Parnasah – Taking It Beyond Mishpacha


A recent article in Mishpacha (“Making it Work, January 3, 2013) provided advice to young men on the cusp of leaving kollel and entering the job market. The article was a good beginning in publicizing the need for making vocational guidance available to all.

While any valid advice is better than none at all – which unfortunately is still what many of our young people are provided – the article stopped short of spelling out some realities of the job market. Several Cross-Currents readers submitted reactions to the Mishpacha piece, hoping to continue the discussion. I selected two of them, both by frum professionals who also own many hours of hands-on experience in guiding frum young adults who are entering the job market. Both convey some frustrations and apprehensions that deserve a hearing. Both provided strong reasons for having to remain anonymous if they are going to continue serving the community as mentors. While we generally turn down anonymous submissions, we felt that there was room for an exception here.

The first submission:

Making It Work: A Rejoinder

(1) The article begins by painting a context of a kollel yungerman who now needs to make a parnasah which includes the requisite transition to the workplace. The inference is that kollel is an expected stage in every frum young man’s life. The full-time kollel yungerman represents an important cohort of our population – but it is not the only one. There are several other models already at work in the Orthodox world, with thousands of participants. They, too, need guidance about parnasah. By restricting the Mishpacha article to full-time learners with no secular training, issues of college, training, and skill development during more formidable early years can be conveniently side-stepped. We do a disservice to our children by pretending that they are all living according to a single script.

(2) While a yungerman might start to look for a job in his early 30’s, the job search really starts 10-20 years earlier. It begins with obtaining a legitimate secular education. Yeshivos that take pride in advertising minimal general studies or mention the term with a friendly wink might need to reexamine the viability of that posture. After all, parnasah challenges may be connected to deficiencies in general studies. To give a crash course in reading, writing, math and science at age 30 when the last serious general studies class may have been in Fourth Grade is a challenge. Projections for the near future show the greatest strength and growth in the STEM (Science Engineering, Technology, and Math) fields which require requisite foundations, training, credentialing, skills, and experience. Those of us with hands-on experience with hundreds of young men who have come to us have serious doubts about whether climbing on to the bandwagon at age 30 (with a wife and a few children to boot) works in the fields that hold the greatest promise b’derech hateva.

(3) Making a parnasah requires hishtadlus. It is not something that can be accomplished “yesh ma-ayin”. Plus, hishtadlus is incremental and in most cases, takes many years. Furthermore, how much parnasah is enough? Well, that depends. Is the goal of parnasah financial independence which is not reliant on community, family, or government subsidy? Furthermore, what are the income targets for a family of 6 (2 adults, 4 children) to “make it” in City X? Factoring in kosher food, clothing, sheitels, simchos, tuition, insurance, and real estate in frum areas, there might be rules of thumb calculation for living at a subsistent life style. Plugging in some numbers, it might take $120-$150K in gross annual income in order to break even. Each year below that would represent a shortfall that would either be debt or subsidy by family or community. And annual deficits merely accrue; they don’t go away.

(3) While the article discusses the role of Rabbeim and sometimes others as advisors in this important endeavor, the role of the parents is conspicuously absent. Should all guidance about career and parnasah be outsourced to individual Rabbeim in yeshivos? Is it healthy when parents do not to take an active role in discussions about career planning in particular, and fiduciary responsibility in general. With so many young men leaving the home starting with Mesivta, how can a Baalabus father function as a role model, even he is a Ben Torah?

Furthermore, should the roles of any classic Yeshiva include career guidance? And if so, what are the resources allocated and the accountability? To my knowledge, very few Yeshivos track the vocational outcomes of their bochurim or yungeleit to measure the validity of their assumptions about where suitable parnasah can be found.

(4) The article ignores the relative contribution of a frum man’s wife towards the family balance sheet. What role will she play in balancing the family budget – sole breadwinner? Contributor? Stay-at-home mom? These are important questions which should inform the training tracks for young women in the frum community. However, since vocational choices always require a confluence between man and wife, any discussion of careers cannot exist without considering them functioning in tandem.

(5) The tone of the article appears to overplay the value of “Yeshiva skills” in making someone an attractive candidate for a job. People in general society who have never learned in Yeshiva or worked through a Reb Chaim will have the requisite acumen to analyze a problem and develop a solution. Furthermore, it downplays or ignores the fact that Yeshiva bochurim face stiff competition from the general population. They will be pitted against those with resumes that have college degrees and recognizable employers. Prior work experience on those resumes includes working on cutting edge systems and software and accountability for deliverable work. It is naïve and just plain wrong to assume that employers will consider years of learning (and the gifts that we insiders know come with them) as competitive equivalents to the more typical resumes presented by others. While the economy is currently a factor in employment challenges nationally, it merely exacerbates them and is not the root cause. Even with an improved economy, deficits in training and skills will continue to exist.

