Mark Trencher: Orthonomics: The Cost of Frum Life

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Mark Trencher – founder of Nishma Research – about finances in the Orthodox community.

Mark Trencher founded Nishma Research to survey the Jewish community about various important questions relating to Jewish life. His surveys are of wide-ranging subject matter, including reasons that people go off the derech, political orientation, opinions about vaccines, and of course, finances.

  • How taxing is Orthodoxy on peoples’ finances?
  • What financial areas do Orthodox families struggle with most?
  • Are Orthodox people able to save for retirement?
  • How does this financial strain affect peoples’ religiosity?

Tune in to hear a conversation about Orthodox Judaism and finances.

References:
Rupture and Reconstruction by Haym Soloveitchik
Wanting by Luke Burgis
All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen
The Index Card by Helaine Olen
Nishma Research
Kosher Money Podcast
@awilkinson

Mark Trencher is the founder of Nishma Research, which has conducted nine broad Jewish communal studies since 2015, as well as eight Jewish organizational studies.  Mark previously headed research departments at two Fortune 200 financial firms and has taught business statistics on an undergraduate and graduate level. Through Nishma, Mark has studied under-examined issues in the Orthodox community relating to the community’s beliefs, practices, and attitudes. Mark currently sits on the Board of Directors of both the National Council of Young Israel and PORAT (People for Orthodox Renaissance and Torah), and president of the Hartford Kashrut Commission.

David Bashevkin:

Hello, and welcome to the 18Forty podcast, where each month, we explore a different topic, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities, to give you new approaches to timeless, Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month, we’re exploring wealth, our relationship with money. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy, Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out 18Forty.org – that’s the number 1-8, followed by the word “forty,” F-O-R-T-Y.org – where you could also find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

Over the last couple years, there have been a lot of conversations about the Jewish community’s relationship with wealth and money. And there have been several parts of this conversation. Usually what leads this conversation is the cost of living within particularly the Orthodox community, but really in many Jewish communities, where there is an abiding commitment to send our kids to Jewish day schools, to get a Jewish education. And in many ways, and I know this from my own experience, my father’s own experience growing up, this has really shaped the American Jewish community, the commitment to send our kids to Yeshiva day schools. But with that commitment that has really saved, in so many ways, just the level of education, the level of commitment that we’ve seen across the board, has also come some very great costs, most notably tuition.

Now there is a lot to unpack, and I don’t think that we’re going to unpack and discuss head-on how we can solve the tuition crisis. Though we may dance upon it and talk a little bit about it, I just want to say from the outset to our listeners that this topic, both the structure of Jewish education, how it can be other models of financing Jewish education, is something that deserves its own topic and its own subject matter. I want to expand out a little wider and talk about our relationship with wealth and with money itself.

I’m not sure how old I was when I first discovered that I came from a well-to-do community. I grew up in The Five Towns. That’s not a secret to a lot of our listeners. And I would say for most of the time growing up, I was completely oblivious to any reputation that The Five Towns had for being a place where a lot of people of means and of wealth do live. And there’s no question about it. I grew up in a shul that I love to this very day with a lot of people with a great deal of wealth. And I don’t think I noticed it until I was much, much older. I think I had one friend who I stayed at when my parents were away, which happened quite infrequently, because I was really scared of sleeping over, probably till I was in 9th or 10th grade, for a different time.

And I remember I stayed at his house. And his house, it was a little bit nicer, not a mansion by today’s standards. But I do remember they had a steak dinner for a night in the middle of the week, and I ate all of the steak, and I got into a little bit of trouble with the dad, like, “Who ate all the steak?” It was not something that I was used to, really not. I have no idea whether or not we were able to afford it though. Money was a topic in our home growing up, but I didn’t really notice, aside from that one friend, who just seemed to have a little bit more, I have no idea where they are now. Certainly by today’s standards, I don’t think that we would look at them as living an extravagant life.

But I didn’t really notice who had what until much, much later in life. I think when I dating this became a major topic of conversation. I remember being suggested to go out with girls, and their finances were very much a part of the conversation. It was unprompted. I didn’t ask whether or not they were wealthy, but we had these euphemisms in order to describe the wealth of different families. We would say, they’re from a very, very comfortable home. And as I wrote about once, I had no idea at first what exactly this was describing, a comfortable home. Sometimes they would use the Yiddish, a comfortable shtub. And I say like, is that the mattresses? Is that the blankets, the pillow situation that they had?

Other times, and this is my least favorite euphemism, they would pause and say, they’re very, very successful. And that became my absolute least favorite euphemism for discussing wealth, because I think it allows us to confuse success, which I has many different routes, with wealth itself. And those two words becoming synonymous, “wealth” and “success,” being successful as a euphemism for money, has terrible effects on everybody. We should stop using that. We could say they are financially successful, or call a spade a spade. Say that they are rich. I almost ask people to do it sometimes because our euphemisms sometimes allows to preserve some of the more disgusting, dare I say, parts of the way that we describe others, and make us feel less disgusting. And I almost push people to feel a little bit disgusting, because it is a little bit disgusting.

When they say, “Are they successful?” I pause and say, “Are you asking me if they are rich?” And I will answer. If you are asking me if they’re rich, that will get a direct question. If you’re asking me if they’re successful, there are many ways to be successful. But these kind of conversations and these small ways, I think, has always been an issue in all communities. It’s not a uniquely Jewish issue, of course. But has accelerated, in my opinion, in recent years. There are many ways to view this acceleration. You could open up older magazines from the 1980s, and magazines that we have now. You can look at the conspicuous consumption, and the way people of previous generations, who also had incredible means, but the way that they spent. They had very fine homes and very beautiful things. But there is a conspicuous consumption that, at least through my eyes, has become a lot more discernible and obvious in recent years, and has shaped the language and the way people talk about wealth itself.

And I think obviously this is reflected in a larger issue as we will discuss about the role of capitalism and finances in the United States and in the world. This a global trend that did not begin in our community, but in many ways, it is exacerbated in our community. And one lens of why it has exacerbated I found that was very helpful was actually first introduced to me from a thread, meaning a long line of interconnected to tweets, that I read from somebody named Andrew Wilkinson. Andrew Wilkinson is the co-founder of a business, and he’s invested a great deal. You could find him on Twitter at @awilkinson, W-I-L-K-I-N-S-O-N. And he wrote a thread about a book that I cannot stop thinking about and that we have recommended on our site. And I want to read this thread to you because I found it so powerful.

He begins by saying, “I read a book that blew my mind a little, and I can’t stop telling people about it. It explains why so many people dedicate their lives to achieving things that make them miserable. We dedicate our lives to things that make us miserable. This may sound crazy, but an unseen force is pushing you towards an empty and unfulfilling goals. “No,” he jokes. “I didn’t read Dianetics. The book is called Wanting by someone named Luke Burgis.” Luke is spelled L-U-K-E. Burgis is B-U-R-G-I-S. “The book is called Wanting. And it’s about mimetic desire.”

