Thursday, October 30, 2008

On Holidays, Holy Days and Days Off

The US is not alone in having federally mandated legal holidays; many other countries have these holidays as well. Many companies will close on these holidays; employees have no choice as to whether they wish to work on them or not. Other companies, whose services perhaps are required 24/7, will have at least skeleton crews around on a legal holiday; those who work on the holiday are given a compensatory day off of their choosing or are paid at time and a half. Some companies offer their employees "bonus" days in connection to a legal holiday, giving off the Friday after Thanksgiving, for example. In addition to the legal holidays companies also offer sick days--the number allotted varies-- and vacation days. Schools, which are a type of business, also offer days off during the "work" year. So what, you say?

There is a lot of grumpiness out there whenever an occasion for a day off from work occurs. One reason for this grumpiness is that different businesses offer wholly different days off from what other businesses are offering. In a practical sense you can have Dad with a day off while Mom doesn't have one, or vice versa. Now add in two or three different schools with different days off, or 1/2 days off, and you can have a family scheduling nightmare. For religious people you have the added headache of when holy days fall during the week.

My husband's company has a solution that has worked well for years, and I don't know why other companies do not follow suit. His company started out as a privately owned concern, with mostly frum employees. The company offers some services that are of a 24/7 nature and some that are not. Even now that the company is a subsidiary of a mega multi-national firm, its days off policy has remained the same. Someone was smart enough to understand that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The policy? Each employee, depending on rank and on number of years worked, gets X number of days off from work a year. How an employee takes those days is strictly up to the employee. You want to take off on chol hamoed? No problem. You want to work on Thanksgiving? No problem. Non-Jewish employees take off the days that are important to them; Jewish employees take off the days that are important to them as well. It's not all hefker either. Employees still have to indicate when they will be taking off so that the bosses know what coverage will be available in the firm. But it's a lot easier for these employees to coordinate with their children's school schedules and with their spouses' schedules than if they were on a set calendar of days off.

This policy would work well for an awful lot of businesses that are out there, but not, unfortunately, for all. Schools in particular cannot offer their teachers this kind of a schedule. You can't just plug in substitutes and expect the type of continuity necessary for excellent learning to take place. But there is no reason that other businesses cannot think about adopting this policy. It would allow the type of flexibility that would be helpful to families. It's certainly something that you might want to bring up with your supervisors when you are planning how to take your days off. Again, it might not work for every business concern, but for the ones where it could work it produces a very happy staff.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Little Note on Raising Funds

A working rule of thumb for those who send out mass mailings asking for donations is that a response of 1-6% is considered an excellent return.

Let's take the following hypothetical situation. An organization sends out 100,000 pieces of mail asking for donations. Let's give them a cost of 25 cents per piece of mail as the cost of the mailing (They should be paying postage at a lower rate for mass mailings. But postage is not the only overhead cost. There is printing the request and the cost of the return envelope. Many of the organizations include return postage on the envelope they enclose.). That would mean that the cost of the mailing is $25,000. If the organization gets only a 1% return on its mailing, and assuming an "average" of $18.00 per check (some will be less, some more, this is only an average) then the organization will be getting $18,000 in donations, a loss of $7,000 on the mailing. Let's say they are fairly well known and get a 3% return on their mailing. That would give them $54,000 in donations. Subtract their "operating costs" and they will net $29,000 out of that $54,000. This would give them overhead costs on the mailing alone in the high 40% range. Have that organization do 4 mass mailings a year, based on the idea that if someone doesn't give you for one of the mailings they might give you for a different one. And then add in that because there are so many organizations sending mail that once you have given to one tzedaka this year you might not give to them again until next year and you drop your total donations to 2% across a year. Four mailings at $100,000 in expenses and a return of $144,000 in donations, for a net of $44,000.

Now multiply the number of pieces of mail that a person receives from competing tzedaka organizations. Assume that money to donate to tzedaka is a finite number--you can't give more than you have. If you get 10 tzedaka envelopes you can divide the money you have available by ten, so theoretically each envelope will get 1/10 of what you have to donate. But if you get 200 envelopes and you attempt to give everyone something then each envelope will get 1/200 of the money available. Now imagine that there are 400 envelopes that arrive to you; responding to each envelope would mean that each appeal would get 1/400 of the money you have available. BUT, keep in mind that mass mailings are NOT the only way we give to tzedakas. There are shul appeals for tzedaka organizations. Local entities such as yeshivas and mikvas etc. may make phone appeals. There are meshulachim that come personally to collect funds. Thus the money available for those mass mailings is not the full amount of money you have to give to tzedaka.

Obviously some people have more money to give to tzedaka than other people do. Obviously, some people will give more to one tzedaka and less to another. Obviously, some tzedakas get more in donated funds than other tzedakas do. But the more tzedaka organizations that there are out there looking for you to donate to them, the less money available to each individual organization. Obviously, the less money an organization gets in donations, the higher the ratio of overhead costs to actual charity disbursements.

In short, sending out mass mailings asking for tzedaka donations is an iffy business. You may or may not make back your overhead costs. You may or may not have a large amount of money left over after subtracting overhead costs for the mailing. And keep this in mind as well. The overhead costs for the mailing may not be the only overhead costs an organization has. If they are paying for office space, office workers etc. then these costs also have to be paid for before any money can be disbursed for the intended tzedaka purpose.

