Teaching Children about Money

Image: Girl holding pitcher in front of lemonade stand (Hurst Photo) All Rights Reserved.

  • What did your parents say to you about money, growing up?
  • What did you learn about money from watching your parents?
  • What do you wish you had learned from your parents about money?

Money is one of the most awkward topics to discuss with our children. It goes right to the heart of our values and often, to any shame we are carrying from our own life experiences. A study by T. Rowe Price in 2017 revealed that 69% of parents feel reluctance in talking about money with their children.

And yet the Torah is adamant that we talk to our children about our possessions, including money:

Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One. You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your possessions. And these words that I command to you today shall be in your heart: you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.”

Deuteronomy 6:4-7

There it is, right in the Shema prayer: “You shall love… God… with all your possessions. And these words that I command to you today… you shall teach them diligently to your children.”

Here are some suggestions for talking with children about money:

  1. Take some time to think about your own values and feelings about money, and those of the other parent. Ask yourself, “What do I really believe, and how does it show in my behavior?” We cannot be truthful with our children if we aren’t truthful with ourselves first.
  2. Also, listen to your own speech about money: whom you admire, whom if anyone you envy, whom you talk about in disparaging terms. Keep in mind that your children are taking all this in: are these the messages you want to teach them?
  3. Talk about needs vs. wants. This works better when it is not in the middle of a conversation about something your child desperately wants. Let them hear you think out loud about your own money decisions.
  4. Answer questions about money with questions to find out what exactly your child is asking. If a child asks, “Are we rich?” ask, “Why do you ask?” Get at the actual question, which might be anything from “Do we have enough money to live?” to “Someone at school said some mean anti-Semitic things to me about rich Jews.”
  5. When a child expresses worry, take them seriously. Find out what is worrying them about money, hear them out, and reassure them as truthfully as you can.
  6. As children grow up, let them participate in some family decision-making about money. The tzedakah budget is a great place to begin.
  7. Children need practice in handling their own money, either from an allowance or money that they earn themselves.
  8. Above all, be honest. Children need to be able to trust you, and if you aren’t telling the truth (if your words don’t match your behavior) they will notice and will not know when to believe you.

Jewish Tradition on Money & Ethics: Foundational Beliefs

Image: An accounting ledger page, with numbers (Pixabay)

There are some basic concepts that form the foundation of the teachings of Jewish tradition on money.

First: We hold any possessions we have, including wealth, as stewards for God. We may say, “I earned what is in my bank account” and indeed, we may have worked hard for it. Or we may not have worked at all – perhaps we inherited it. Either way, we are responsible to the Holy One for what we do with our resources, great or small, because it is all part of the larger Creation.

Remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case.

Deuteronomy 8:18

Second: Poverty is bad. It is bad in and of itself. It does not serve any good purpose.

There is nothing in the world more horrible than poverty. It is the most terrible of all suffering. Our teachers have said that if every difficulty were on one side and poverty were on the other, poverty would outweigh them all.

Exodus Rabbah 31: 12, 14

Third: Wealth is neutral. It is not bad in and of itself, nor is it good. It must be acquired and used justly.

…And give to us a long life, a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of strengthening the body, a life that has in it a fear of heaven and a fear of sin, a life that does not have in it shame and disgrace, a life of wealth and honor, a life marked by our love of Torah and a fear of heaven, a life in which the wishes of our heart will be filled for good. Amen.

– Prayer for Rosh Chodesh, Ashkenazi siddur, my translation

They have sold for silver Those whose cause was just, And the needy for a pair of sandals.

Amos 2:6

Jewish tradition envisions a world in which everyone has enough to live, and those who have more than enough are just in their acquisition and use of wealth.

As it is written: “You shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless the Eternal your God for the good land that God has given you.”

Deuteronomy 8:10 (Also in the Birkat Hamazon)

Jewish Values and Money

Image: Three stacks of coins, with seedlings growing on top. (nattanan23/pixabay)

Jewish tradition has always regarded economic activity as a normal and legitimate pursuit. Just as with any other normal human activity, Judaism established a framework for economic activity to keep it within the boundaries of Torah.

The Jewish businessperson, the Jewish consumer, and the Jewish investor have sacred boundaries for behavior in our tradition. Jewish values apply in the economic sphere. Some examples:

  • Every adult is responsible for their own words and behavior.
  • Every adult is responsible for the maintenance of the community.
  • The strong may not exploit the weak or the ignorant.
  • Powerful individuals may not use their power to the detriment of society.
  • Workers are protected from exploitation, but they also have responsibilities.
  • Truth in marketing, advertising and speech are key values.

These values hold true for Jews whether they are capitalists or socialists, conservatives or liberals, owners, stockholders or workers.

I am not suggesting that we substitute halakhah (Jewish Law) for the laws of the state. There is a principle in Jewish law, “Dina d’malkhuta dina” (in Aramaic, דִּינָא דְּמַלְכוּתָא דִּינָא ) “the law of the land is the law.” That means that the law of the state is binding upon the Jews who live there. However, when Jewish tradition holds us to a higher standard than the civil law, the observant Jew should adhere to that higher standard.

Has there ever been a time when you felt a conflict between your Jewish values and your economic interests? Did you feel you had the tools to make the right decision?

Why Do Some People Think All Jews are Rich?

Image: Stacks of coin in front of shadowy figures. Art by Pete Linforth via pixabay.com.

You’ve heard the stereotypes, and the nasty little comments: “Jews are all rich.” “Jews control all the banks.” “All Jews are obsessed with money.” Some Jewish readers may have had pennies thrown at them. As a reader asked recently, where does this come from?