Now let me just stop right there. What does mimetic desire mean? The word “mimetic,” for those of you who have never read Professor Haym Soloveitchik’s great article, which I hope we will discuss one day on this podcast, called Rupture and Reconstruction, which talks about a mimetic tradition – Mimetic comes from the root word of “imitation,” to meme something, to imitate something. And mimetic desire, as he will go on to describe, is when we imitate other people’s desires. “This is an academic theory,” he writes, “That was popularized by Peter Thiel.” I was told it was pronounced Peter Teel, even though it is written Peter Thiel. Thank you to my dear friend Moishy for correcting me on that many, many years ago.

“At face value,” he writes, “it barely sounds worth mentioning. When people around you want something, we want it too, which obviously sounds pretty simple and basic. Let’s say you’re at a bar. You’re about to order a beer, but your friend orders a martini. I’ll have one too, actually. You wanted a beer, but you were influenced to switch. Okay, so what? But now let’s take it to the next level. Let’s say your friend raises money for her startup. You start comparing. You’re happily bootstrapped. Why was she able to raise more? How did she get Sequoia on board? Wow, that valuation. I should really raise around. You don’t really start assigning value to raising money because of your friend. It pushes you to raise around. You didn’t even need the money.”

“You not only want to copy her, but you want to better than her. Suddenly you’re locked in mimetic competition. Especially if all your peers in your world are raising money, it quickly becomes a game of one upmanship. If you live in San Francisco, for example, raising money, valuation, who your investors are, number of employees, these are the metrics by which your peer group collectively has defined success. But let’s say you live in LA instead of San Francisco. Maybe you’d be competing on film credits, awards, which celebrities you know, where you get restaurant reservations, your car. Every peer group collectively wants and competes for the same thing, it just depends on what bubble you’re in.”

I want to read that again, because this is where I think it begins to apply in specific ways to our community. Not to say that it doesn’t apply to other communities, but it has unique ways in which it applies to our community. Again, “Every peer group collectively wants and competes for the same thing. It just depends on what bubble you’re in. Hang out with comedians and you want a Netflix special. Hang out with writers and you’ll want to get published in the New Yorker. Hang out with athletes and you’ll want Olympic medals. And so on, and so on. Of course, none of these desires relate in any way to your personal happiness or true desires. You don’t realize it, but you want these things because other people want them. You might see this pattern in a group of friends. One person buys a Tesla and it’s like a virus. A Model Y becomes the calling card of success. Gradually everyone in the group slowly switches over to a Tesla.”

And I need to pause. Now, I think in our community, at least where I live, it was that low level Infinity, which just, I saw one person get it. I don’t know which model it was. But I turned around and, did the entire community buy an Infinity last week? That’s just something that I noticed. But he continues, “Sometimes rebellious members of the group will instead mirror these wants. They do the opposite to try to make themselves seem unique or special. If one friend buys a Tesla, the other buys a vintage car and talks up the rumble of the engine, and how much they love working on it on weekends. Despite the attempt to differentiate, they are still falling into the same pattern, with their desire for a new car defined in contrast to the rest of the pack.”

“These waves of wanting splash over all of us constantly. It’s almost impossible to remain unaffected by it, even if you know what to look for. The key is to determine your true, intrinsic, thick desires, and separate them from your false, extrinsic, thin desires. For example, a thin desire is extrinsic, coming from others. It’s not something you really want. You wanting to buy an expensive watch because your friend showed you theirs, even though you’ve never had any interest in watches or fashion, that’s a thin desire. A thick desire is intrinsic. That comes from within. You love quietly gardening on weekends and do it because you enjoy. You do it even if you could never tell anyone about it on social media. You do it for yourself. So the question is,” and this is what he ends with, and I think this is the literal million-dollar question. Whether it’s going to cost you a million dollars or save you a million dollars may depend on how you answer it.

“Who is making you want the things you want, and more importantly, do you actually want these things? Are they thin or thick desires? Are they extrinsic or intrinsic? Surround yourself with the wrong models, and you will become bound to artificial, unfulfilling goals.” Andrew, in this thread, writes, “Ask yourself, is the path that this person leading me down via competition a path that leads to the goals that align with my real, intrinsic, thick desires? Would I be truly happy if I became like them? If you don’t like what you see then you need to prune who you’re exposed to. Primarily, who do you spend time with? Who do you listen to? Who do you read? The goal to spend time with models, peers whose models you desire. No matter what, we all have this in our lives. We all have to pick our bubble that ultimately shapes our desires through this concept called mimetic desires.”

“One way to think about this is the old phrase, “you are the sum of your five best friends”. So choose carefully and don’t spend time with people whose lives, desires don’t line up with your intrinsic desires.” And that’s how he ends the thread, Andrew Wilkinson, again, based on this incredible book, Wanting by Luke Burgis, which we of course have linked on our website. And I think about this a lot for myself. And I thought about it a lot specifically during the pandemic when we were isolated. I think about it when I visit communities of other means.

A lot of our desires, let’s say it’s for fashion, clothes, fancy watches, all of which I have and contend with, I have two nice watches. And I ask myself, this is for sure a thin desire. How do I know? Because when I go to a community where nobody cares about what watch you wear, suddenly it’s meaningless. It’s lost on everybody. And there’s sometimes I go to places where nobody really cares what you’re wearing. Either they can’t afford it or they simply don’t care. And you almost feel somewhat silly that you’ve invested so much into this type of social construct that is lost on the audience that you are surrounded with.

And it can be really hard to figure out what you, in fact, intrinsically desire. I think in many ways, this is exactly what the Torah is telling us with the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos that tells us, kinna, tayva, and kavod, jealousy, honor, and lust, motziin es ha’adam min haolam, remove us from this world. Remove us from what world? I’m still in this world. I desire plenty. I am jealous of plenty. I seek and very much want honor from others. I’m still in this world. But I think back to what a dear friend of mine, a long time ago, Daniel Fiscus, one time told me when he was learning the beginning of Mesillas Yesharim, the great work of the Ramchal, which is the path of the just. And in that book, he opens up with the famous line that it is our responsibility to figure out, mah chovaso b’olamo, what is your responsibility in your world? And this dear friend, Daniel, Fiscus, had a brilliant insight where he said, it doesn’t say the olam, the world, it says olamo, your world. And I think in many ways this is what the Mishnah is telling us. That desire, lust, honor are all social constructs that are fed into by who we surround ourselves by. And the world that it removes us from, quite sadly, but this happens all too often, and I’ve experienced this myself, is our world, our intrinsic desires. What do you really want? And I think the conversation about wealth and money needs to begin with an understanding and that million-dollar question of, what are our thin desires and what are our thick desires?

And I think so much of what we are going to be discussing is figuring out not just the strategies and the costs, but how to reorient our very relationship with money itself so we can live more satisfying lives. The answer is not to demonize money because I think when people demonize money, when people demonize people who are wealthy, it is the same reaction contrasting to the very bubble of mimetic desire. You are not leaving the bubble by just demonizing everybody who has something different than your own. You’re feeding into the very mimetic desire that’s shaping your life. Instead, what we need to figure out is how to surround ourselves by people and ideas that help us better tap into our intrinsic desires.