Brainstorming the Tzedaka Problem

One of the commenters on the Are There Too Many Tzedaka Organizations posting asked "What's next?" We know there is a problem, so what do we do about it?

The following, in no specific order of importance, are some things that could be done in reining in the tzedaka organization problem.

1. Notify organizations that you do not want to get mail and/or phone calls from to remove you from their lists.

2. Send back any envelopes from organizations you don't want to get mail from marked "Addressee unknown."

3. Tell organizations that contact you that if they are not state registered that you won't be contributing, and to take you off their list.

4. Get together with other members of your shul and come up with a shul appeal platform. If your shul has been making appeals for two or more organizations that are doing duplicate tzedaka work or that largely overlap, decide on just one of them. Have the committee further declare that unregistered tzedaka organizations will not have appeals made for them. Have the shul refuse to give out the mailing addresses of members, which are routinely asked for by tzedaka organizations. Have the shul refuse to make an appeal for any organization whose operating funds/overhead is more than 20-30% (or lower) of collected contributions. If your Rav is not maskim to a committee that decides which appeals will be made, make it clear to your Rav that you will not contribute to any shul appeal that is for an organization that is not registered or that refuses to be openly transparent about how funds are used.

5. Insist that any yeshivas your children attend not collect tzedaka funds for any organization that is not registered. Insist that even among registered funds the school pick only those with the lowest overhead to contribute to.

6. Let rabbinic/synagogue organizations know that you expect them to discuss the problem of tzedaka organizations at their regular meetings. Tell them you expect them to come up with sensible guidelines--and give them some hints as to what you consider sensible--for their member rabbis and/or synagogues. Tell these rabbinic organizations that you will not contribute to a tzedaka that is not registered with your state and does not make its operating costs and actual contributions a matter of public record. Note: you aren't asking for the names of the individuals to whom these organizations gave money. Tell these rabbinic organizations that you will no longer contribute to duplicate tzedaka organizations that are in the same geographic area with only a few, specific exceptions. (I make this caveat on behalf of certain Bikur Cholim organizations in the NYC region. They not only service their specific geographic location but also service the various large hospital centers in the NYC region, hospital centers that are used by people living in all parts of the Metropolitan region.) And also tell these rabbinic organizations that you will no longer contribute to them unless they adopt a sane, rational policy about tzedaka organizations.

7. Relatively smaller or more insulated communities can do what I have already heard is done in some communities: no meshulach can try and collect in that area unless he is vetted by the local shul, according to guidelines the community has agreed to beforehand.

8. Perhaps a central registry of tzedaka organizations could be established (perhaps as an online site). A tzedaka organization could not appear in this registry unless it presented to the registry for publication it's financial records vis a vis itemized overhead and actual disbursements for the purpose the money was donated.

9. Encourage any organization that you know of, that keeps its overhead low and that does the good work it says it is going to do, to register with the state.

10. Tell your shul/yeshivas that you won't contribute to organizations that solicit funds over the phone and split the donations with the person doing the soliciting, and that you expect that they won't contribute to these organizations either.

11. Refuse to donate to organizations that contribute the funds they collect to other organizations--you don't need a middle man for tzedaka giving. One tzedaka fund that we know of regularly made donations to other places such as Ohel, Tomche Shabbos etc. When we found this out we point blank told them they would not be getting funds from our neighborhood if they continued this practice. They no longer do so.

12. Follow the dictate that local comes before "out there" when giving tzedaka.

13. Refuse to give to any hachnosas kallah fund outside of one maintained by your shul for the use of poor shul members only. This is one particular area where over duplication is notorious.

14. If you are solicited for a donation ask if the organization is staffed with all volunteers or with paid workers. Is there an office that is being paid for or is there donated space?

15. If you are involved with a yeshiva make it clear that you are not in favor of the Rosh Yeshiva's making a general appeal that goes to multiple communities for one Torah scholar with financial problems, particularly if that scholar is not a member of the yeshiva.

16. If you have given to a tzedaka organization and your check has not been deposited in a timely fashion or there have been other problems that clearly spell inefficiency of organization, let people know about it. If you are reading this posting then you already know that bloggers tend to spread the word.

17. Speak up and insist that communities should have a Vaad Ha'tzedaka in the same way that they have a Vaad Ha'kashrut. Every community Vaad should carefully look at the tzedakas that are active in their area and make a suggestion that duplicate organizations merge together. This Vaad would be responsible for giving a "hechsher" to those organizations that meet stringent requirements for disbursement of funds. Perhaps these various community Vaads could form a Council of Tzedaka Vaads whose purpose would be to apply rigorous standards to those organizations that are national rather than local in scope. Such a group would perforce need to have accountants and business people familiar with excellence of organization as members.

18. Last, but hardly least, vote with your pocketbook. It is not necessary to give to everyone who asks you for money. And if you choose not to donate to a particular organization, because they are not well run or because they overlap with a different tzedaka doing the same thing, let them know why you are not giving to them.

This list is not the be all and end all of suggestions--I'm sure you have more to add; however, there might be something in this list that could help you and/or your community in making sure that our tzedaka goes to the right place and is used in the right way. Let's hear from you.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

When is Enough Enough?

It's not just adults who are enthralled with consumerism; it's children as well. They are marketed to aggressively and what they see and hear about they want. And parents give them what they want because those same parents are also ensnared in the "buy me, buy me" trap. But how much is enough? Is there ever a time when those pursuing happiness through owning things ever actually become happy?

