Wealth Disparity Within the Orthodox Middle Class

In an apocryphal exchange, American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald commented to his colleague Ernest Hemingway, “You know, the rich are different from you and me.” To which Hemingway replied, “Yes. They’ve got more money.” Hemingway’s observation seems to be increasingly true; the rich are no longer all that different.

While the economic gap between the population’s wealthiest and poorest is expanding, it feels like the social gap is narrowing. Despite an explosion in the disparity in people’s balance sheets, cultural tastes and activities are increasingly similar, and clothing and dialect provide little indication of one’s financial status.

American Orthodox Jewry is experiencing these same trends. Perhaps that is why the primary socioeconomic tension within American Orthodoxy appears not to be caused by the enormous gap between the community’s richest and poorest, but rather by the widening economic gap within the Orthodox middle class itself.

In earlier decades of American Orthodoxy, there was always a 1 percent-or-less sliver of the community that was perceived as “the rich,” while the 99 percent remainder consisted of just regular folks. Aside from being in an economic league of their own, the rich also comprised a distinct social circle. Their high-end lifestyle and luxurious acquisitions may have been a topic of gossip, but those in the 1 percent were viewed by others as distant and apart, thereby imposing negligible peer pressure and more likely to be a source of fantasy than jealousy. Among the rest of the community, economic differences certainly existed, but those gaps were modest and the lifestyle variances not very dramatic.

Today there is still a 1 percent-or-less sliver of uber-wealthy observant families, and 35 percent of Orthodox households in New York City are poor, some truly impoverished (UJA-Federation of New York, Jewish Community Study of New York, 2011). But a new kind of significant financial disparity has emerged, this time among the remaining two-thirds of the community. Many middle-class families, though not extraordinarily wealthy, live in comfortable affluence, while others, though not impoverished, perpetually struggle to make ends meet. These groups are socially intertwined in a burgeoning “middle class,” yet they live very different experiences. The clash between their social proximity and their economic disparity produces a form of stress and peer pressure that can be overwhelming. These challenges and tensions introduce socioeconomic policy questions that our communal institutions should consider. Throughout this essay I have posed several such questions, but many more beg to be asked.

The challenges and tensions should also prompt us to examine the attitude of Orthodox Jews regarding the demands for economic equality or equity dominating America’s current social and political conversation.

How Do We View Economic Disparity?

As America struggles with the ethical and practical challenges imposed by its massive wealth gap, many of us in the Orthodox community also struggle with these issues. It may be easier for us to identify our own views regarding economic disparity by considering four representative approaches. Have our religious authorities conveyed which, if any, of these four views reflects Torah values? Is there a uniform view? Is there an alternative view that we should be adopting?

Objectivism: A particularly harsh view is that individuals are charged exclusively with advancing their own personal interests. Rather than being a virtue, assisting those less fortunate is seen as a reflection of weakness.

Ayn Rand, an American immigrant from Soviet Russia, popularized this philosophical theory, calling it “objectivism.” Described as ethical egoism or the morality of self-interest, objectivism attracted quite a following during the Cold War era, and Rand’s works still remain influential. Objectivism’s followers are not at all troubled by a wide economic gap. I often wonder whether the ethics of Biblical Sodom were Rand’s inspiration.

Decades ago, the great Torah leader Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, who held a PhD in English literature, cautioned that certain books are so insidious as to be forbidden to be read. I recall Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged as the example he proffered.

Benevolence: More familiar to Orthodox Jews is the view that all who are not impoverished are mandated to help those who are. One’s goal, however, is to raise the floor for those suffering deprivation, but with no aspiration that all people be equally enriched. It is indeed legitimate, if not admirable, to amass wealth so long as it is accumulated in an honest, ethical and non-exploitative manner and used to ensure that the basic needs of others are met.

Despite its simplicity, this view is fraught with questions, the threshold one being what constitutes “basic needs”?

– Are basic needs adequately satisfied by preventing starvation and homelessness?

– What level of health care or childhood education, if any, constitutes a basic need?