And that’s why I am so excited about this topic that we’re going to be exploring this month. It’s a conversation that I was proud to begin on the Kosher Money podcast, and we’ll be having them on later on as well. And you can check out their work, and we’ll be talking about more about their work when we do the episode, when I sit down with Eli Langer and his co-founder, Zevy Wolman, in the Kosher Money podcast.

But what we are beginning with is a conversation with Mark Trencher. Mark Trencher is the founder of Nishma, which is an organization that runs surveys that try to better understand major issues within the Jewish community. His most recent survey was on finances, and we are excited to host him here to first discuss what he found on this survey. We’ll also have links, of course, to the actual report that he wrote and some of the findings. But this overall journey is going to be about the strategies to have the most satisfaction in our lives, the things that aggravate us and bring difficulty and obscure those intrinsic desires, and ultimately, reorienting our personal relationship with wealth itself. How we can take whatever we are given and extract the most satisfaction to build lives of meaning and joy for ourselves, our families, and of course, our communities. So it is with great pleasure that I introduce our first guest, Mark Trencher.

I am so excited to be sitting here today with Mark Trencher, who is the founder of Nishma, an organization that conducts surveys within the Orthodox community and those adjacent. He’s run several studies. Mark, thank you so much for joining me today.

Mark Trencher:

Thank you. It’s a pleasure being here, David.

David Bashevkin:

So maybe we could begin by what exactly gave you this kooky idea to start surveying the Jewish community, and what exactly gave you the qualifications to even run such surveys?

Mark Trencher:

Okay, so I retired in 2015, after a long career in business. In my 43 years, about 25 of them were involved in some sorts of research. I’ve done literally dozens, if not more, surveys and focus groups and interviews and all that stuff. And I was always very involved in the Jewish community. I was president of my shul. I was president of our local day school. I’m currently president of our kashrut commission. I was, I believe, the only Orthodox American Jew to chair multiple times a JCC film festival, and that’s a lot of fun, film festival.

David Bashevkin:

That is fun.

Mark Trencher:

So when I retired, I said to myself, “Okay, I do have Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hulu. And I don’t want to spend all my time watching movies, as much as I like them. What can I do? I would love to do something for the community to give back to the community,” which I think has been very, very open to me and my family. And I said, “Why don’t I take some – ”

David Bashevkin:

You’re assuming that watching Netflix and Hulu is not giving back to the community.

Mark Trencher:

If you watch the wrong things on Netflix, people might actually criticize you, as you probably know. So I thought to myself, “Why don’t I set up a facility to allow Jewish organizations to do research?” A shul wanted to do a survey of their members. A school wanted to do a survey. I found out very quickly that there really is a limited appetite at the organizational level because no shul or school has somebody in charge of research. So I shifted gears and I decided I’m going to be doing communal surveys, broad surveys, with hundreds of thousands of responses, across the community, modern Orthodox, Yeshivish, Hasidic. And my hope is that if we ask the right questions, a shul, an organization, a school can look at the results and can learn from it. So I’ve done 10 surveys. And this being kind of a retirement project, and really it’s a labor of love for the community, so I do make everything available, totally transparent, and everything’s available for people to download and read, et cetera.

David Bashevkin:

What was your first survey that you did?

Mark Trencher:

So the first survey I did was back in 2015. There were a lot of memoirs written by people who left the community. Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman, which was made into a somewhat controversial Netflix movie. There was a book called All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen, which was an amazing, well-written book. But it was all memoirs.

David Bashevkin:

A former guest of this podcast.

Mark Trencher:

He was, yeah, he was a guest in your podcast. They were all memoirs. And there never had really been any kind of coordinated, organized research where people across the spectrum, people who left orthodoxy, were allowed to explain why they left. So I actually did send a message to Shulem. And he and I and my wife met in a little cafe at King’s Highway in Flatbush. I told him what I wanted to do. And he was very supportive. So the first survey I did was a survey of people who left orthodoxy. I try not to use the term OTD, or off the derech, because some people don’t really care for it, although it’s really been accepted.

David Bashevkin:

It’s not my favorite term either. No, I don’t like it that much either.

Mark Trencher:

And 885 people explained in their own words. We didn’t give them a checklist. Did you leave because of sexual abuse? Did you leave because you were exposed to biblical criticism? Did you leave because there was no shalom bayis, your parents didn’t get along? We said, in your own words, why did you leave the community of origin? Modern Orthodox, 240 Modern Orthodox, over 200 Hasidic, a hundred Chabad, over 200 Yeshivish. And we read hundreds and hundreds of very, very, very long essays. Some gave short answers, but a lot of people gave very long explanations. And at that time, I had decided to call my practice Nishma Research. Nishma, meaning we hear you, we listen. And that’s really the goal. My goal is to give voice to groups in the community that we should be listening to. And that up to now we have not had the capacity to.

David Bashevkin:

That’s very special. I think I mispronounced the name and called it Nishmat, so I apologize for that. Nishma, meaning to listen, to hear. And you really have been getting quite a bit of attention. Maybe before we dive into why you’re here today, about the most recent survey you’ve run, maybe you could play a little devil’s advocate, because we have very educated and informed listeners. And I don’t want to get too deep into methodological concerns, but maybe you can at least flag, or maybe provide some asterisk, if you’re comfortable.

A seasoned researcher who reads your reports, what concerns do you think they might have methodologically about the way you do your reports? Because you’re not doing necessarily statistical sampling. There are different forms of sampling. So help me just flag for our listeners, that at least you’re aware, and we can at least say from the get go, what are some concerns that those a little bit more immersed in the rules of surveying and sampling, which means how you could get a representative sample. I could interview 800 people in a community and figure out how many people support a particular candidate who’s running for election. How many people like vanilla ice cream versus chocolate ice cream? What concerns could we flag from the get-go regarding your methodologies and procedures for your surveys?

Mark Trencher:

That’s a very good question. And people do ask that very often. So I’ll tell you a couple of things. First of all, the gold standard in surveying is what’s called opt out survey. An opt out survey is where the surveyor reaches out to people, usually by telephone, and we can call the person up to seven times, and we keep pestering them to get their response. And we have lists of people by demographic characteristics. So that’s really the best way to get a representative sample. Your goal in doing a survey is so that your sample should be representative of the population. And how you define that –

David Bashevkin:

That you are surveying?

Mark Trencher:

And how you define that representativeness is complicated.

David Bashevkin:

Yes.

Mark Trencher:

I’ll share a couple of things with you. First of all, the Pew Survey in 2013 was a telephone survey. The Pew Survey in 2020 was an email survey. Unfortunately, a couple of things have happened. First of all, people are not answering their phones. People are screening calls, and it’s hard to reach people. I think a real significant percentage of Americans no longer have landline phones. They have cell phones. So the whole world of reaching out to people on the phone to get a representative sample has become much more challenging. It’s become more difficult. So even Pew did its recent survey of the Jewish community over the internet. It was an online survey. They compare what they got in 2020 to 2013, and they admit that there are differences, and they actually caution against comparing the surveys. So we need to realize, first of all, that we’re dealing with a challenging survey environment.