A good story to base a discussion on with your children about when is enough enough is the old Grimm's standby "The Fisherman and his Wife."
The moral of the story is quite obvious. If you never become satisfied with what you have you will reach the point of collapse and find yourself back with nothing at all. That collapse is, in practical terms, when you have the credit and borrowing bubble burst. Or it's when you discover that indulging yourself in more for more's sake leads to budgetary woes that don't allow you to pay for what you absolutely must have, like food and basic shelter.

One parent who used the story for a discussion with her kids found that one of them didn't get the point and still wanted a very expensive electronic gadget. So the mother tried a different tack. She said he could have the gadget but he would have to give up other things so it could be paid for. The next morning she put a glass of water and one slice of toast on the table for this child's breakfast. When he complained that this wasn't what breakfast was supposed to be she told him that expensive cereals and the milk to go with them and orange juice were no longer going to be available because otherwise there would be no money for his gadget that he wanted. He had to make a choice: either the gadget or the foods he liked but not both. He argued for a while but by lunch time he finally came to see that physical hunger was a lot worse than hungering for possessions.

It's up to parents to open the discussion about how much is enough, and this tale makes a nice starting point. It also lends itself to discussion on the topic of ayzeh who ashir? sameach b'chelko.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Are There Too Many Tzedaka Organizations?

In a word, yes. It is not the worthiness of all the various organizations that I'm referring to (or at least not yet), but the sheer proliferation of numbers. This time of year my mailbox is stuffed to overflowing, mostly with appeals from charitable organizations. But I've noticed that the mailbox stuffing is no longer limited to before holiday periods; it's happening every week. And it seems as if every week I receive mail from a new organization that has never contacted me before. Rabbis, some of whom I have heard of and some of whom I don't know, send personal appeals on behalf of individuals. Add to the mail received all the phone calls, meshulachim and shul appeals and the whole tzedaka process can seem overwhelming.

There's been some discussion about where donation dollars really go, and I think it's worthwhile to expand that discussion. Let's face it, you can't run a business--and tzedaka organizations are a type of business--without some overhead. Paying rent for an office costs money; supplies cost money; phones cost money; printing and mailing appeals costs money. There are going to be costs involved. But how much should those costs be? What is reasonable to assume as the cost of doing business?

There are sites that can tell you how much of the money a charitable organization uses for overhead and how much is actually given towards the cause the organization espouses. Those figures are real eye openers. Some organizations go as low as 5% as an overhead charge; others go as high as 90% going towards overhead. Whoa! Why such a difference? Can there really be such a huge difference in the running costs of Organization A to Organization B?

I just mentioned that tzedaka organizations are a type of business. Well, far too many of these organizations aren't run in a very business-like fashion. Those running them may have good intentions but haven't the foggiest idea about good business practices and money management. A lack of knowledge leads to much wastefulness. We once sent a check to an organization that was having an emergency campaign for funds to feed the needy--it took them 13 months to get around to depositing the check, which the bank would no longer honor. This organization got hit with a bank charge for the non-negotiable check and contacted us to make good on the original check plus pay the charge it incurred. My husband refused; any organization that can't get an "emergency" check deposited in less than 13 months is not a place that we trust any longer to do what they say they will do. And I had to wonder how this organization, which purportedly deals with large sums of money, didn't know about the time limits on checks. And if they "misplaced" our check, just who is running that show?

Then there is this, which we have seen in more than one organization. Those people who call you on the phone? Many are not volunteers; they are commission agents for the organization. Any donations that they can solicit they get a percentage of, and I'm not talking small percentages. Many meshulachim work in the same way; they take a percentage of what they collect as their "salary." You think you are donating money to a worthy cause? Think again.

One organization couldn't understand why I was a bit upset when I found out that they were paying multiple people salaries for running their offices. They had explained to me that these were poor people who had no other source of income so they were providing jobs for them so they wouldn't need to be a burden on other tzedaka organizations. Here was my problem with this. This organization's overhead was in the 75% range. Yes, it was nice that they were helping out people so they could have a job and not have to be recipients of a tzedaka. But this tzedaka was purportedly collecting money to help ill children. It was our original reason for donating to them to begin with. And yet only 1 out of 4 dollars we sent them was going to their stated purpose.

And then there are the "duplicate" tzedakas; organizations that are collecting funds for a purpose that other organizations are also collecting for. Does New York City, for instance, really require 50+ organizations for Hachnosas Kallah? Would not the purpose, helping poor brides in the NY frum community, be better served by having one umbrella organization for this purpose? By combining resources and thus streamlining overhead costs more money would be going towards the cause being supported. Many of these organizations are named "in memory" of someone who has died. Family and friends want a zikoron for this person. Fine, let there be a "________fund" designation within the umbrella organization.

And then there are "local" organizations, some free-standing and some branches of a larger organization. Hatzoloh is one of these organizations. My community has it's own branch of Hatzoloh. Except for widespread catastrophies, such as 9/11, our Hatzoloh serves only us. Yet, we routinely get appeals from Hatzoloh branches in other places. Why? The same goes for Tomche Shabbos. We have a branch in SI. And again, I routinely get appeals from other Tomche Shabbos groups in other areas. I look at our community, not small but not huge either, and the Brooklyn communities from where these appeals come, most of them huge, and I have to wonder why they are coming to me, particularly since they know that we have our own groups.

