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I’m Orthodox, Broke And Proud

My wife and I are broke.

Image by Kurt Hoffman

Don’t worry, it’s always been that way. Ever since we decided to sell all our stuff and move to Israel, and then sell all our stuff there and move back, we’ve been broke.

Not like, broke broke — please don’t misunderstand. We’re not hungry or homeless. We’re middle-class broke. We’re ground floor, one bedroom apartment with three girls broke; no money left at the end (or the middle) of the month broke. We’re maxing out credit cards broke.

This used to be a great source of shame for me. In fact, writing a piece like this, so publicly, would have been my worst nightmare. I have children. I am meant to be supporting them. I am the man. Any amount of brokenness was on me, I felt.

But recently that started to change.

It happened around the time my wife and I decided that we had had enough of being broke, and it was time to move out of Brooklyn and to New Jersey, buy a house (with help from other people, of course) with a cheap mortgage, and start living a more stable life.

But then we went to visit New Jersey.

I remember having obsessed over houses on Zillow, looked with my eyes wide open at the amount we’d have to pay every month (half of what we were paying in Brooklyn for a floor of a home that didn’t even let us use its backyard). This was it, this was going to be amazing, this was going to be our lives. Stability. Normalcy. Lack of being completely, super-duper broke.

I had an image of myself, this guy who could finally talk about things like property taxes and, ugh, 401(k)s. Or, at the very least, someone who could buy new jeans without wondering if it would mean having to eat beans for a week to make up for it.

And then we arrived.

And something in me revolted almost immediately. I looked at the homes, at the grass, the calm of it all, and something in me screamed. As we spent that Shabbat being gracefully welcomed by a wonderful, accommodating and thoughtful Jewish community, my chest kept feeling like someone was reaching in and ripping whatever was left in there into pieces.

Only once we returned to Brooklyn and I realized that we could not leave anytime soon did my heart rate return to normal.

We had to stay broke.

All that was left was to understand why. What was that in me that got so upset? Why did my whole body, not to mention soul, rebel against this life, this option for stability and security for my family? To no longer have to come home and hear my wife say, “Um, so I think we’re out of money” a week before the next paycheck was due to arrive?

Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of introspection about that moment, and about why we are still in this bottom-floor apartment that doesn’t have access to a yard, with one bedroom for three girls.

But there are reasons; they just happen not to fall into the paradigm of secular, common wisdom.

Here’s what I’ve concluded, both in looking back at why I may have subconsciously chose this path and why I now consciously walk it with pride.

What it’s worth going broke for:

1) Mission

When my wife and I were living in Israel, and were desperately trying to figure out how to get back to America. Because we were too broke to move back without a miracle, we decided that if we were able to get back to the United States, we would become “creative shluchim.”

This is a term playing off the Chabad system of sending rabbis to far-flung parts of the world as “shluchim”. Shluchim is the plural of shliach, which translates roughly to “messenger”; in the context of Chabad, a shliach is on a mission from God.

Since the moment my wife, Rivka, and I came up with this idea, we felt a sense of responsibility fall over us. A mission. A vision. One in which the Jewish world in the Diaspora was flourishing with art and creative thinking, much in the way the Jerusalem neighborhood we lived in at the time, Nachlaot, did.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe had many lessons for his shluchim. One of the most powerful, and one that runs counter to most any logic, is that his messengers should go into debt. They should always be spending more than they have, he argued, because they are on such a holy mission that they should not just believe, but know, that God would provide for them. In other words, the Rebbe argued, a shliach is never actually broke, because God is providing for him.

There are innumerable stories of shluchim who lived this out. Shluchim who sent letters to the Rebbe, wondering if they should give up, or if they made a mistake in going on their journey, because no one was funding them or coming to their events. And these stories tend to end with the Rebbe telling them to stay, and their communities eventually flourishing.

Ultimately, this is really the one answer that applies to Rivka and me, and to our family. We are, we believe, on a mission from God. One in which we must sacrifice and give up on things in the present in order to create our dream of the future.

Does that make us irresponsible?

Maybe. But the truth is that the moment I went to New Jersey made me realize just how deeply embedded this dream is into my being. I literally got sick imagining leaving our home base, because I know how Crown Heights has the highest potential to becoming the Nachlaot of the United States, and how we simply must be part of making that happen.

I know that going broke is a small sacrifice. And I know that, ultimately, God will provide what is necessary for us as we move forward.

2. Children

Going broke for children? This seems — stupid.

But the Jewish world, in truth, does this quite a bit.

A recent article that made the rounds in the Orthodox Jewish world made the case for sending children to public school and giving them a Jewish education outside of their regular schooling.