– Do basic needs include achieving a level of comfort and security?

Equality: Like many others, some Orthodox Jews maintain that in addition to being assured of one’s basic needs, every individual has a right to economic equality, no differently than civil liberties and equal justice.

Equality, however, means that everyone is afforded the identical chance to succeed financially, not that the wealth disparity is necessarily eliminated. The goal is equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.

Though seemingly simple and straightforward, equality of opportunity actually raises many questions. For example:

– At what stage in a person’s economic journey must equality of opportunity be ensured? Is it sufficient that every school or job applicant receives identical consideration based on his or her skills and qualifications at the time? Or is true equality achieved only when years earlier every applicant had been given equal opportunity to develop these necessary skills and qualifications?

– Is equality of opportunity achievable without curbing the privileges created by the “protektzia” that provides heightened access to school admissions, jobs and investment opportunities exclusively to those with particular backgrounds and relationships?

Equity: Though the words “equality” and “equity” are often interchangeable, it is not the case with regard to socioeconomic aspirations. As described earlier, advocates for economic equality seek to ensure identical opportunities for success. Advocates for equity, by contrast, seek to ensure identical results.

Some assert that historical mistreatment and exploitation have been so damaging that authentic parity of opportunity has been permanently quashed. In the iniquitous absence of bona fide equality of opportunity, justice and fairness demand that wealth be shared identically by all.

Others simply reject the premise of personal property. They maintain that equity is mandated because all property belongs to the collective community, or to the state, and thus everyone should receive an equal measure. When fully implemented, this socioeconomic system is called communism.

– If principles of economic equity are inappropriate when applied to personal property, should they nevertheless apply regarding interests in and control of communal institutions? Is it just and appropriate that wealthy benefactors receive disproportionate rights and influence with regard to communal decision-making and oversight?

Our Progressive Educational System

Arguably, economic disparity has a lesser impact on adults in the Orthodox community because of their childhood experience in our educational system. Most non-Jewish and non-Orthodox Jewish American youngsters are educated in schools attended by children of families of substantially similar economic status; a secular private school almost exclusively serves families of means, and public schools are ordinarily attended by children living within the same school district (school districts most often encompass economically similar households). While such economic segregation creates less peer pressure and jealousy among students, it increases the likelihood that children will emerge as adults in the same economic strata as their childhood friends.

Orthodox children, by contrast, typically attend yeshivot and day schools that simultaneously serve families of all income levels. Admittedly, children of particularly wealthy or influential families are often admitted even when classes are otherwise full, but it is common for 50 percent or more of a day school’s student body to be receiving tuition assistance, often in very significant amounts. While this economic integration introduces pressure on parents whose children may be jealous of their classmates, it also presents significant benefits.

In addition to a degree of educational parity (supposedly assured by economic integration), such integration expands the spectrum of our children’s lifelong aspirations. When children begin to consider alternative life paths, their range of viable and comfortable choices are typically informed by the routes taken by their parents and relatives, as well as by the parents of their friends and classmates. When raised near an army base, a child is more likely to pursue a military career, and when raised among artists a child will more likely pursue a career in the arts. Similarly, children are more inclined to pursue advanced Torah studies or attend graduate school when many parents of their classmates have done so. Our economically integrated school system thus broadens the range of our children’s choices, introducing paths that a wealth gap might otherwise preclude.

Though we may celebrate the benefits of our schools’ economic integration, questions such as the following need to be explored:

– Among schools in varying segments of American Orthodoxy, how widely is economic integration actually being implemented? Similarly, are all post-high school Torah studies equally accessible regardless of financial wherewithal?

– Even if economic integration is employed by schools, are other sorts of segregation being imposed, such as on the basis of parents’ religious observance, cultural or educational background, or shul or rabbinic affiliations? Are such practices dictated by—or in violation of—Torah values?

– Would a Jewish day school be able to provide a superior education if it accepted only students paying full tuition?

– Do all children attending the same school really receive the identical education when only certain parents can afford tutoring and other extracurricular activities?

