich reaches the serious stage, but prior to an imminent engagement, the girl’s parents have a right and an obligation to ask the young yeshiva bachur the following simple question: “How do you plan to financially support our daughter after your marriage?” I am told that this simple question is often not even articulated or hinted at. Isn’t this a legitimate question that the parents of the girl have a right to ask? Why is it considered inappropriate and “off the table”?
Where is the spouse? We need to return to the basics. Which marriage partner is responsible for the financial support of the family? It is the husband. If the husband is not sure of this requirement, he needs to simply reread the kesubah that he gave his wife under the chuppah. It is plain and simple. It is not the wife’s role to support the financial needs of the family. The wife can help out and assist in earning income towards the family’s financial needs, but it is the husband who has this responsibility. It is time for the “eizer k’negdo,” the spouse, to be an “eizer,” a helper, as well as at times being a “k’negdo,” a reality-checker. It is time to speak up years in advance of that crisis period. Marriage must be an open partnership that requires honest and realistic communication and direction from both partners. The family’s parnassah plan is a legitimate topic for this couple to discuss.
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We face many challenges in today’s frum society. We must begin to face the economic realities of living the frum lifestyle in order to sustain and support our families, our mosdos, and our communities. Let’s avoid the situation where our young people “wake up” at age 27–32 with no real education, no practical job skills, and no realistic career goals and suddenly face the reality of navigating the difficult financial world for their families. Let’s avoid becoming a low-technology community, with substandard income, in a high-technology and highly skilled job market and economy.
And let us pray for Syatta d’Shmaya that what we decide to do as young men, post-seminary young ladies, parents, and young marrieds will prove to enrich our families, our communities, and K’lal Yisrael. v
Stuart Hoffman is a senior human-resources specialist for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He is a graduate of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College of Baltimore and holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins University. Mr. Hoffman is a founding member of the Agudath Israel Congregation of Baltimore and serves as a board member of JobLink of Maryland, a nonprofit organization that helps job seekers locate and prepare for employment.