This makes a whole lot of sense. Sometimes I imagine what my bills would look like if I didn’t send my children to a Jewish school. And I suddenly live in this fantasyland of being able to live like a king. And by king, I mean a person who can live like a normal, middle-class person (something I have come to see as its own, modern form of allowing each family its own little monarchic life).

Rivka and I also have a double conundrum: We are weird. Weird Jews, to be specific.

We are Chabad, yet not. And Modern Orthodox, but not totally. We are artists who feel uncomfortable in most artsy spaces. We are liberal, but not totally. We hate politics but have become steeped in it since the election.

So. We’re weird. And it’s very, very hard to find a school that caters to that weirdness. One in which our kids will get a quality secular and Jewish education while also not being crushed on an emotional level, and ultimately given the freedom to be weird if they want to as well. (Normal is fine, too!)

We have found this with Luria Academy, in Brooklyn, a truly unique school that has all of the above and a lot more. Our eldest daughter attends Luria, and since joining it has been like witnessing a miracle: a Jewish child so proud of her Orthodox Judaism while also reminding me that it’s okay that other Jews live different lives. But most important, a girl who is flourishing emotionally.

Could we find this somewhere else? Maybe, but the unique style that Luria offers, in addition to its truly special mix of religious observance in its student body (from secular to Reform to Conservative to Modern Orthodox to Chabad to us), has reminded us repeatedly of what living in Brooklyn offers to weirdos trying to be creative shluchim and to their children.

The last thing my rosh yeshiva told me before I left yeshiva was: “Just make sure your children have a great education. Beyond that, everything else is secondary.”

I’m not sure if he’d like the education we chose for our children, but I do know that his lesson has hit me deeply, and that I am proudly going broke for my kids.

3. Community

Crown Heights has been an up-and-down ride for my family. Rivka and I came in on fire from our experience studying Chabad Hasidism (Crown Heights is the hub of all things Chabad), and from the birth of our daughter. We immediately found a home with others who had chosen our path.

That was my first time living in a true Jewish community. One that seemed, at the time, to express my soul’s deepest truths. And it was at that time that I understood how much it mattered to feel like you belong. For you, for your family, for your mission: It’s all tied together. Community is what makes your mission come alive — your family living its beliefs in the truest way possible, with the least amount of cognitive dissonance.

But it ended up being a rockier road than we expected. Being “out of the box” meant we slowly realized that forcing ourselves into the square holes of the traditional Crown Heights would simply never work. But we were still in love with the community, and with the people who had started to gather around our mission, a community in its own right.

So, we started going to the only Modern Orthodox synagogue in Crown Heights, Congregation Kol Israel. Kol Israel is made up of weirdos. To be Modern Orthodox and to choose to live in Crown Heights is, in my humble opinion, a very weird choice. And that’s the beauty of Kol Israel, a synagogue we found out about because it had hosted an art gallery Rivka attended (the congregation does this all the time, the weirdos).

A synagogue of weirdos is something I cherish, and something I think is incredibly rare in the Diaspora. This weirdness allows my wife and me to feel at home, to feel joy when our children make friends with the other little weirdo kids there, and to find meaning and depth in every Shabbat.

And despite how much I joke, this is a gravely serious matter. As a person who runs communities that are made for weirdos (creative Jews), liberal Orthodox Jews and anonymous Jews), I hear constantly about people who feel utterly alone in their worlds. Jews who must hide who they are when they have guests at the Shabbat table, or who are attacked and derided when they dare to share their thoughts. Jews who feel they must keep up an image in order to increase their shidduch, or matchmaking, chances. Jews who have had children out of wedlock and literally disappear for nine months out of shame so that they can birth the child in secret.

Our community is being riled right now because of a movie that has exposed what it means to feel alone in a community where you don’t belong, or are even actively ostracized from.

And that isolation is a serious threat. Loneliness has been proved to be just as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And ostracizing parts of ourselves is just as painful as being ostracized by others. In many ways it’s worse, because it’s not a temporary experience, it’s one we must live with until we choose to follow a different path.

Which is what has amazed me about my time here in Crown Heights. Our synagogue, where we feel like we can openly, proudly be our weird selves. Our school, where our kids can grow into whatever weirdos they want to be. And our mission, where we’re trying to make the very world around us breathe spiritual creativity, the very weirdness that most defines us.

And that is why I choose to go broke in Brooklyn. Because in its own weird way it has become home — and I want to invite others who may otherwise feel isolated to find a place for themselves here, too. Home not in the sense that I feel physically comfortable. But home in the sense that my spirit soars higher here than it has anywhere else.

Elad Nehorai is the writer behind the blog Pop Chassid, the co-founder of the creative Jewish website Hevria, and one of the leaders of Torah Trumps Hate, a new Orthodox Jewish activist organization and community.

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