Should rabbanim be making widespread public appeals on behalf of an individual, who may or may not be a member of their community, but mostly isn't? I really don't want to get into that here, but I would just ask some of these rabbanim to at least change the words in the letter from appeal to appeal instead of just filling in the "name" blank with a different name. And maybe they should also change the number of children these people have--does every poor Torah scholar who has fallen on hard times, whose wife is ill or who is ill himself, have 13 children, one of whom is getting married but there is no money for the wedding? Apparently so.

There needs to be some real re-organization as regards tzedaka organizations and how they are run. Giving tzedaka is part of who we are as frum Jews, but getting fleeced shouldn't be. Accepting and encouraging poor management needs to go. At this time of year, when we have just given a cheshbon ha'nefesh, perhaps we should be asking just how much good we are really doing with some of our tzedaka giving. What is going to be needed is the cooperation of all the sub-communities within the larger frum community, and therein lies another tale.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Money Tree

I've frequently used a tree analogy in teaching my students how to write proper essays and research papers. It occurred to me that the tree analogy would also work perfectly when trying to teach or talk about finances and budgeting.

We have two kinds of trees: evergreens and deciduous. The evergreens stay green year round. The deciduous trees lose their leaves in the colder weather of the fall and have their leaves return in the warmer spring and summer. For my purposes evergreens will represent the ideal of finance, while deciduous trees will be what really happens to most people.

What are the main parts of a tree? The roots, the main trunk, the main branches, the secondary branches, the twigs and, for blossoming trees or fruit trees, the buds and flowers and the fruit. Also important for growing trees are properly enriched soil and a prime planting location.

What is properly enriched planting soil and prime location from a financial perspective? If you want your money tree to grow you have to be knowledgeable about precisely what conditions are necessary for growth. You need to learn the terminology of financial planting. You need to do what is necessary to prepare your soil for real growth, such as formal education or training. You need to understand what a budget is and how to prepare one. If you want to grow mighty oaks you had best provide a soil in which those oaks will grow.

As to location, think real estate and geography here. If you have only mediocre soil don't try and plant your tree in a location where only highly enriched soil will produce strong trees. Better a smaller, healthier tree planted in a soil and location where its roots can support real tree growth than a tree sunk into soil and in a location where its roots cannot take hold and where its roots cannot sustain the growth desired. Think not having champagne tastes on a canned beer budget.

What are the roots of a financial tree? Money. At first these roots are only salary based. Later on, as the tree matures, it may also develop feeder roots that use savings and investments as their nutrients. It is the root system that determines how well a tree will grow, how large, how sturdy. A shallow rooted tree will find itself at the mercy of every rainstorm and windstorm that arises;it's roots aren't deep enough or strong enough to withstand outside forces. Some trees compensate for this shallow root structure by not growing very tall or very broad: the tree fits itself to its roots. Those trees which try to overgrow their shallow roots will find themselves toppling. Pay attention to root growth and maintenance and your tree has a chance to live. Pay attention to how much actual money you have on hand and your financial tree has a chance to live.

What is the trunk of a tree? The trunk of a tree from a financial standpoint is you and your needs. What is necessary for life? Here are the things that no one can live without: food, shelter, clothing to cover ourselves with, care when we are ill. The trunk is there to support the rest of a tree's structure; you can have a trunk without branches but you cannot have branches without a trunk. And again, that trunk, our financial needs, can only grow as well as the roots--the money we earn--that sustain the trunk.

Main branches divide out from the trunk. They are analogous to the members in a family. They are also analogous to our wants and desires. Like trees, some families have only a few branches attached to their trunks. Other families grow a multitude of branches. Some trees do not have the deep root system that will support a highly branched tree; they become top heavy and are prone to attack by forces of nature. Some people have few wants; others want everything. Overcrowding the branches can also mean that each individual branch may not have what it needs to reach full maturity. Some branches may be stunted and never reach their full potential. Some branches may be twisted out of shape. Too many branches--too many people or too many wants--stress a root system.

There are also secondary branches. These secondary branches are only as healthy as the branches that they stem from. Sometimes a secondary branch coming from a stunted main branch can fight for its share of nutrients and find itself growing strongly. Other times those secondary branches reproduce with the same problems seen in the parent branch. There are also twigs; these are the offshoots of branches. Sometimes these twigs want to be big branches themselves. When they grow overlarge they threaten the structure of the tree. Too many twigs growing from one branch can become so heavy that the branch breaks off. Like branches and twigs, our wants grow other wants and then these also grow yet other wants. Too many wants can threaten the life of the whole tree.

Leaves are both necessary and unnecessary for a trees survival. They serve the purpose of giving the tree an extra dose of clorophyll. But a deciduous tree can survive without its leaves; it does so throughout the colder, less sunny times of the year. It's a poor financial farmer who oohs and awes over a tree's leaves, who prides him/herself on how many leaves that tree has but ignores the roots and trunk of the tree. Think of those leaves as the things we own or buy or think we have to have right now, wants for a short period of time, like the latest style of clothing or electronic doodad. People think of these things as if they were branches,but they are only leaves. We can certainly do with fewer or none at all if a financial "season" says no leaves are affordable right now.