So 2016, the survey industry exploded, because nobody picked Trump to win. And what was the reason? The reason was the shy Trump voter. What’s the shy Trump voter? The shy Trump voter was the person who, when he got the phone call, he said, he was planning to vote for Trump, or she was, but Trump was kind of a different kind of candidate. And they said, “Well, I’m not really sure.” So the Trump, the shy Trump voter was reluctant to express their opinion. That actually is not what happened.

What happened was, you have groups in society that have no use for researchers. They don’t need to be researched. They don’t care what the research industry says. Who in the Orthodox community is so separate from secular culture that they say, “You know what? Survey shmurvey. I’m not going to participate in a survey. I have no interest in getting online and participating in a survey.” That is true to a fairly significant extent in the Haredi world, mostly in the Hasidic world. First of all, you have the difficulty in reaching people through –

David Bashevkin:

I’ve been guilty of saying survey shmurvey here and there. I think it affects a lot of us.

Mark Trencher:

So first of all, you have the difficulty of reaching people over the phone. You’re relying on online surveys. Then you have people who have no use for surveys, who are isolated, who are insulated from society, who don’t want to respond. All of this leads to difficulties in getting a representative sample. So we’ve taken a number of approaches. First of all, we have a good relationship with the RCA. Many of our surveys have been circulated by the RCA to their rabbis. Now, yes, their rabbis are then asked to send the information about the survey to their members, and members respond. Many of the members respond. That’s one thing. We’ve also gone out through the National Council of Young Israel. And we’ve established relationships with about 50 shuls that we send emails to directly. But it’s all done online, and therefore, like many surveys, the challenges of online surveying do affect us.

Now, when we get the results back, I’m pretty sure that for the modern Orthodox community, with a couple of exceptions, we do get a representative sample. One is I think we are getting a lot of people from the Northeast. It’s a few percentage points higher than the representation across the country. They do seem to be very affluent. Of course, when you’re getting a lot of people from Manhattan, and from Five Towns, and from Teaneck, et cetera, you get people that are affluent.

So I would say that in certain regards, our respondents may not be fully representative. They may be more Northeast. They may be more affluent. In terms of age and gender, they seem to be a good fit. There are challenges in the Hasidic world with reaching people. However, I will say this. Everyone says they don’t speak English. They don’t have the internet. That’s a non-starter. They do speak English, and a surprising number do have access to the internet. We recently did a survey that was sponsored by Hatzalah, which by the way, is hugely, hugely respected in the Hasidic community. And we actually got 2,000 Hasidic people to fill out an online survey. Can you imagine, David, 500 Satmar chassidim filling out an online survey in English, asking about their attitudes towards vaccines?

David Bashevkin:

I can imagine, honestly. I rarely pay attention to communal stereotyping. Every community has their issues. And I think a lot of what makes your work so remarkable is you are Nishma, you listen. And you find the people who so often are stereotyped in a certain way of not either having access or not caring or not wanting. And you show there’s a place that wants to listen to you. And you go ahead and listen. Allow me to kind of move forward for a moment and focus on the specific reason why you’re having on today. And that is, you recently did an examination of the finances and the relationship to wealth within the Orthodox Jewish community. Now, how did this survey go? Did you get any responses, or people just don’t care about this issue? You got more than 5 or 10 responses? How did the survey go?

Mark Trencher:

We did get… So as background, in the 10 surveys we’ve done before this, we touched on the issue of cost a few times. Before I get into this one, I’ll just tell you that in 2017, we did a very, very, very broad survey of the modern Orthodox community. And there was a question at the end. We gave a list of 27 aspects, and said, is this a problem in the community? And of the 27, number one out of all 27 was the cost of Jewish day school education, with 90% of people –

David Bashevkin:

Wow, number one.

Mark Trencher:

Number one. And number four was just the overall cost of maintaining a Jewish household.

David Bashevkin:

What percent marked that, you said 90% marked the cost of day school education a major issue?

Mark Trencher:

Yeah, 90%. 90% said it was a serious problem. And that was true across all age groups. Even people who had retired said that.

David Bashevkin:

Wow. So tell me a little bit about this most recent study. How many people participated, and what was the goal? What were you trying to figure out in this study?

Mark Trencher:

Okay, so in this study we were trying to figure out, we had planned to do this study in late 2019. We recognized that cost was a serious issue. In a 2019 survey, we asked people, would you consider taking your child out of a Jewish day school because of cost? And a certain number said yes, so we knew we were going to do a survey on the issue of cost. And of course the pandemic put that on hold. And we even believe some of the results in the survey were affected by the pandemic. I can point those out. But we figured the time has come to really explore cost. So we developed a survey. I should say that all of our surveys, the questions in my survey come from the community. Every survey I do, I ask people in the community, rabbis, academics, educators, people, lay leaders,, et cetera. The question I ask them is what do you want to know? What do you want to know? And so all the questions come from the community. And there’s never been a question that’s been posed to me that I said, no, I’m not going to ask that, because I won’t be able to reveal the answer for whatever reason, for political reasons. If there’s a question that people want to know, we ask it.

And in this case we started pulling together the questions for this survey. And there were questions that I thought were quite interesting. Does the cost of your Orthodoxy affect you Jewishly? We asked a question about day schools. In response to your question about response rate, we did get 2,500 responses. I should say this survey was in the field for a shorter time period than any survey we’ve done. We did get, 1,300 modern Orthodox people responded to the survey. And we had almost a thousand people that we identify as Haredi, Yeshivish, and Hasidic. And the other thing I would mention about the survey is, when you do a survey like this, if you look at the number of people who respond to the various questions, it does sometimes tail off a little bit towards the end of a survey. In this particular case, people stuck with the survey and they really answered every question. And at the very end, we had some open ended questions, in your own words, and people did take the time to respond and give us a lot of good information.

David Bashevkin:

Let’s start diving in a little bit. I mean, you always do a great job of trying to make the information and the findings as accessible as possible. I look at you as the statistician of the people, the surveyor of the people. And what, to you, did you find to be the most eyeopening, important findings from this survey? And maybe you could give me the headlines and then we could dive into each one individually.

Mark Trencher:

Okay, so we found that the community does have fairly high income, but the community has very high expenses. So among the findings we found that people do feel stressed. People do feel a lot of stress. People feel that they are having a lot of difficulty saving money. People feel they have a lot of difficulty saving for retirement at the very high level. The question that I think is the most important, in my mind, the question that I view as a really critical question is, we ask people, at the very end of a survey, we said, okay, so Orthodoxy has a cost attached to it. Is it worth it? Bottom line, is the cost of Orthodoxy worth it?

David Bashevkin:

Is it worth it? The million-dollar question, literally.

