The Hidden Costs of Poverty
Though the economic crisis of the chareidi community in Israel is much discussed subject, that discussion typically focuses on the threat to our yeshivos or trumpeting the percentage of children under the poverty line to demonstrate the failure of the government’s social and economic program. Much less frequently discussed is the impact of poverty on our homes and families.
I know of no authoritative statistics on the number of gittin (divorces) in the chareidi community, but each one of us is privy to plenty of anecdotal evidence of the rise in divorce, in particular among young couples. Prior to the Gaza withdrawal, the black humor in at least one community with a high concentration of younger couples went: “Yehudi aino m’garesh Yehudi, aval Yehudi megaresh Yehudiah — A Jew does not expel another Jew, but a Jew does divorce a Jewess.”
Economic factors are rarely the only factors behind divorce. But no one would deny that economic pressures are adding new stresses to marriage, and that many marriages are not standing up to the strain. As Chazal say, “Arguments are not found in a man’s home, except as a consequece of [a lack of] grain” (Bava Metziah 59b).
One of the leaders of the generation recently asked a respected talmid chacham to undertake a kollel in a community with many young couples. He couched his request not in terms of limud HaTorah (Torah learning), but rather in terms of pikuach nefesh (saving lives). The gadol told him that he personally knew of 12 cases of gittin in that community in which economic pressures were a major factor. In many of these cases, the problems begin soon after the wedding, when the husband is unable to secure a place in Kollel. The areas to which young couples are attracted by virtue of relatively lower housing costs are also furthest removed from major population centers and good jobs. As a consequence, many young married women find themselves with little or no work.
Even if the husband in such a situation spends most of the day in a beis hamedrash — by no means an easy matter, if one is not a member of a kollel — the young couple inevitably find themselves too much in one another’s company. Too frequently, each feels that their spouse has somehow failed him or her, either by failing to secure a place in kollel or to find a job, and as the pressures caused by a lack of incoming income mount so do the mutual recriminations.
The economic pressures on young couples are only one aspect of the problem. Unfortunately, those pressures do not abate with time and the growth of the family. A rosh yeshiva of a yeshiva ketana recently told me that even families in which both parents work, are often unable to pay full tuition, especially if they have already married off one or two children and are heavily in debt. By that time, of course, the marriage is on a much sounder basis than for young couples but daily, grinding pressure takes its toll on the ability of even the finest people to deal with the challenges that all married couples face.
NOT UNRELATED TO THE STRESS ON MARRIAGES from a lack of money even for basic necessities is the adverse impact on children. We would like to think that the simplicity with which we live conveys to our children a message of mesirus nefesh for Torah. And that is no doubt true in many cases.
But where there is constant discussion in the house of a lack of money or squabbling between parents over monetary matters, the children may end up receiving a message far different than that which the parents intended to convey. The message for many children in such a situation is that money is the solution to all problems and that Torah learning is the cause. And that may be true even where the parents mesirus nefesh is in fact extraordinary and a reflection of both parents’ sincere desire to sacrifice for the husband’s growth in Torah learning.
Someone close to one of the leaders of the generation once told me of a young boy just a few years after bar mitzvah, who came into the gadol’s house and demonstratively threw down his kippah. The gadol asked him to explain his dramatic act. The boy’s reply: “Everything is no, no, no. We can’t afford that because Tatte learns Torah. Even when all I want is a cheap candy, the answer is still, “No, because Tatte learns.” That teenager viewed Torah study as a source of deprivation, rather than of the greatest imaginable joy, with predictable consequences for his future learning and mitzvah observance.
During his years as a rav in Tzitevian, Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky was very poor. His salary was collected from the members of the town in the smallest possible coins. Reb Yaakov and his Rebbetzin possessed only one pair of galoshes between them, and he had only one shirt to wear. Yet whenever the children asked for something, Reb Yaakov was careful not to tell them that he could not afford the item in question. Instead he always explained why the item in question was not really necessary.
Better that the children should see him as a tightwad, Reb Yaakov felt, than that they should feel that their father was unable to provide for them. Not only do too many of our children lack the security of feeling that their parents are able to supply their basic needs, but they feel that they too are destined for a life of even deeper poverty.
In the end the hidden costs of rampant poverty on the quality of our marriages and our children may turn out to be even greater than the more obvious consequences of poverty.
Published in Mishpacha Magazine, Dec. 29.