Fruit and flowers? Like leaves,these items only come about for a very short season. The only way to extend that season is to find a way to preserve those fruits and flowers for later use. If you eat all the apples now you won't have any when it's not apple season unless you've figured out how to make applesauce and apple juice.

Even if you have done everything just perfectly in planting your tree you aren't finished yet. Trees need steady maintenance. They need to be checked for root rot. They need to be checked to see if insects are boring into their trunk. They need to be checked for diseases. ( One of the deadliest diseases for financial trees is excess credit card debt. It can topple the entire tree.) Their branches and twigs need pruning so the tree won't be misshapen. And yes, sometimes a tree needs to be transplanted because there is no way to fix what ails it where it is presently located. You also need to consider the age of your tree. Trees will need different things at different points in their growing cycle; have you prepared yourself and your tree for what is coming later on?

And you need to prepare for the unexpected. What if there is a drought? What if there is a flood? What if the summer is unexpectedly cold? Or too hot? What if there is a hurricane? You need to ask yourself if you have a plan in case the unexpected should materialize.

So, like growing a tree, financial decisions have to be made in a specific order and with a real understanding of how a financial tree grows. Like real trees, financial trees grow from the bottom up, not the top down, and no amount of tinkering on our parts will change that reality. You cannot start out by deciding how many branches and twigs and blossoms and fruits your tree HAS to have. First, you need to see what kind of roots you are growing and what kind of trunk you will get from those roots. Then you will need to see how strong your branches are growing and do some pruning to those branches when they threaten the overall health of the root and trunk system. First come needs and then come wants, but not necessarily every want we have.

It's little children who put a seed in the ground and are disappointed when that seed hasn't sprouted the next day. For healthy growth you need patience. And before any growth is possible at all you need a plan. Thinking comes before planting. Just keep in mind that mighty oaks from little acorns grow.......if you've planted that acorn correctly.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Blog Update

Somewhere in a few spare moments I prepared some blog postings that will be coming up this week. That's the good news, I guess. Unfortunately my time will be short this week as one, the last of my aunts living was niftar on Friday morning and two, my mother slipped Friday night and will be having surgery tomorrow morning. If it is your custom to say tehillim then please say tehillim for a refuah shelaimah for Faiga bas Leah.

I'll pop in when I can but please, everyone have a safe and healthy week.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Where in the World is...?

It almost doesn't matter how the college catalog describes the courses I teach; inevitably I'm going to find myself teaching all kinds of things that are seemingly not related to the subject of the course. I work on the assumption that college seniors have a certain amount of common knowledge; you know what they say about assumptions and assuming.There are gaps in my students' knowledge that I am constantly tripping over. Instead of just shaking my head I try and fill in at least some of these gaps.

One area where students are lacking is in their knowledge of geography. My brother is the chair of the geography department at one of the California State University colleges, and he routinely tears his hair out at what the students don't know. And what they don't know can hurt them.

A student came to me for help in editing a major research project he was doing for one of the business departments. The paper was in excess of thirty pages and was an analysis of business trends in the US, particularly focusing on the Sunbelt states. And there is where the problem began. This student defined "Sunbelt" as those states where there is likely to be sunshine throughout most of the year (part of the definition but not all of it). Thus, he included in the Sunbelt Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. He also included Texas and New Mexico. He left out California, Nevada and Oklahoma and Tennessee etc.. Before we could even begin to edit his paper, I brought in blank maps of the US. Some were divided by region, some by state borders. I discovered that he 1)couldn't fill in the names of all 50 states and 2) had no real idea as to which states fell in which regions of the country.

And so I find myself every term bringing in blank maps and giving mini lessons on the geography of the US, as well as world geography. Certainly Iraq is a focus of world attention right now. 97% of my students couldn't locate Iraq on a map. Only one student could correctly identify where Afghanistan was.

For parents with younger children, I highly recommend teaching geography on a daily basis. There are lots of blank maps available online. Start with the US and build from there. Add a state every day. Cut the maps apart and have the children put them back together like doing a puzzle.

We live in a global society today and it behooves us to know where everyone is located. How can we speak of world trends and world problems if we literally have no idea where in the world some (most) of the world's hot spots are? I had a student who once wrote a paper in which she outlined some solutions to the drug importation problem. She suggested that we erect the kind of border fence between Mexico and Colombia that is being suggested for between us and Mexico. Such a fence, she posited would be easier to patrol and would cut illegal drug running way down. When I pointed out that her solution was geographically impossible she thought I was wrong. When I showed her on a map where Colombia was physically located she was reallly puzzled. As she said: "From the way the newspapers talk, you get the idea that the Colombian druglords are almost our next door neighbors." Sigh.

Note: Just in case you were wondering, the Sunbelt states are: Florida, Texas, California*, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada**, New Mexico, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma.
*Not all of California is in the Sunbelt. The part that is comprises the 10 counties south of the 36th north latitude.
**Nevada includes only Clark County, which contains Las Vegas.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Please, tell me it really is the last days coming up

Let me start this off by saying that I really do love yom tov, once I am well and truly in it. But the way the schedule for yom tov was this year I am hitting a point where standing in the yard and screaming loudly sounds rather appealing. This will have been five solid weeks, counting the Shabbos before and the Shabbos after yom tov, that I will have been locked into an unending cycle of shopping, cleaning and cooking. One pot has gotten used so often that my husband has to put new screws into the handle--the old ones seemingly wore away from all the washing. Dishes that I cook only for yom tov and which are looked forward to all year have become ho hum old at this point.