First, notice something: the word “all.” Any time you see that word, put on your skeptical hat! Global statements are a sign that there’s irrationality involved.

“All Jews are rich.” – Not true. Half a million Jews live under the poverty line in New York City alone, according to a study by the UJA-Federation of New York.  So why do people say that or think it? In purely contemporary terms, it is true that a higher percentage of Jews earn more than $100,000 than any other “faith group” in America, according to this chart from GOOD and Column Five.  It is also true that there are individual Jews who are famous for their wealth, for example, George Soros and Sheldon Adelson. But no, not all Jews are rich, and the majority of rich people are not Jewish.

According to the Pew Research Center’s study of religious groups in the U.S. and income distribution, 44% of American Jewish households  make above $100,000 per year, the highest percentage of any group. Some possible reasons for this:

  • Jewish culture values education highly, and higher education correlates with higher earning power.
  • Until recently, in each generation, Jews have been shut out of “old” professions and have therefore sought careers in emerging fields. For instance, when the American film industry was getting started, most white Americans looked down on people in entertainment. Jews established many of the first studios because that field was open to them. Being early in new fields means higher risk, but higher rewards for those who succeed.
  • Jews in America benefitted from a coincidence: Antisemitism decreased dramatically in the US after WWII, at the beginning of the post-war boom. Jews were not “redlined” out of the housing market, unlike other minorities. The growth in the housing market was the single greatest builder of middle-class wealth in US history.
  • The Jewish practice of tzedakah encourages the giving of low- or no-interest loans within the community. Jews who have “made it” contribute to organizations like the Hebrew Free Loan Society that give assistance to entrepreneurs that qualify, and to households in temporary distress.

While it is not true that all Jews are rich or have access to wealth, it is true that as a group, Jews have prospered in America. Jews faced considerable prejudice but were able to establish themselves in newer, riskier industries where the initial return is high. Partly they were able to do that because within the Jewish community there is a tradition of helping young people get educations and start businesses. Furthermore, while Jews faced prejudice in America, including redlining, they did not face the systematic institutional racism that African Americans have faced.

The linking of Jews and money goes back to the Middle Ages. The Bible forbids usury [taking or paying interest on a loan “from your brother.” (See Exodus 22:24, Deuteronomy 23:20-21, and Leviticus 25:35-37 for examples.)] Jewish law discouraged lending to non-Jews as well as forbidding lending at interest to other Jews.

However, sources of income for European Jews prior to about 1800 were extremely limited. Jews were barred from most professions and guilds. Moneylending was a viable way to make a living, especially since Christians were barred by their own laws from lending money. Thus moneylending became a niche for Jews. It was a dangerous niche, however: no one likes their creditors.

Financial skills are also portable. Jews were uprooted again and again from their homes in Europe, and those with portable skills were the best equipped to survive. One side-effect of the various expulsions was that families were often scattered to different cities. Having trusted family members in financial centers like Amsterdam, London, Paris, etc meant that money could be moved easily across the continent. For a more detailed history of Jews and banking, there’s an excellent article in the Virtual Jewish Library.

So yes, there are connections between Jews and money. But not all Jews are rich and not all Jews have access to wealth.

One way that these ideas spread was a hoax called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was produced sometime in the early 20th century in Russia or the Ukraine. It purports to be a blueprint for world domination by a Jewish conspiracy. It claimed that Jews plan to dominate the world by economic means. So even today, “All Jews are rich” is a central belief for many antisemites.

Why is the Synagogue So Expensive?

Temple_Israel_Memphis_Chapel
Temple Israel, Memphis, TN

Why is synagogue membership so expensive?

• Many synagogues run on membership subscriptions because that allows for predictable cash flow and budgeting.  Every synagogue has its own formula for setting dues, and some don’t have “dues” at all.

• Costs vary by the cost of living in an area, by the size of the staff (salaries are usually the biggest single budget item) and by the services offered. A small synagogue that rents a room in a local strip mall one day a week and has no rabbi can operate very cheaply, and it will have low dues. It may be a wonderful Jewish community, but it will not be able to offer many things that people want from a synagogue.

Most synagogues offer “dues relief” when needed. If you want to join a synagogue with dues of $2000 a year, and you can’t afford it, say so! Please do not assume that you are not wanted, or that it is a synagogue only for “rich people.” Explain that you want to belong to the synagogue, but that there is no way you can afford the recommended amount. They will usually have a way to meet you at a level you can afford.

• Sometimes people ask why they should pay for services they don’t personally use. For instance, why should I pay the full membership rate when I don’t have children in religious school?  Educating the children of our community about Torah is a basic Jewish value, and it is the responsibility not just of the parents, but of the whole community. If you think the synagogue is spending your dues on something foolish or unfair, talk with a member of the board and learn about who uses that program and why it is a priority. If you still think it foolish, you can talk to more board members about examining those priorities.

• They call it a “membership” because you become a member. Once you join, at whatever dues level, you are not merely a consumer. Look for ways to keep expenses low by being a good member: cleaning up your messes, helping with set up and clean up, serving on committees, volunteering, and participating in events like congregational meetings and fundraising.

For more about how to be happy with the synagogue you join, I’ve written How to Succeed at Congregational Life: Ten Tips.

I have a bias on this subject: I don’t work for a synagogue at this time, but I’ve been a synagogue member twenty years. When there’s trouble, I call my rabbi; when I have good news, I share it with friends there. My beloved and I were married there. It is my Jewish family, my first and primary tie to the larger Jewish world.

Don’t let sticker shock drive you away! There are ways to make it work. Synagogue membership is one of the great bargains around.