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Changing Fortunes

Barbara Bensoussan

Money comes and money goes. It can be used for good — giving tzedakah, becoming an askan — or for self-indulgence and showing off. How do major shifts in fortune affect Jewish families?

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

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TURNING TIDES Climbing the financial ladder can be dizzying, yet exhilarating — but what happens if the tables turn, and you suddenly find yourself back at the bottom? Rivky has known both sides; her family lost almost 90 percent of their net worth in the 2008 recession. “It was quite a learning experience,” she confesses.

M oney is called currency because, like water in a stream, it’s constantly flowing. It flows in; it flows out. For many frum families, it seems to flow out much more than it flows in. There’s a funny thing about those currents of money: They carry people to different places. Some make millions and feel untouched by their wealth; for others, getting rich is the fulfillment of a dream, leaving them giddy. Conversely, some folks lose large sums and retain their equanimity, while for others, it’s a devastating blow that sends them reeling in despair.

When a family’s income takes a sudden swerve up or down, the entire family is affected socially, emotionally, and spiritually. Here’s a peek at how some frum families rode the waves of financial crests and eddies.

On the Rise 

What’s it like when the family coffers unexpectedly begin to overflow?

“It was very nice not to have to count pennies anymore,” admits Silka, whose husband is a well-known baal tzedakah. “I didn’t have to comparison shop if I needed a new couch; I could buy nicer clothes. I could relax about money.” On the other hand, crowds of meshulachim were now knocking on their door, and countless mosdos asked for contributions. “It can be overwhelming,” Silka says. “It’s a nisayon, albeit a privileged nisayon. We had to set limits. We couldn’t keep the door open all the time, and sometimes there were collectors who wouldn’t leave or people who’d make odd cold calls. Now we’ve instituted set hours to allow people to come speak to my husband.”

Like Silka, Rivky didn’t start out rich — on the contrary, her husband was in kollel for their first ten years of marriage, during which they received no family assistance. In those years, she recalls, “We had two cribs in the kitchen for lack of space! Our furniture was mostly hand-me-downs. But we were very happy with our simple life.”

Then a friend of her husband’s helped him enter the real estate field just as the bubble was expanding. When money began pouring in, the couple tried hard to remain grounded in a kollel hashkafah. When they decided to build a bigger house, they asked a sh’eilah how to go about it in their modest community.

The rosh yeshivah directed them to use the house for chesed and avoid a certain style of construction considered more upscale. “That was ten years ago — today, our house is no longer considered huge,” Rivky says. “But at the time it seemed really big. About four years after we moved in, the rosh yeshivah attended a parlor meeting in our home. ‘I’m happy you listened to my advice,’ he said.”

Rivky was glad to be able to spend more freely, give tzedakah more generously, and help out family members. The family also went on some vacations, like river cruises and trips to Eretz Yisrael, building precious memories.

Silka and Rivky both came from modest families where becoming wealthy had never been a priority, so they wore their new status lightly. This wasn’t the case for Joy, who grew up in a business-oriented community where money bestows prestige. When her husband Eli became involved in real estate, in very short order he began bringing in thousands more than he’d made in his small retail business. “My husband had relatives who were wealthy, and he always felt inferior,” she relates. “They had huge houses, expensive cars, live-in maids.”

As his income grew, Eli felt on top of the world. “He felt like he’d finally joined the big leagues,” Joy says. “It was like his self-esteem got a shot of steroids.”

“Some people feel that wealth defines them,” comments Baltimore psychologist Dr. Aviva Weisbord. “They feel large if they have large means, and diminished if their means are small.”

Joy and Eli bought a larger house, made a bar mitzvah in Eretz Yisrael (flying several family members in), and married off a child in lavish fashion. They paid off straggling tuition bills and credit card debt, and funded a room in a local kollel.

Money bestows opportunities and power, which can be used for good — giving tzedakah, becoming an askan — or for less-admirable ends like self-indulgence or showing off. As one’s status changes, Dr. Weisbord counsels, “Every person has to ask: Who am I? If I suddenly become rich, has anything about me changed? Are my values the same? Am I still a kind, caring person?”

Our Crowd: Who Are Your Friends Now? 

While assets like money and looks appear to be unqualified brachos, they can have a downside as well. Like magnets that attract platinum earrings and rusty nails with equal force, these blessings draw not only quality people, but superficial folk who aren’t interested in underlying character. How does a woman know if she’s sought for her face or fortune, or her inner qualities?

“Studies show that very attractive women are sometimes very insecure,” says Susan Levy, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist. “They never know if they’re loved for their looks or their inner selves. Wealth can have the same effect.

 

“It can also be lonely at the top. Some people will be intimidated by your money and keep their distance. Others may be jealous or resentful. Their eyes will be on you much more than on people of modest stature.”

Gone too are the days of blending in. “People have said to me, ‘You can’t possibly have any problems, with all your money!’ ” Silka says. “Of course, I have problems, like anyone else! My mother was sick for many years and recently passed away. All the money in the world can’t take away the pain of losing a parent or watching her suffer.”

When a rise in wealth leaves family and friends far behind, it may lead to awkward moments, like the first Purim after Silka’s husband had generated substantial earnings. “He felt grateful for Hashem’s kindness and wanted to give back,” she recounts. “He told me to sit and write checks to the people who came by for tzedakah. So I sat there, and the revelers performed in front of me to ‘earn’ their checks. Then I realized that my friends, who were sitting with me, were very uncomfortable, although they didn’t say anything.” These days, Silka’s children help her distribute tzedakah on Purim.

Silka also tries to walk a fine line with her siblings, to avoid creating distance between them. “I think none of my siblings are the jealous type,” she says. “They always express tremendous gratitude when we help, and when we’ve made simchahs in Eretz Yisrael, we host them at our hotel.” But she admits it’s sometimes a tough judgment call between wanting to help family members and not wanting to hurt anybody’s pride. “No one wants to feel like a nebach,” she says.

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