It's motzoai Shabbos now and I've just finished up washing all the dishes and pots from Shabbos. I'm not bothering to put everything away since I'll need them all again tomorrow to prepare for yom tov. I've called a moratorium on yom tov preparation tonight; I really, really need a break. For those of you who may be suffering the same sense of being locked into a non-ending cycle of repeating the same tasks over and over again, I suggest you take a little "me" time and unwind. By tomorrow morning I'm hoping my enthusiasm will have returned. Besides, one thing I have learned over the years: the cooking will still be waiting for me tomorrow. Right now there is a scrabble game waiting for me; far more appealing than peeling yet one more potato.

Oops, I've gotten all of my tiles: a Q,Z,L,two Ns and a D. Nary a vowel in sight. Sigh. Maybe I'll just put some eggs up to boil and come back to scrabble later. It appears that something/someone is trying to tell me something.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Shirt Off His/Her Back

Someone who I spoke with this morning mentioned a topic that came up over Yom Tov. The question was: "If every clothing store in existence closed down for the next year, could you make it for that year on the clothes you now own? What if the stores closed for two years? Or three years?"

She reported that the answer depended on the status of the family giving the answer. Those with only adults or adults and children who have already done all their growing said "Yes, but...." Those with small children said no.

Those who said "Yes, but..." mentioned that, for the women, they would have insufficient pantyhose to last that time period. A few also mentioned that their work shoes might not last for one year, but would for sure not last for two or three years. The reason given for the shoes not lasting? The sole would start to wear out.

Those with young children pointed out that kids grow quickly and their clothing and shoes become too small. One mother mentioned that her kids seem to outgrow their clothing before she even gets to wash them once.

Why bring this up? Assuming that everyone stays the same size, I looked at my family, and the contents of their closets and drawers, and drew the same conclusion that those at my friend's house did: We could easily make it another 2-3 years on the clothing we already own. In fact, we could probably make it for a lot longer than 3 years. And yes, pantyhose would be an issue for the working women who can't wear sneakers and sweat socks to work. Regarding the soles of the shoes wearing out, last I heard that was what shoemakers were for: replacing soles and heels. So, if we could all, with no problem, make it for three more years, why is anybody going shopping for new clothes? The answer would seem to be clear: nothing to do with a need and everything to do with a want.

Children's clothing is both expensive and doesn't get worn for long enough to justify the prices charged for the clothing. Buy an infant a summer-weight stretchy in July and that stretchy will not be worn for more than two months tops. Buy a one year old a summer wardrobe and for sure he/she won't be wearing it the next summer. Children's clothing gets put away or given away still in excellent condition.

Why bring all this up now? With the economic turn down we are in now people are looking for places to cut down on expenses. Clothing should be one of the first places to look. For adults there would seem to be no necessity to buy new clothes now, except for the desire to do so and the pressure to be "in style." Even for children there are alternatives to the seemingly never ending replacement of clothes that get outgrown. One alternative is to have a clothing exchange with your family/friends/neighbors/shul members. Another alternative is to buy less, particularly when a child is taking a growth spurt. Surely another alternative is to ditch the idea that labels are important when it comes to kid's clothing, and to buy off brand but cheaper items.

My friend mentioned that the amount of money budgeted for clothing and shoes varied among those at her table: the cheapest budget, for a couple with no children yet, was $1000; the most expensive budget, for a family with four kids, two of whom are teenagers, was $5300. She also reported that about half the people said that underwear and stockings were not considered as "clothing," and was budgeted separately.

What would you do with the money if you found an "extra" $1000 lying around? How about an extra $5300? We talk a lot about cutting our food budgets down, but food is not the only place where money can be cut. Clothing is an area we need to look at with a closer eye.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Abduction in Mexico

This came to me via the Five Towns Jewish Community Email Newsletter. I've been trying to get some further information and have run into a wall. Can any reader out there verify this?

"Please daven for the safe return of David ben Frida, a father of four, who was abducted eruv Yom Kippur in Mexico City. Thank you."

Consistent Not

Yeshiva World News is not precisely a bastion of liberalism. (Okay, it's not exactly a bastion of responsible, impartial journalism either.) For some reason they have found my email address and have been sending me all kinds of notices. The one that had me scratching my head was for three fun activities for Chol Hamoed Sukkos. The first one mentioned, and the one with the biggest sized ad, was for a Lipa and Bello concert at a Ringling Brothers Circus performance. This is the same YWN that excoriated Lipa for a concert that was separate seating and meant only for a frum olam? This is the same YWN that claims a readership that would be offended by Lipa's music? This is the same YWN that won't use women's pictures in their publication?

So let me see if I understand this correctly. The circus performance, open to the general public, both non-Jewish and Jewish, with no separate seating, and featuring a performance by Lipa and a musician who is pictured in the ad with longish hair and no kippah is perfectly fine to be advertised in the same venue that took Lipa to task for the type of music and moves in his performances? YWN has no problem in advertising an event in which there will be female performers wearing abbreviated costumes? Pray tell what has changed? Oh, silly me. Ads bring in money to YWN. A very strange relationship, money and principles.

