Being an Orthodox Jew is expensive. I know you read newspapers for the news, and I’m sure that this comes as a shock. Well, that’s the kind of hard-hitting journalism you can come to expect in this paper every week. But it’s true. With the regular expenses of everyday life here in the New York metropolitan area, and the added costs of yeshivah tuition, kosher food, and the premium we pay just to live in a Jewish neighborhood, the money adds up. And we don’t really help ourselves, either. On top of that, we, like all other walks of life, tend to spend above our means. The obvious example is in the simchah department. Before COVID, weddings could easily cost more than $50,000, and often go well above that. Bar and bas mitzvahs are slightly lower, but aren’t split by two sides. Even smaller occasions like a shalom zachar, a bris milah, and a kiddush are often a shock in how expensive they are to first-timers.
If there’s one positive thing to come out of COVID, it’s that these costs don’t have to be this way. And I know that this will anger many party vendors, but it’s time we take a look at how much these events are costing, and whether it needs to continue. All throughout 2020, we are seeing smaller events and lower costs out of necessity, but what if we can take this change and apply it even after COVID is over? I think we all are assuming that businesses are going to be doing this. Many companies will be transitioning at least a portion of their employees to telecommuting in order to cut down on costs, and they will be doing so based on what they learned from being forced into situations due to COVID. There is no reason we can’t do the same.
We had gotten to a point where a 500-guest wedding is not only not unheard of, but the norm. The same venue that hosted both my parents’ and in-laws’ weddings in the mid-1980s was considered far too small for the wedding my wife and I had in 2011. There are a number of reasons for this. Families have gotten much bigger. In the 1980s, we still had small families, as much of the older generations had been lost in the Holocaust, and even the ones that survived may not have known who else had. These days, we are far removed from World War II, people are living longer, and families are staying closer and growing larger. Additionally, as technology continues to keep us together, we are less likely to move on from friends. Twenty years ago, if your friends moved away, you weren’t likely to remain close with them. Today, we have Facebook, video chats, and WhatsApp groups that allow us to easily stay in touch with our closest friends from childhood, all the while building up our social circles in the communities in which we now live. All of this combines to an ever-expanding group of people we feel “obligated” to invite to simchos.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. COVID has taught us that there are probably only a select few that have to be at a wedding; and while we all want a nice, large event, it’s not worth it if means a bank loan or a second mortgage, especially considering that most parents have more than one child. When putting together a guest list for any event, I’m guessing there’s an “A list” and a “B list.” Some may have more than that. The thinking is that if someone from the A list can’t make it, add in someone from the other lists. But why not only have an A list? If someone can’t make it, don’t replace. The result is lower spending. You can still have a nice wedding with 250 people. A girl still becomes a bas mitzvah if the guy who you sit next to in shul doesn’t come. (He probably doesn’t even know your daughter’s name.)
Now, I’m not here telling anyone how to or not to spend their money. In fact, if you have the money, go ahead and spend it. But if you don’t have the money, why put yourself in the position where you’ll be paying for it for the rest of your lives? Back in the beginning of the pandemic, I recall seeing a video of a new bride and groom being driven through the streets of Crown Heights in a convertible so the entire community could wish them a mazal tov from their homes. That is a moment the newlyweds will never forget. What if that became the norm moving forward – small weddings with big ways to share in the simchah?
A few weeks ago, I invited Michal Weinstein onto my podcast. Michal is an event planner, and one of the main focuses of the conversation was about this very topic. Michal mentioned that the reduction in wedding costs will only happen when the wealthy people decide that it’s okay. If wealthy people stop putting out such exorbitant events, the not-as-well-off folks will follow. I propose a different tactic. Why not start with the more modest folks? After all, there are a lot more of them out there. If those who don’t earn a six-figure salary decide that the spending is out of hand, maybe others will do the same. Maybe a wedding in your local shul is enough. You don’t need a hall that can house all of your closest friends…and others.
But this does not just end at events. Savings have been felt all over the place since the start of COVID. Those enormous Shabbos meals you once hosted are gone. The kiddushim you felt the need to sponsor after davening are on hold. The take-out food you bought at work isn’t necessary any more now that you’re working from home. And of course, there are those of us who have unfortunately lost jobs, or at least a significant portion of income. Those people have had to cut even more expenses. But let’s just stick with regular expenses that we face on a daily basis, even if we are earning our regular income. Try to calculate how much you have saved from not spending on things associated with social protocol. There isn’t a reason for that to stop once COVID ends. You can have nice Shabbos meals with your family and then invite others over for dessert – or just an afternoon hangout with families. The meals don’t have to be paid for by one side. This way, you don’t have to remember who you “owe” a meal to. The answer is nobody. (Side point: Do we still have to pay back those meals after this is all over, or can the whole thing just reset to zero?)
The point is that companies are using this crisis to rethink how they are operating moving forward; there’s no reason why we as a community and as individuals can’t do the same thing. I’m all for eliminating the “keeping up with the Schwartzes” mentality, and I’m pushing for COVID to be the disaster that gets us there. Of course, jealousy and embarrassment are two driving forces behind decision making, and I hope I’m wrong, but that’s kind of the way it waz, the way it iz, and the way it alwayz will be.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.