Mark Trencher:

Is it worth it? And a very high percentage, so I looked at the people who said disagree. I said, do you agree it’s worth it? And if you look at the people who either totally disagree or somewhat, in total, it was about 9% of the modern Orthodox, less than 10%. So that means that the vast majority of people, a lot of them strongly agreed with it. Some somewhat agreed. A fair number of people said, some yes, some no. I have mixed feelings. But people do feel that it’s worth it. And when we ask people, is it affecting your Jewishness? Is this affecting your religiosity? Many, many, many more people said, not at all. I should tell you that most people said –

David Bashevkin:

Really?

Mark Trencher:

We asked, is it affecting your religiosity positively or negatively? And most people said, neither. Neither. It’s a thing. We live with it. In the comments, people said, yes, we live with it. And you know what? Bottom line, it’s worth it. So those are some of the findings. We were able to get, we did ask people not only their income and their savings, their retirement savings, but we asked them, how much money are you spending on this? And how much money are you spending on that?

David Bashevkin:

Let’s hear about the income and the savings. How much money are people making? I love, I would take a survey of one right now. Obviously, I’m not going to ask you how much money you’re making, but how much money? What was the bandwidth exactly, the breakdown, of how much are people making in our community?

Mark Trencher:

So, one of the things is, can people look at this survey and compare? If the survey says that the median, the median is the midpoint, total household income among modern Orthodox is 188,000, can people look at that and say, “Ah, I’m ahead of the game. I’m behind the game.” We really don’t encourage people to look at that 188,000 median household income for modern Orthodox and compare themselves to it. Because you have people in Manhattan, you have people in Brooklyn, in Midwood, my old community, in Five Towns, in Teaneck, and then you have people in Cincinnati and Kansas City. And you have people that have five kids or six kids, and some that have two or three. So every household is different. You really have to look at your own household and say, “My income is so and so,” and you almost have to subjectively judge whether or not that makes sense. So we did get that number for the modern Orthodox.

David Bashevkin:

And just allow me to jump in. That is hard. That is the struggle. The struggle is not asking, “Am I behind or ahead in relation to someone else?” That is the crux of what makes our relationship to wealth so tricky, is that it is rarely judged on its own terms, meaning, is it providing me with what I need? And too often, I think it’s exacerbated because of how insular and close-knit all of our communities are, relatively speaking. So in shul, I could be davening two rows behind the person who’s in a totally different stratosphere than me. And I could be next to somebody who I’m in a different economic universe than them. And the fact that we’re all together, which is something quite beautiful, can make that struggle of focusing on what you need and your needs that much more difficult.

I think that that really needs to be emphasized from the get-go, especially with a survey like this, that the findings need to be taken as a way to be constructive, to think positively about good strategies, what your needs are. But it shouldn’t be a basis of comparison. If your needs are being taken care of, then you don’t need to think behind or in front of the guy next to you, the family next to you. What you really need to be focusing on is yourself. But tell me a little bit about savings. That’s what I’m always interested in. I think that’s, more than a big, juicy income, which might make you feel good when you look in the mirror every morning, or might make you, what really builds wealth is savings. What was the bandwidth of savings within our community?

Mark Trencher:

Yeah. So we did ask what household savings do you have, that’s called non-retirement, money that you have available to you. We did ask about retirement savings. And we even asked, do you own your home? And if you do own your own home, how much equity do you have in it? How much is the market value of your house minus your what you still owe in the mortgage? And the average, not the average, the median midpoint of savings among the modern Orthodox families was about $70,000 in savings. Again, you have to look at, these are people that are working. They’re typically around 40 years old.

I should say upfront. We talked before about the representativeness. The people who responded to this survey were a bit younger than those who responded to my 2017 broad survey. So I would categorize this as, that’s not bad. I view this as a survey of the working people. We just got fewer retirees. So you’re talking about your 40 year old working person with savings of $70,000 in the Modern Orthodox community. In the Haredi world, the savings were much lower, at about $20,000. And then we asked about retirement savings. So there is a lot of concern about retirement.

David Bashevkin:

So when you said savings, I’m sorry, just to understand.

Mark Trencher:

Cash.

David Bashevkin:

That meant what you had have sitting liquid in cash in your bank account.

Mark Trencher:

Bank account, savings, money market fund you have available to you. It should not include a home equity line of credit. It’s cash you have available today. Retirement income was a bit higher. The modern Orthodox did have a median of just a little bit over $200,000 stashed away in their Fidelity or Vanguard or whatever. Here, there was a big difference. The Haredi, the median retirement income among the Haredi was $40,000. And then again, we asked about the home equity. So the home equity was about $200,000 in the modern Orthodox, and about a $100,000. So when you add up all these numbers together, the total assets of modern Orthodox were right around $500,000. That’s total money that they had accumulated, savings and retirement savings. And admittedly home equity, their estimate of it. It was about $500,000. And the Haredi was about $150,000. So again, these are people that are around 40 years old, and at some point they’re aiming to retire.

David Bashevkin:

And a lot of the difference, it’s difficult to speculate what the difference is. Some of it is that perhaps corporate retirement accounts really save for you and make it almost automatic. And in communities where they’re perhaps a little bit more entrepreneurial, and they’re starting their own businesses, then having an automatic retirement account may not be as replenished as often as the kind of automatic savings that you get when you work in a corporation. Obviously, one of the great strategies in The Index Card, my favorite book on personal finance, is that if your company offers a matching retirement fund, that needs to be the first place that you put your retirement money, because you’re leaving money on the table if you do not do that.

So tell me a little bit, so we got this very broad, little bit hazy picture of different people’s finances. What are people doing with their money? What are the luxuries that people allow themselves for? I know for myself, my wife asked me before every birthday, “What do you want? What luxuries do you want?” I don’t buy super fancy clothes, as I’ve mentioned. I buy the same brand for my shirts. I find a pants company that works for me, a suit company that works for me, and I stick with it. I think my Shabbos coat is my fanciest thing that I own. My wife bought it for me. I forgot when.

But the only thing that I spend maybe what could be called frivolously on is books. I am buying too many books. It’s too easy on Amazon. You swipe, buy now. I like owning books. I like marking them up. I like dog earing the pages. I spend way too much money on books. And I’m not sure I can justify that when I look in the mirror. But what are the luxuries that people are affording themselves within our community?

Mark Trencher:

Yeah. So we did ask people. We asked people, does your income cover your expenses? And if they gave an enthusiastic yes, we asked them, what luxuries do you buy? If they said no, my income does not cover my expenses, we asked them, “Well, are there luxuries that you wish you could afford if you had the money?” And the answers were interesting. They were about the same. Among the people who are currently treating themselves to luxuries, the main things they mentioned were vacations and just trips. A lot of them mentioned eating out more often in restaurants, food. People who are in apartments mentioned purchasing a home, purchasing a second home, renovating, having people help them with their home cleaning. And the people who were doing without these pretty much mentioned the same things. They said, “We want to go on more vacations. We want to eat out more. We wish we could add onto our kitchen. We wish we could get help in cleaning the house.” So they were interesting enough. Not too many people mention books.