Our Elitist Philanthropy- Focused Social Structure

Orthodox Jewish life depends heavily on its not-for-profit institutions, such as shuls, schools, adult Torah study programs and outreach and social services providers. Consequently, in addition to the peer pressure resulting from our financially disparate middle class, a great deal of tension and social stress is caused by the dominant role that charity plays in our community.

Our institutions’ desperate need for charitable dollars not only elevates the prominence and influence of wealthy benefactors but has also turned fundraising dinners, parlor meetings and concerts into some of our community’s prime social events. The cost of attending most of these functions, as well as community conventions and retreats, is simply prohibitive for most families. Wealth disparity thus not only diminishes the stature and influence of those less affluent, but also precludes them from events at which those in the “in crowd” develop invaluable relationships and connections.

The widening income gap is also distastefully highlighted by the myriad occasions in which institutions, including local shuls and schools, publicize the names of donors and the amount of their gifts. While this is a time-worn practice, in earlier decades the community included only a small cadre of wealthy members who were thereby shamed into becoming substantial donors. All others, by contrast, were within a general spectrum of more modest financial capability and thus did not feel pressure to mirror the generosity of those most wealthy. Today, however, in addition to the listing of astronomically high donation categories, there are typically many well-populated lesser categories of donations that are similarly out of reach for a good portion of the community.

– Do the incremental dollars raised through the public announcement of pledge amounts and other publicity tactics justify the highlighting of the community’s wealth gap and the resulting impact on individuals and their families?

– Is there a distinction in this regard between local institutions such as shuls and schools, in which all community members are donors, and other types of causes that tend to be supported only by certain individuals? Is there a distinction between an open appeal in shul in the middle of davening and pledge announcements taking place in other contexts?

Finally, our communal infrastructure’s reliance on philanthropy results in the dominance of the wealthy in lay communal leadership and decision making; in addition to enjoying stature, benefactors command dominating influence. The community’s disparity in wealth thus evolves into a disparity in communal control, whereby the wealthy influence, if not dictate, policies that affect everyone, including those struggling to make ends meet but who have little voice.

– Do institutions’ decisions to construct new buildings, or to initiate new programs or organizations sufficiently consider the burden imposed on the less affluent, who are also expected to contribute?

– Do communal organizations adequately consider the interests of the poor when adopting positions regarding government advocacy? For example, how do they weigh between advocating for the best interests of tenants or landlords, government program beneficiaries or taxpayers?

Communal Intimacy Narrows the Wealth Gap’s Sting

In a small community such as ours, some may be deeply disturbed by the influence and prestige enjoyed by the affluent, but at the same time, the affluence provides invaluable benefits to the community as a whole, including those members who are most disturbed. Because of the massive size of charities like the Red Cross, Feed America or the Metropolitan Opera, their beneficiaries are generally unable to connect their personal benefits to particular donations. But each of us can easily identify the benefits we derive from major donors to our shul’s new building campaign, local day school scholarship fund, and our community’s Tomchei Shabbos.

Moreover, we recognize that the wealth being accumulated by our neighbors does not diminish our own earning opportunities. Consequently, we are capable of acknowledging that the peer pressure we might experience due to our neighbors’ wealth is significantly outweighed by the very real and substantive benefits that we, individually and as a community, enjoy by the rich becoming ever richer.

On the other hand, the affluent must recognize that their responsibilities extend beyond philanthropy. The stature they enjoy allows them to model modesty and religious piety, and their financial prowess affords them the opportunity to make lifestyle choices reflecting sensitivity to the emotional pressures on others. While their generosity certainly earns them gratitude and recognition, they should be mindful of an essential lesson I learned while visiting Rabbi Yonaton Hirschhorn when he was serving as an OU-JLIC Torah educator at the University of Maryland. He explained that while “others give their own money as charity, we Orthodox Jews give God’s money as tzedakah.”

Mark (Moishe) Bane is president of the OU and a senior partner and chairman of the Business Restructuring Department at the international law firm Ropes & Gray LLP.

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This article was featured in the Fall 2021 issue of Jewish Action.
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