Update: I finally figured out how to get the fine print in the ad enlarged and now I am truly confused. This is the wording of that fine print: "1:00 to 4:00 Circus with a Poshiter Guest performer? No live singing." Yet elsewhere in the ad in much larger letters it says "Lipa joins Bello in the circus in a live performance." Okay, I'll bite. Just what live performance is Lipa, a singer, going to perform if there is no live singing?

A Sukkah? In What World?

Mention Sukkos this year and, at least in the Northeast and the Midwest, you are going to hear comments about being cold in the Sukkah. If those comments come from the Southwest or Florida or Israel, the comments are going to be about being too hot during the daytime in the sukkah. It doesn't seem to matter what time of year Sukkos comes out; there are going to be complaints about the weather and sitting in the sukkah.

I tend to ignore all the complaints about temperature. The weather is why there are coats and sweaters of different weights and thicknesses. Besides, some of these same complainers would have nothing to say about the weather if they were suddenly blessed with World Series tickets for a game where they had to keep an umbrella over their head because of "light rain" or front row tickets for a football game in 30 degree weather.

But I was once privileged to be in a sukkah where the owners applied modern technology to the problems of temperature. The sukkah had ceiling fans that were on a thermostat; let the temperature rise and the fans automatically turned on. The same for cold weather. The sukkah had a ring of heaters also on thermostats. And all electronics were on shabbos clocks so they would turn on and off at appropriate times. There was also a hinged cover for the sukkah that protected the schach and which was also on a Shabbos clock so that the sukkah was covered at night in case of rain. I should note that the interior walls of the sukkah had been papered in a vinyl waterproof covering and that there was an artificial turf "carpet" on the floor of the sukkah. There was also, in one corner, a portable rolling sink for washing, so as not to have to count how many doorways between the sukkah and the washing station.

I'll admit that I gawked at all the modern conveniences in that sukkah, but I never was tempted to emulate any of them in our own sukkah. Maybe it was the logistics of trying to get all those electrical items plugged in to the two-plug outlet we have for our sukkah. Maybe it was the fear of all that electricity in close proximity to the flammable decorations and sukkah building materials. Maybe it was the expense. Or just maybe I figured out that if the people eating in the sukkah didn't have the weather to complain about they might find something else less to my taste to complain about.

Note: a few years ago we had a really wild wind storm in NY right before Sukkos. Plenty of sukkahs in the neighborhood that were demolished or damaged. And that fancy, electrically wired sukkah? The schach was lifted off taking the lights and the fans with it. Apparently modern technology is no match for Mother Nature when she throws a tantrum.

It's a Hair Past a Freckle

Generally we divide users of the English language into two categories: those for whom English is their native tongue and those for whom English is a second language. For native users there are then further divisions.

First, there is a country division. The English of the US is not the same English as that of England, nor of any other English-speaking country. The country differences can be ones of grammar, usage, vocabulary and pronunciation. Some consider these country differences as being merely dialects of English; others believe that the differences are greater than what would be acceptable for being a dialect.

Second, there can be within one country many dialects of English. A dialect is defined as " a variety of a language that is distinguished from other varieties of the same language by features of phonology, grammar, and vocabulary, and by its use by a group of speakers who are set off from others geographically or socially; a provincial, rural, or socially distinct variety of a language that differs from the standard language, esp. when considered as substandard. Thus, a special variety of a language: The literary dialect is usually taken as the standard language." Travelers coming from one part of the US to another part frequently have trouble understanding the "natives." This is because of dialect differences.

Next, there can be specialized dialects of English: these we call jargon, cant or argot. What makes a dialect a jargon, cant or argot? Their use is limited and specialized. They are not for "Public" usage. They are intended to "hide meaning" from those not in the group that speaks the jargon, cant or argot.

Over yom tov one of my guests was from California. I love her for many reasons, but one is that her English is my English. I was raised in the Pacific Northwest, in Oregon. West Coast English is basically the same as regards pronunciation and grammar. While there are some idioms that are native to California and separate ones native to the Pacific Northwest, for the most part we share the same idiom pool.

We were sitting on the couches in the afternoon when one of my daughters asked her friend, this woman from California, what time it was. She was not wearing a wristwatch but looked at her wrist anyway and announced: "it's a hair past a freckle." I didn't even blink at this; I understood immediately that 1)she had no watch on and 2)did not know what time it actually was. There was silence in the room, and then all the others said "What?!" "What kind of a strange thing did you just say?" "Man, Californians are really strange!" The young woman and I merely smiled. As we were outnumbered, we chose not to get into a "my dialect is better than your dialect" brangle.

I bring this up now because I have in previous posts complained about the state of English vis a vis many frum groups. Of course there are going to be differences among the various dialects of English here in the US; that is by definition of dialect. "A hair past a freckle" is just one example of how the dialect of one geographic area can differ from another. However, Yeshivish and Yinglish are not true dialects. They are jargon, cant or argot--take your pick among the synonyms. They are not a standard form of English. They are "devised for private communication and identification." Unfortunately, for many frum users of English, Yinglish and Yeshivish are not IN ADDITION TO standard English but have replaced standard English. These users are violating one of the first rules of jargon, cant and argot: these are "secretive" languages, to be used only by those in the select group that uses the jargon, cant or argot, and only with each other. If the males in a yeshiva setting wish to have their "secret" language, hey, nobody is stopping them. (And to be fair, there are females who also are proponents of Yinglish and Yeshivish.) But when they take their jargon, cant or argot out into the general world they can't claim to be speaking standard English.