David Bashevkin:

Books is me.

Mark Trencher:

I’m in the same category.

David Bashevkin:

I’ll tell you what I don’t mention. I do not want to eat out more. I probably eat out, I don’t know, four times a year. And it’s already too much for me. My wife knows that there’s this place in Teaneck, a dairy breakfast place, that is a balagan, it’s a war zone when you walk in there. They’ve got 20 different lines. I never know where to pay out. When she says that she wants to go there to pick up a slice of pizza or a salad, I am already stressed out. It is way too much for me. So let’s come back to the number one cost, without a doubt, of Orthodox Jewish life, is the cost of day school tuition.

Mark Trencher:

Maybe.

David Bashevkin:

Did you ask… Maybe?

Mark Trencher:

Maybe. So there’s a bunch of costs that are kind of small. I would say the top two costs are, and I’m not going to tell you what order they’re in. The top two costs are the cost of Jewish education, and the cost of where you live, which is the cost of where you have to live, because we live within walking distance of a shul. And that’s a cost that is, in terms of the time impact, your kids go to day school and then eventually they graduate. But where you live, that’s a persistent cost. So I view those as the top two costs.

David Bashevkin:

And where you live, there are a lot of hidden costs about where you live because where you live is not just the cost of your mortgage and your local property taxes. Where you live also shapes what you want. It also shapes what your children want. It shapes the desires that really animate your life. And for many people, if you live in a community where certain luxuries are a given, it is merely impossible, it is a Herculean feat to not allow that to affect you. And it needs to be, if you don’t want it to affect you, almost a family policy of sorts that we are not going to look at other people. And that could be very hard for young kids. So there are a lot of hidden costs to where you live, but let’s talk for a moment about the costs of Jewish education.

Are people able to afford? What percent of people are able to afford? Do you have any insight, who is pay paying the full cost of day school tuition? When I was growing up, my mother would always tell me, almost to comfort me, because I did grow up with a fair amount of anxiety about money in our home. And my mother would always comfort me when I thought, “Oh, are we going to lose the house? We don’t have enough money. What’s going on?” And I had that anxiety as a kid, inherited from my father, who likely inherited it from his father. My mother would always comfort me and say, “Dovid, we pay full tuition.” I was probably in seventh grade at the time. And I said, “What’s the big deal? You pay full, you can’t shoplift education. What’s the alternative?” I didn’t realize how common it was to be on tuition assistance, to have another family member, a grandparent, pay for your day school education. So give me some insight, how are we paying for our Jewish education?

Mark Trencher:

Okay, so as far as the amounts we pay, among households that have kids in day school, the median amount that’s paid for tuition is $31,000 out of pocket a year. That was the midpoint among all the modern Orthodox households that have kids in K through 12, $31,000. And almost half are getting tuition, 41% say they’re getting tuition assistance, typically around $7,000 reduction per kid. So you have 59% are paying full boat, $31,000. So you’re talking typically maybe two kids. Could be more, could be less. Remember, these are medians. And 41% do get tuition assistance. For those who get the tuition assistance, they’re getting around $7,000 a kid. The numbers in the Haredi world are lower. Your typical Haredi family is paying about $20,000, but here, half the kids get tuition assistance, just over half. But the amounts are less. They’re getting tuition assistance of $3,000 per child.

The tuition scales are lower in the Haredi world, especially in the chassidish world. The tuitions are lower. So even though they have more kids, more of them are getting assistance. The amount of assistance is less per kid, but they’re paying $20,000. So that’s how much goes out of pocket for tuition. $31,000 for modern Orthodox and $20,000 for Haredi. Coincidentally, a much smaller number have kids in college or a gap year. And purely coincidentally, among those families that have a kid in college, their median was also $31,000. It just happened to be the exact same number in the modern Orthodox world. And in the Haredi world, again, those that had a kid in college or gap year or seminary were also paying typically around $20,000. So that’s the –

David Bashevkin:

Mark, allow me to kind of surface two things. Number one, I think it’s important to state, and a lot of people mention this to me, because I did see, I filled out the survey myself. And a lot of people did note the fact that it’s very family-centric, and didn’t really give a place to discuss the finances of people who are single, or people who maybe are divorced, and how that affects the Orthodox home and the Jewish experience in many ways.

And I think that’s important. I think there are a lot of opportunities. I know I got married a little bit later, and as difficult and as much of a struggle as it was, it did provide a financial opportunity of savings in those younger years. Even though I was paying rent, a lot of other expenses didn’t come, and I was able to put away and really begin savings and use that number one asset, investing asset, that everyone has, namely time, and allowing my investments to compound. But Mark, forgive me, allow me to ask you a question that’s maybe a drop more personal. Do you have children, and did you send them to Yeshiva day school?

Mark Trencher:

Yes. I have three children. They all went to Yeshiva day school. They all went to the elementary school here in Hartford, Connecticut, where I live. My son went to MTA, dormed for four years in Manhattan. My daughter went to Bruriah in Elizabeth. My other daughter went to Shevach in Queens. And then my son went to YU. My daughter went to Stern. And my younger daughter went to Touro. So I went through all that rigmarole.

David Bashevkin:

You went through it all. So I want to ask –

Mark Trencher:

Even worse than that, I had to drive my daughter on Sunday nights to New Haven, where she took a train to New York. And when she got to New York, she took a train to New Jersey. And when she got to New Jersey, she took a cab to a home where she lived, where I had to pay the homeowner for boarding, because the school did not. So I mean, I fully appreciate the enormous, enormous sacrifices that we Orthodox people make for education.

David Bashevkin:

And let me ask you, did it ever affect you? I mean you grew up and maybe, my friend, who I’ve quoted before, Moishy, who really is probably the person who shaped my approach to finances most, always said that inflation, the cost of living in the Orthodox community always outpaces inflation and the general cost of living indexes in the rest of the world. Did this ever, how did the cost of living affect you personally? You’re looking at this survey and you’re seeing thousands of people responding in different ways. How did it affect you?

Mark Trencher:

Yeah, so I had an insurance agent, he was actually a friend of mine, and he did a financial assessment for me. This was around when I was, it was around that time, my kids were in high school. He said to me, “Mark,” he said, “You’re not in great shape right now, but I’m projecting this out to the future. So all I can tell you is that things will look better.” I think he was projecting a time when I didn’t have these expenses. It is challenging. I had a negative balance in my home equity line of credit for years, for years. I remember taking money out and you did not have to pay back the balance for a certain period. And then after a certain number of years, you had to pay it back with interest.

So yeah, it was very challenging. And I do appreciate that. So in terms of me personally, we never… but I think unlike most people who said, “You know what? We’re doing what we have to do.” I will say this. I will say, one of the things people said, when we ask people at the end of a survey, what advice would you give an Orthodox family that’s struggling? One of the things they say is live in a community where you don’t have to keep up with the Joneses. We’re blessed to have lived in a community where there’s not that competitiveness in terms of spending. So that’s the good.

