Gershon Distenfeld’s “A Viral Opportunity” (April 23, 2020) created a lot of dialogue last week. I appreciated his passionate and well-reasoned plea to the Modern Orthodox community to reexamine its priorities. He acknowledged that many families struggling with the financial burdens of Modern Orthodox life are still considered wealthy. He asked us to reconsider what we value and how we spend our money. He implored us to make large, intra-institution-wide changes to our education system to lower the costs and create a sustainable model. Finally, he warned us about making the same mistake from 2008 by not learning from our crises. I, and I assume the vast majority of readers, agree with this completely. But herein lies the problem. It’s a classic echo chamber conversation. We all share the same beliefs and endlessly complain to each other that things haven’t changed. This is because the article in question fails to ask or answer the question “How?” Mr. Distenfeld talks of change, the change we all want to see, but gives no direction, no next steps.
To be clear, I mean no disrespect to Mr. Distenfeld and I know that he has taken serious action himself to make real changes in our community. But the problem with this article is that most readers will finish, chat with their friends about how they agree with its points, and then do…nothing. This is a call to action with no action items. What is a reader supposed to do? Who wants to be the first person to not make a bar mitzvah party for their child and risk being the only one to do so? Who wants to be the first person on the block not to invite the neighbors to the family wedding when they’ve already attended that neighbor’s simcha? Which family would like to be the only one who didn’t take a summer vacation, enviously sitting at home flipping through their friends’ Facebook posts. If you worry that you’re the guinea pig, you’re less likely to take a risk. We’re not all Nachshon ben Aminadav. So everyone just grumbles and the status quo is upheld.
In my field (clinical psychology) we focus on change, be it actions or emotions. The strategy is to focus on clear, attainable and actionable assignments. Start small, with achievable changes, resulting in more frequent and reinforcing successes. Progress is made over time with measured, increasingly challenging action. This is what was missing from Mr. Distenfeld’s article.
For fear of being a hypocrite, I’ll offer a few ideas in support of Mr. Distenfeld’s admirable goals.
Small: I am about to dismiss the second half (and likely the primary point) of Mr. Distenfeld’s article. I do this not because it is unimportant nor because I am no expert on school financial affairs, rather it is because any intra-institution-wide change would be massive. We need to start small. Otherwise we can all say “we’re not the experts” and complain about the lack of progress. Therefore, I think the focus should be on the individual choices we make in our community: simchas, camps and luxuries.
Clear: What if we came together as a community and created budgets for kiddushim, bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings. We decide as a community how much we think people should spend on these simchas. This can be shul-wide, school-wide or community-wide. We set a price range and ask everyone to commit. This makes it clear and removes the fear that “I’m going to be the only one doing this.”
For sleepaway camps, perhaps we can agree to a one-month-only policy. That way we can support local day camps and other programs and ensure that those children whose families can’t afford sleepaway camp (or children who are not the sleepaway-camp type) won’t be alone for two months. Either way families will be spending less over the summer.
Luxuries are somewhat harder because they mostly start with those who can afford but create a pressure on those who cannot. Yes, if you’ve earned your money you have a right to spend it and those who can’t afford shouldn’t overspend. However, we are talking about the character of our community and the example and standards we are setting for our children. Thomas Hobbes’ Social Contract comes to mind: individuals sacrifice some of their individual liberties for the safety and comforts of the community. Perhaps this is where the affluent have the opportunity to set the example. As Mr. Distenfeld said, “The greatest responsibility is on those who have the means to spend.” What would happen if a large contingent of wealthy individuals signed a public commitment to keep their cars under 50K? What if the large groups in the community agreed to put a freeze on house building and expansions for a few years while everyone finds their footing after this financial crisis? I’m sure there are better ideas out there and that these are neither comprehensive nor perfect, but it’s a concrete starting point.
Attainable: There can be a lot of really great plans out there but now is the part where we have to figure out how to put them into action. What we need are individuals who are willing to help spearhead these changes in their own groups (friends, minyan, shul, school, city, etc.). Here’s an idea. This is a link to a form where you can sign up to get involved (shorturl.at/movB4). Full disclosure, I don’t know if I have the bandwidth or skills to spearhead this movement on my own (I am aware of the scent of hypocrisy). I am, however, confident that there are a lot of people out there who would like to see some of these changes. Let’s get everyone together and approach our rabbis, principals, shuls, schools and larger communities to make these things happen. If we join together, our small and clear steps can begin to create serious results. We may not be able to completely change our schools today but we can definitely elevate our community.
Jon Lamm, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, practicing in both New York and Bergen County. He lives with his wife and three children in Fair Lawn, where he serves as the co-president of Congregation Darchei Noam. All of his children attend Bergen County yeshivot. He can be reached at [email protected].