(6) It is interesting that some of the examples of successful parnasah outcomes portrayed in the article were beneficiaries of community and family connections who provided a break into a job or field. Even without such “protexia”, the question is whether a positive outcome is simply an exception rather than the rule.

(7) Any serious discussion of careers today must include credentialing. And that includes a legitimate degree. The how, where, and when if often a personal decision. Many people get caught up in the notion of a degree being “accredited” or not. That’s not the point. The fact that someone has a degree from an accredited program, does not entitle someone to a job over others. Accreditation is not a right to a job. Take a person shopping for ketchup in the supermarket. If the name brand is available and the same price as one of unknown quality, the consumer will invariably select the name brand with the track record of satisfaction on his dining room table. While experience and skills on a resume play a role in an HR Manager’s decision, the reputation of the degree granting institution does make a difference. Furthermore, many online programs even accredited ones have developed dubious reputations among employers. Let the buyer beware. And this comes in the form of parents doing due diligence before any investments of time and money.

(8) Finally, there is mention of various advisors who are providing guidance to bochurim and yungerman. Are they trained to do so? How current is the information on which they are basing their advice? Do yungerman feel good about leaving the Yeshiva? Or do they feel guilty for doing that and procrastinated because of the associated stigma?
While the article might be a good way to start a discussion on the topic of careers, it was far from thorough. Parents might want to consider a greater ownership in this endeavor. After all, the consequences of children’s ruchniyus and gashmiyus depend on it.

The second submission:

Confronting the Human Carnage

Yesterday I met with another man who was struggling to make ends meet for a large family, after having gone the kollel route and become a rabbi along the way. Listening to his rebbeim and spiritual mentors, he dutifully pursued the path depicted as spiritual fulfillment by following their footsteps into klei kodesh. He never did complete real college, good yeshiva bochur that he was, as that would have taken time and focus away from learning, and likewise married a nice Bais Yaakov girl with only rudimentary professional credentials. Together they had a houseful of children and focused on raising them the Torah way.

Fast forward a dozen years and he is now in his mid-40s with a succession of roles in Jewish organizations in which he did some good, but never made ends meet, in a Jewish world with rising demand from yeshivos for tuition, shuls for membership, and increased costs from providers of virtually every service and commodity. He looks around and sees everyone else doing “just fine” and plenty doing “much better” and wonders where he went wrong, after all, he was only following his Rosh Yeshiva’s advice! Having hit rock bottom, he recently had the opportunity to join a business for sweat equity in addition to earnings from his sales. Although we met to discuss business strategy, I got to hear part of his story and couldn’t help asking him: Have you gone back to your rebbeim and told them where their advice got you? Where are the mechanchim who advised that university is no place for a Jewish boy? Where is the Bais Yaakov teacher who told girls that you can only be a teacher or work from home if you want to be a good wife and mother? Somehow, everyone decamps when it comes to paying the bills!

Unfortunately, this gentleman has plenty of company. In the past year alone, I have met with numerous young men and women, some in person, some by phone and email, who seek advice on getting out of their earning constraints. Not all were going the chinuch or kiruv route. Many of the boys have BTL degrees, some with MBAs, almost all from quickie or online “executive” programs. They are incredulous when they find out their MBA is worth close to nothing because their rebbi told them MBAs earn six figures, at least! The girls have BA degrees from seminaries masking as colleges or accredited from some virtual third party. By and large, they all heeded their rebbeim and Torah advisors, going the kosher route.

We don’t go to an investment banker to get advice about childcare and would not dream of approaching a rocket scientist for guidance on finances, but somehow, Roshei Yeshiva, Rebbeim, Bais Yaakov teachers and Principals seem to have no trouble or qualms advising their mentees in areas outside their expertise. What is especially disturbing is why otherwise intelligent people seem to be lose the faculty of clever decision making when it comes to following advice of their rebbeim. This can be due to a number of factors.