David Bashevkin:

Is that a deliberate choice on your part, and why you chose the community you live in?

Mark Trencher:

Well, it was, it was a choice to move out of the New York area. And once we moved out, we just… We lucked into a community that was very, very, very open to that kind of attitude.

David Bashevkin:

You’re kind of the heroes of the people who, again, I’ve never been to your home. I’ve never met you. You don’t look, you don’t strike me as somebody who lives an all that extravagant lifestyle. But I really think that it’s people like yourself who really give that path, that middle path that needs to be highlighted more within the Jewish community.

Mark Trencher:

I would also say that the end of a survey, we ask people how they would advise a family that’s struggling, and interestingly enough, the number one thing people said was, quote, “Live within your means and don’t stress about those around you.” We are part of a community that requires immense wealth, but there are places in the US, and certainly Israel, where you can have a great life without incredible wealth. Quite a few people mentioned making aliyah. Somebody else said, “Get out if at all possible from high cost of living Jewish communities. Forget about the need to keep up with the Joneses. Vacations and Pesach programs aren’t a required element of being Jewish or observant. It’s not easy to do, but it’s possible.” Cost savings was not lechatchila a priority, something I had in mind when we moved out of the New York area, but in the end, it did work out that way. So it’s good.

David Bashevkin:

So were there any specific strategies that came forward, aside from the ones you’ve mentioned, which, again, I couldn’t agree with more. I think that your environment shapes your wants and desires more than anything else. Were there any other specific financial strategies that jumped out at you that you think would be valuable to share with our audience?

Mark Trencher:

Well, I think, I think the main strategies are, first of all, to be very open, to be open to location. Consider, A, finding a community. I should say that sometimes I speak in shuls and people tell me I don’t like my shul. And one of the first things I did when I established my practice was I needed to create a mailing list of shuls because I wanted to communicate, so I went to 250 shul websites. And one of the interesting things about the American modern Orthodox community is there’s a huge variety in shuls out there, and types of shuls in their hashkafah, their worldview, the people. So I tell people that depending on what you’re looking for, and this was not a financial statement that I made, but I was telling people religiously, if your community is not a fit, depending on what you’re looking for, you may find it out there. And guess what? Post-pandemic, people are working from home. So this might be a time for people to consider where they want to live.

In terms of education, the number of people that get assistance is actually pretty high, 40% to 50%. I tell people do not be embarrassed to ask. This is also one of the pieces of advice that were given. And hey, if you’re stressed, don’t be embarrassed to ask. When my kids were in school, it was challenging. And for some reason, I had the mindset that I am not going to ask for any kind of assistance. And I didn’t. And had I asked, I probably might have gotten something. My income was decent, but not to have three kids in elementary school at the same time. So ask if you can. Seek help if you can. Spend on the things you need to spend on. And a lot of people are spending money on things they don’t need to spend on.

David Bashevkin:

So that leads me to kind of my final question, which is that we’ve been doing a lot of, I don’t want to call it complaining, because that hasn’t been the tenor or the focus of our conversation, but there is a great deal of complaining and difficulty and struggle that the financial costs of Jewish life imposes on families. But there’s also a great deal of kindness and charity within our community, giving through organizations and individuals, the way people give charity and tzedakah, as it is known. Is that reflected anywhere in your study, the levels of giving within the Jewish community?

Mark Trencher:

Yeah. So there’s a question that’s often asked in the research world, and the question goes something like this. If you were suddenly faced with a $2,000 unexpected expense, what would you do? And in the world, in the secular world, a surprising number of people, like 40%, say they have no idea. They have no idea how in the world they would ever come up with that level of money. I mean, if they need a new transmission, they would pretty much be sunk. And we decided just to see what people would say. We asked the same question in our survey. If you were faced with a $2,000 expense, what would you do? And in our case, in the modern Orthodox world, 90% of people agreed that they would be able to handle it.

90% of people. In the US, only 60% of people. Even in the Haredi world, over 70% of people said I would be able to handle it. Because I think we have that network of organizations, and also we have family. In my 2017 survey, when I asked people, what gives you the most joy? What gives you the most joy and satisfaction as an Orthodox, observant Jew? Number two was Shabbos, and number four was learning, and number five was spending time with family. You know what was number one? Community, attachment to the community. People said it over and over again. So I think the community, the gemachs, the gemilat chassadim, the charitable organizations are much stronger in our community than in secular society. So that’s the good news. The good news is that people… I have a friend who went through hard times, and my wife, who’s, actually, my wife’s friend went to a few people and collected some money just to tide her over temporarily. So we do see that in the research we’ve done.

David Bashevkin:

That is absolutely beautiful. Any other major takeaways that we didn’t get to that are reflected in your survey? And again, you could find this survey on the Nishma website, correct? And we’ll be able to send it out to –

Mark Trencher:

Yeah, nishmaresearch.com. It’ll be available.

David Bashevkin:

And we will send it out to our listeners to highlight your really incredible work. And we’re so excited to do this. Any other major findings that we have not discussed that you think would be important to emphasize in our conversation?

Mark Trencher:

Well, only that… Okay, so I think we need to be a little bit more careful when we talk about the cost of orthodoxy, because if you look at where people spend their money on, they say, “Oh yeah, I spent my money on shul, on charitable organizations.” So what does the cost of Orthodoxy even mean? Who are we comparing ourselves to? So, in my view, I’m saying, let’s compare us to American non-Orthodox Jews. Half of them belong to shuls. Half of them already belong to shuls. And they’re paying dues that might even be more than what an Orthodox shul charges. And there are other expenses that we have, summer camp. Everyone goes to summer camp. You might say there are summer camps that are more expensive. Okay, that’s in Orthodoxy.

But if you really look at the true cost of Orthodoxy, a little bit of it is the things you mentioned. It’s the religious articles, Pesach, matzos, lulav and esrog, you mentioned books, sefarim, tefillin. For a woman it would be a sheitel, a head covering. But in the big picture, that’s not big potatoes. The big potatoes are the cost of where you live, which can be, for many people, as you mentioned in the report… By the way, one of the things we did in the report which people might like is we took people who live in zip codes, starting in the Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island zip codes, and compared them to people in Michigan, Minneapolis, Ohio. We created a cluster, two clusters, high cost, low cost. Huge, huge differences between them. So the three big cost factors are that, the day schools. Ask for help. Ask for tuition assistance. Don’t be embarrassed. We learned that.

And then there’s the cost of food, which I view as number three on the list. We asked the question about the impact of the cost of food, but we also asked about the impact of your practices on Shabbat and chagim, holidays. And I think you had talked about this in an earlier episode, and by the way, you ended up deciding that one of the top things of Shabbat is the dips on the table. And we have elaborate meals. By the way, we don’t have dips in our house because we are a challah-free zone, most weeks.

David Bashevkin:

Challah-free zone. I need to get back to a challah-free zone.

