Paying the Price for the Modern Orthodox Dream

By: Talya Hyman  |  February 15, 2018

The American Dream declares that if one has a good job and works hard, he or she will attain happiness and success. It seems that religious Jewish Americans have to work harder to attain their own Modern Orthodox American Dream. Chasya Klafter, SCW ‘19 asserts, “In many ways, Modern Orthodoxy has an unwritten checklist of standards that dictate the choices that individuals must make in order to fit into this particular lifestyle. This includes attendance at an Orthodox Jewish day school, shul membership, and often sleepaway camp. And these experiences are by no means inexpensive.” Living as an observant Jew comes with financial pressures. Are Orthodox Jewish students aware of the high cost of living fully as observant Jews; and does this awareness affect their choice of major and career path?

Rachel Somorov, SCW ‘19, first and foremost chose to major in biology because of her genuine interest in the field of medicine. She said, “Going into biology and medicine wasn’t only about the money, it’s definitely also about what I’m interested in naturally, and what I want to do with my life and helping people.” She also recognizes, however, that in order to “send [her] kids to private school and give them opportunities to experience the world”, she must be financially secure and comfortable. Somorov stated, “I wouldn’t consider a career if I knew that I wouldn’t make enough money to sustain myself.” She suggests that observant Jews should ultimately think practically and sensibly about their lifestyle, and the salary they earn to support those means.

Klafter, a psychology major, said, “I’ve always known that I wanted to go into a field relating to psychology, but [I didn’t know] the exact path that I would take. Majoring in psychology was a way for me to explore the different options I had, eventually allowing me to narrow down which direction I would take.” Now in her third year at Stern College, Klafter is “planning to attend a dual degree master’s program in public health and social work. I hope to work preventing sexual violence and domestic abuse.” Similarly, Bella Adler, SCW ‘20, decided to pursue a Jewish education degree based on her pure passion and interest in the field. She shared, “When I look back to my own education I appreciate the skill set I was given to think critically, make my own decisions, and to be a leader. I want to give students the ability to think for themselves and the skill set to make the world a better place.”

Though salary did play a role in Klafter’s career choice, it was not the determining factor. “I definitely considered salary when I was choosing my career path, but it wasn’t the most important factor for me. What is far more important to me is that I want my career to add value and meaning to my life, and I hope that the direction I’ve chosen to take will do that,” acknowledges Klafter. Though many Orthodox college students ultimately pursue careers in areas they believe will be personally fulfilling, financial needs may still weigh heavily on their minds. “Being a religious Jew is expensive. There’s all of our Yomim Tovim, buying a Sukkah, matzah, having meat at every Shabbat meal, and ritual items. Everything adds up,” stated Somorov. While these expenses contribute to the overall cost of the Modern Orthodox lifestyle, Adler attributes the biggest expense to the cost of Jewish education.

Paying for Jewish education can be burdensome. Many parents find that they need financial help from outside sources in order to provide their children with a strong Jewish day school upbringing. Klafter, who grew up in “a small, out-of-town community in the Midwest” says that while growing up, she was left unaware of the “significant financial pressure generated by the orthodox lifestyle” because “a lot of financial support was provided, allowing everyone access to these ‘essential’ experiences.” Some communities, however, lack the resources to provide significant scholarships for a large percentage of their school’s student body. Adler stated, “If we as Jewish people believe that the continuity of our people is through Jewish education, then we must find a way to make Jewish education more affordable.”

Those interviewed agree that the attainment of the Modern Orthodox Dream should not come at the price of one’s own personal happiness. Adler said that she will “remain optimistic that people choose careers that they are passionate about, and will ultimately help make the world a better place.” Somorov believes that while it is important to provide for one’s family and to be financially “self-sufficient”, a student deciding his or her career path should not feel confined or limited to a few practical majors because “there is a lot you can do within a lot of fields.” When college students decide on their majors and career goals, they should remember that there are a multitude of different directions they could follow in order to lead a fulfilling life. Somorov stated, “Within [careers that make money] there is still a lot of room to do what you love and what you’re good at, and what you feel will allow you to contribute.”

The Modern Orthodox Dream of leading a lifestyle in accordance with religious values is obtained through hard work. While this is vital in order to sustain the growth and strength of the Modern Orthodox community, the biggest dream of all should be the pursuit of personal happiness and actualization through that hard work. Klafter shared this very dream: “I want to be able to provide for myself and help support a family, but I don’t feel the need to exceed that baseline amount. What is far more important to me is that my career [should] add value and meaning to my life. I hope that the direction I’ve chosen to take will do that.”