Thursday, May 30, 2024

Social Climbing in Orthodox Judaism

2024 Lexus RX - Luxury SUV - What kind of car do YOU drive?
By its very nature Orthodox Judaism is the great equalizer when it comes to social status. That’s because we are all bound by the same Halachic obligations in so many facets of our lives.

For example we all pretty much live in the same neighborhoods. And any given Shul will have a mix of wealthy, middle class, and even poor Jews praying side by side on a daily or at least weekly basis. We all send our children to the same religious schools. Our children sit next to each other in class and often great friendships develop regardless of how wealthy or poor the parents are. There are many more examples like this. Our religious obligations make class distinctions a bit harder to achieve.

At least that’s what one would think and to a certain extent its true. And yet Orthodox Judaism is not the social panacea it ought to be be. 

A reader sent me some questions along these lines published in Tradition by Associate Editor, Rabbi Chaim Strauchler. He asked them in the context of Modern Orthodoxy (MO). His observations: suggest that there are some subtle and not so subtle ways the Orthodox Jewish community has come to make distinctions between social strata. For example he notes that fundraising campaigns use donation levels to differentiate between supporters. 

Rabbi Strauchler then excerpts a previous Tradition article by Chaim Saiman and Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt) that made the following observation: 

Luxury is no longer a lifestyle that some who happen to be Orthodox share with other high net-worth Americans. Rather, as the norms of frum society shift, luxury has become a central part of an aspirational Orthodoxy…

Is that true? Rabbi Strauchler then continues:

Part of luxury is exclusivity. The “frumkeit brand” already makes use of informal exclusivity. As it develops, how will this exclusion become formalized in membership cards and service levels? How will rising expectations of the food and decor at kiddush raise subtle walls around its carefully curated tables? 

In creating a non-tiered community, has Modern Orthodoxy excluded lower economic strata who might have done well at a “lower price point”?

Is a lower middle class Modern Orthodox model tenable? Does it exist “out-of-town”? Why doesn’t it exist in the New York area or in other larger metropolitan centers?

Have our children “bought in” to the upper middle class lifestyle such that they can no longer distinguish between their Judaism and their social economic status?

First I don’t think this is a problem exclusive (no pun intended) to the MO community. Wealthy Orthodox Jews tend to do the kinds of thing that other wealthy people do as long as they are within the bounds of Halacha. They build luxurious homes (often in more than one location); buy luxury vehicles; take luxury vacations; and throw luxury weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. I see it all the time right here in Chicago, whether Charedi, Modern Orthodox, or anything in between. 

Enjoying one’s wealth is more conspicuous these days because there are so many more of us that have achieved great financial success and are able to afford the trappings of great wealth. There has been an explosion of huge luxury homes being built here in Chicago by the newly rich. 

As far as I am concerned, I am very happy that so many of us are doing well. God had blessed them. If they have earned it honestly, let them enjoy their wealth. The wealthy Orthodox Jews of Chicago (in all strata) are very generous to all the religious institutions that need their help They would not survive without their generosity. 

Does this mean that middle class Orthodox Jews are excluded from the social circles of of the wealthy? The answer is not a simple yes or no. 

As noted  the nature of Orthodox Judaism by default means participation by in common concerns  like those mentioned above.

On the other hand as Rabbi Strauchler suggests, ‘will rising expectations of the food and decor at kiddush raise subtle walls around its carefully curated tables?’

Truth is that it already has to a certain extent. Most of us cannot afford to build the kind of mansions I see going up all over the place in Chicago. Or drive the kind of luxury cars the wealthy drive

That probably breeds a certain degree of envy on the part of some people. They might feel compelled to climb a social ladder they can’t really afford. That cand and sadly sometimes does end up with tragic financial consequences. Which happens when spending more money than one has - trying to keep up with the Katzes and Cohens.

 I know of one case where a lot of money was borrowed to hold a lavish wedding for a daughter which was never paid back. Some people are willing to go into debt  just to keep appearances up.

Does that mean that our values are messed up? That wealthy Jews shouldn’t be spending money so conspicuously? Should they live more modest lifestyles? Should they drive Toyotas and not Lexuses?  

Some would say yes. They should not enjoy their money in such conspicuous ways. That we should strive to be a ;classless society. But I would argue (and always have) that people ought to be allowed to enjoy their hard earned wealth in any way they choose. Who is anyone to tell others how to spend – or not spend their money?! The problem is not so much with the wealthy. It is with those of us that envy them to the point of doing stupid things in order to climb the social ladder.

That being said, there are some wealthy people that do live modestly. They don’t need all the luxury items that tell the world how rich they are. They let their philanthropy do the talking. The late Dr. Joseph Walder who was probably a billionaire lived a very modest lifestyle. If not for his philanthropy, you would never know how wealthy he was.

He was surely a role model. But an exception. 

The appropriate attitude for all of us is to live within our means and not try to live up to standards we cannot afford. And at the same time not be jealous of those who are able to afford the things the rest of us cannot. Let the wealthy live as they choose. The world of Orthodox Judaism by its very nature means there can be no hard lines drawn between social classes. No matter how much some people try. 

Just some quick thoughts on the subject.