Mark Trencher:

Most weeks.

David Bashevkin:

Post-pandemic.

Mark Trencher:

We do tend to be… Look, we’re trying to make Shabbat beautiful, as you talked about with your many guests. And that’s true. So the kosher food, it can be a number three factor for people to look at. And I think in all three of those areas, location, education, and food, and how we celebrate the chagim, there are ways to kind of reduce costs if we want to.

David Bashevkin:

And I think the most beautiful takeaway was that final question that you asked, which is, is it worth it? And over 90% said it is. And I hope that that sentiment is something that our community continues to provide because it is a life that is so enriching and so beautiful. And I’m so excited to share some of these findings. And I really appreciate your time today.

I always end my interview with a little bit of rapid fire questions. My first question is, is there a book that you would recommend that you have found helpful for people to understand, learn more about finances, maybe that you have found helpful in your own life? What book would you recommend for somebody looking to better understand finances, economics, wealth? I don’t know if you are much of a reader, but what book would you recommend for someone looking to discover more about this subject?

Mark Trencher:

Yeah. I don’t have a specific book in mind. If you go to Amazon, there are a lot of books that are very basic. It depends on where a person is in their lives. But for a person, for example, who wants to start saving for retirement, a book about all the various instruments available. We did ask in this survey, by the way, where do you have your money invested? And so we know what percent have their money invested in stocks, individual stocks, stock funds, mutual funds, treasuries, even –

David Bashevkin:

And I was actually quite heartened to see in that question, most people, as they should be, are invested in index funds. And I saw, I got a kick out of the fact, a very small difference, this was the difference I was most fascinated by, between the amount of people who were invested in crypto within the Modern Orthodox community and in the Haredi community is a very slight uptick I noticed of those invested in cryptocurrency. Still under 10% in both, in the Haredi community. But overall, I thought people’s investments were exactly where they should be, index funds, where they can forget about their money, as they used to say in that cooking infomercial, set it and forget it.

My second question that I always ask my guests: if somebody offered you a great deal of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical with no responsibilities whatsoever to go back to school and write a book, not just do surveys, because you do a great deal of surveys. You’re busy. But if somebody allowed you to go back to school, write a PhD, write a book, what do you think the topic and title of that study would be?

Mark Trencher:

Well, so I’ve become intrigued in recent years by the field of behavioral economics, why people make the decisions they do. And they could be good decisions or bad decisions. This is the field that people like Daniel Kahneman, who was a Nobel prize winner, Israeli.

David Bashevkin:

Sure.

Mark Trencher:

Amos Tversky, his Israeli partner, Richard Thaler. I’m thinking there must be opportunities to kind of figure out how Orthodox people make the decisions that they’re making, and are they smart decisions, and how can we convince people to change their behavior? So it might be something in the range of behavioral economics, but specifically dealing with the behaviors of Orthodox Jews.

David Bashevkin:

And certainly, your work with Nishma is really starting those conversations to provide a little bit more data and understanding for people to get a broader and more detailed, nuanced, sophisticated picture of the issues that we find most important. My last question, and I’m always curious about people’s sleeping patterns. What time do you go to sleep at night? And what time do you wake up in the morning?

Mark Trencher:

Okay, so I go to sleep late. I usually get in bed around 12:30, but I have a superpower. And my superpower is that when I take my iPhone and put it about four inches from my eyes, it becomes a wide screen TV. I don’t need my glasses. So I end up watching a movie. I end up watching TV from about 12:30 to about 1:30. The house is quiet. My wife is sleeping. Nobody bothers me. I have no food in bed. So I’m watching TV without munching. So I usually actually go to sleep around 1:30. I always wake up between 4:30 and 5:00. And then I have a decision to make. What do I do now? So unfortunately I always check my email. And sometimes I’ll play a game or two of online Scrabble. The good news is that when I decide to turn my phone off I go back to sleep. So I end up waking up around 8:00. So if I’m lucky, I get six and a quarter hours of sleep.

David Bashevkin:

With a break for Scrabble in the middle.

Mark Trencher:

Scrabble. And then sometimes in the afternoon, I sometimes lose consciousness for a few minutes. So it is what it is. Enjoy life.

David Bashevkin:

Mark Trencher, you are one of the most wholesome Jews that I have ever met. So much of what the conversation about wealth needs to be is not negativity about those who have means, God forbid, but propping up kind of the middle, the regular Jews. And you, my friend, are somebody who’s doing such wonderful work in the community and really has just a wholesome way about them. And it’s such a joy connecting with you, speaking with you. I cannot thank you enough for your time speaking today, and for all of your work in the Jewish community.

Mark Trencher:

Thank you, Reb Dovid. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

David Bashevkin:

I’ve mentioned this many, many times, but I think one of the things that many people struggle with, particularly in this generation, is choosing a community, or learning how to fall in love with their community. It always pains me a great deal when I hear people kvetch, complain about where they live. And I think very often it’s a function that they don’t know how to develop a healthy relationship with community. I know that is sometimes the case because I was very much a product of that as well. When I was choosing the current community where I live, and I am proud to live in the country club section of Teaneck, which boasts tremendous religious and economic diversity. We love our friends. We love our neighbors. And I really am so proud of the community that we live in. But it is also no secret, when I first moved here, and I didn’t even check it out for Shabbos, because I knew I’m the kind of person who, I was going to be miserable the first year of whatever community that I lived in.

We narrowed down a list. We knew what communities were not on the list for a host of reasons. We knew what communities were on the list. And we checked this house. I didn’t even realize at the time, because I grew up in the Five Towns, that this was not considered mainstream Teaneck. It’s not even the other side of Teaneck, as some people colloquially call the Beth Aaron community. This is the other, other side. It’s really the boondocks, which is part of the reason why I love it so much. But I was able to fall in love with this community because of a host of reasons that I don’t need to get into now. But I think for many people, it is worth thinking about, what is stopping you from falling in love with your community? And I think some of that has to do with this mimetic desire that community shapes, and how particularly our more insular community shapes our desire.

And the question that we need to ask ourselves is, for all of the infrastructure, for all of the opportunity that densely populated Jewish areas give us, the access to kosher restaurants and the schools and all of the options that it gives us, is it worth the sacrifice of losing your ability to find your intrinsic desire? Are you lost in the thin desires, simple imitating the person next to you with the new car or whatever it is? Or do you have a way of finding that intrinsic desire to build that life of satisfaction? And I found it so striking that of all of the strategies that Mark Trencher found in his survey, the one that most people found most helpful was finding a community that allowed them to reinforce the type of desires that they could live by and build meaningful and satisfactory lives.

It doesn’t mean to me moving away because you can’t afford it. I think that’s usually the headline. It means moving away because I can’t afford having these desires. Not afford it in the monetary sense, but afford it in the emotional sense. I don’t want to be surrounded by this. I want to be surrounded by other types of ideas, by other types of models. And sometimes we need to figure out ways to surround ourselves with the desires that will reinforce the lives that build satisfaction and meaning for us and our families.

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