Firstly, there is no transparency about money in the Jewish community. What percentage of yeshiva students know their school tuition fees? Does the typical yeshiva graduate have any idea what childcare costs? utility bills? rent? What about the earning potential of various professions or vocations? We are frustrated by the fact that our yeshivos and bais yaakovs keep their balance sheets top secret, yet we withhold household expenses and personal cash flows from our own children. While this may be well-intentioned, financial literacy needs to start somewhere. If you try having this discussion with the typical yungerleit headed for years of kollel and a vague idea of life in klei kodesh, the answer is always the same: somehow everyone else (in chinuch or kiruv) is making it, so I can, too. If you wait until then to instill financial literacy, it is much, much too late.
Secondly, when successful, yeshivos and mechanchim give their students a sense of purpose and belonging. Instead of nagging, demanding parents, who issue orders and harbor unreasonable expectations, good rebbeim provide uplifting moral messages and build students’ esteem. With such positive interactions, the student feels a valued member of a corps, with a sense of purpose and meaning, particularly so if their skills in learning grow. All this without any accountability, unlike the situation in family life at home. Once engaged in that environment, a young man or woman is highly susceptible to revering their teachers, even in areas beyond their scope. It is only human nature to exercise such power and influence. Who can blame the Rosh Yeshiva, rebbe or Bais Yaakov teacher who think they are providing spiritual guidance and keeping the student from harm?

But this human carnage must end, because eventually, the math doesn’t add up and reality intrudes on idealism. Other articles have dealt with the rage of the middle class for having to float the ones who may be just as capable, but are not pulling their weight. This article is a plea for turning the tides so that our young men and women can take their place in society with confidence and the self esteem that comes from independence. Supporting one’s family is klei kodesh too. Relying on parents for support into adulthood makes one a katan (ha’ochel al shulchan aviv). How do we get this to the attention of our mechanchim? Not only do they need to own up to the fact that they are not qualified to provide guidance on career and financial issues, they also owe me for hours of mentoring in an attempt to undo the wreckage they left behind.

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Formerly Orthodox
2 years 7 months ago

Shlomo Ben Meir and SA: I am speaking as a parent who had no intention of letting my children participate in the tzedaka-supported kollel lifestyle instead of getting a good higher secular education, but was thwarted by the “Rabbinic Establishment” which converted one of them to the “Torah Only” approach. At least he is attending a yeshiva whose certified rabbinical program is training him to be a rebbe, which is a career, although not the one that he might have chosen if he had not been convinced not to explore his other talents in college. My point is that rebbeim and Roshei Yeshivos can be more influential than parents in this generation of less respectful children, especially when the parents are BTs. Unfortunately I feel that these rebbeim don’t have the best interests of young people or their families at heart, and are concerned mainly with the survival of their own institutions and/or ideology.

I don’t understand YM’s logic that since some college graduates are having trouble finding jobs, then one is just as well off without one. I think it is well known that a lack of higher education seriously hampers one’s ability to secure a good parnassa in this era. Although a kollel educated person may be more attractive to a potential employer than the average person with just a high school diploma, the kind of jobs available to those people do not provide the income necessary to support an Orthodox lifestyle. I’m also surprised by his implication (perhaps unintentional) that only people earning a parnassa should struggle, and those who are learning full time should get a comfortable free ride.

2 years 7 months ago

Shlomo Ben Meir: First of all, many of today’s parents who are in their 40s and 50s were subject to the same “Torah uber alles” arguments that their own children experienced, but didn’t dare choose that life for themselves, since their own parents wouldn’t hear of it. (Incidentally, that was also a generation that overwhelmingly respected their parents, particularly those among them of European extraction who were Holocaust survivors).

In turn, many of these parents (often both of them) obtained advanced degrees, got good jobs and/or ran successful businesses, and thought that their good incomes would last forever and — whether out of guilt that THEY didn’t stay in learning, or having been dragged into these situations by their (far less respectful, let’s face it) sons or daughters — believed that they could support their learning sons or sons-in-law for as long as necessary.

Well, the economic problems of the past five years have pulled the rug out from under that assumption. That’s probably one reason why this issue has suddenly become so acute.

Shlomo Ben Meir
2 years 7 months ago

The core issue hovers around the parents. Where have all the parents gone? Why do they think they can ignore their children’s economic fate and rely on the community, the government, or the chesed of others to support their children? It amazes me how many parents with advanced degrees (MDs, PhDs, etc.) allow their sons to have no marketable skills to support their families?

Don’t they realize that down the road a few years these underemployed, underpayed families will struggle to make ends meet and their “learning” sons will be forced to learn even less than their professional peers, who can earn more? Is this frumkeit or the yetzer hora talking?

Yitz Turner
2 years 7 months ago

Re: Ex-Kollel Guy
regarding the anecdotal report from the gentleman still learning, it would be interesting to know if in such circumstances the parents are encouraging their children to continue the path that they have taken, or are they encouraging their children towards business/professional careers?
My gut instinct tells me that their children are also heading towards the Kollel lifestyle.

2 years 7 months ago

is the issue a question about the quality of secular education in American men’s Yeshivas pre-Beis Medrash or is it about whether Kollel is the cause of parnossah problems and the resulting “human carnage”?
My point is that Kollel isn’t the cause of any carnage and that in any cohort of men or women, some are going to struggle mightily to earn a parnossah, even if they graduated from college.