I do not claim to be a 100% perfect user of standard American English. I will claim, however, by virtue of education and experience, a level of expertise above the ordinary. And no, I am not being "anti-frum" (as was claimed by one hapless student) when I refuse to accept "He was staying over by my grandmother's house last week" as acceptable English for a high school or college student. Nor am I happy with "We learn out from this." Frum individuals are going to go out into the general working world. They are going to have to deal with people from a wide range of English speaking habits. What unites all these speakers is an understanding of standard English. Frum people who are not taught standard English, and who do not practice it religiously, are putting themselves at a disadvantage out in the "real world."

Let me end this with some quotes from the musical "My Fair Lady." Professor Henry Higgins has no tolerance for those who deviate from standard English. He says to Eliza Doolittle, "Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech, that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and The Bible. Don't sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon." Harshly put, perhaps, but accurate nonetheless. He also pontificates further in his solo "Why Can't the English Learn to Speak":

Look at her, a prisoner of the gutters
Condemned by every syllable she utters
By right she should be taken out and hung,
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue...
This is what the British population
Calls an elementary education...
It's 'ow' and 'garn' that keep her in her place,
Not her wretched clothes and dirty face.

Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?
This verbal class distinction, by now, should be antique.
[To Pickering] If you spoke as she does, sir, instead of the way you do,
Why you might be selling flowers too...

Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?
Norwegians learn Norwegian,
the Greeks are taught their Greek
In France every Frenchman knows his language from 'A' to 'Zed' -
The French don't care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.
Arabians learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning.
The Hebrews learn it backwards which is absolutely frightening.
Use proper English, you're regarded as a freak.
Oh, why can't the English -Why can't the English learn to speak?

Change that to some frum Americans and the question still stands.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Children and Money--Part #3

One tool that will introduce money and what it can be and/or should be used for is an allowance. Parents will need to do some solid thinking about how much to give at an given age and what the requirements for that allowance are. Start small and for very young kids don't include anything that is a necessity; i.e. don't "charge" meals against the allowance. But what should be stressed is that the allowance is time sensitive; get that allowance on Sunday and spend it on Monday and you will have no more spending and/or savings money until the next Sunday. (It's like those cookies and pretzels that were divided in Part #2.) And stick to your guns.

Depending on the age of your child you can also offer "overtime" work incentives. Cleaning up or straightening up their rooms is not something that should be paid for. It is what they do as part of a family. But extra jobs that don't fall into the category of family jobs that they need to do can offer a small financial incentive or perhaps a negotiation of extra time on the computer or something of that ilk. A job like polishing silver or taking the pots out of the drawers and cleaning the drawers are examples of the type of "extra" work I am thinking of. And along with this extra money comes the responsibility to discuss savings.

Just in Case My Head Should be Getting Swelled

Our local kosher bakery has been the site of many a strange conversation or experience over the years. I'm really considering recommending it to some daytime television soap as a perfect location for filming, and hopefully getting a finders fee.

Sorah: ProfK, I heard a rumor that you are now a Jblogger. What's up with that?
Rivka: A Jblogger? What's a Jblogger?
Rochel: How wonderful! Rivka, a Jblogger is an exercise enthusiast. Are you out there every day?
Leah: I thought that researchers showed that jogging isn't as good for you as just plain walking. Do you get much pain from Jblogging?
Sorah: I think that Jblogging has something to do with the Internet.
Leah: Don't be silly. You can't jog on the Internet. You must have heard wrong. Maybe your source meant to say treadmill.

Me: Quietly heads for the back of the store and hides out until the line clears away.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Hot Water Urn Update

Thanks millions to the reader who sent me an email asking for the information on the UL hot water urn I mentioned in an earlier posting, and which I failed to give the information for.

The manufacturer is Innovative Consumer.
The model # is MB490--4.8 liters.
This urn is UL certified.
It is not one of the flower patterned urns. It has a sort of brushed steel outside with a black plastic top.

My husband believes there is a larger urn also available from this company but I don't have a model # for it.

A Moveable Feast

Our sukkah went up this past Sunday and has already been occupied by some of the "second tier" guests who routinely use it, year after year. The raccoons have already come visiting and were not too happy, or perhaps a bit puzzled, that there were no crumbs available for their culinary delight. Our neighbor's cat waltzed through, saw nothing to entice her to stay, and stalked out with her nose in the air. Last night there was a field mouse curled up in one corner, clearly glad that someone had been thoughtful enough to build it a mega-mansion for it to take refuge in. Right now there is a chipmunk balancing on the schach, clearly trying to decide if bamboo matting is edible or just for show. And the birds have been using the beams as a launching pad for worm-hunting strikes on the lawn. And have I mentioned that ants, bees, opposums and rabbits are also steady visitors to the area where the sukkah is now?

I don't know what they are all going to do when the humans move into what they believe to be their private territory. The animals among us are one reason why nobody sleeps in our sukkah. The neighborhood is truly not ready yet for the terrifying screams that might rend the night should someone find themselves suddenly cuddled up with a raccoon. We have a deal with our critters: they let us bentch lulav and esrog, let us eat our meals and snacks in the sukkah, and we don't bother them when it's their turn. They, in turn, keep the patio crumb and garbage free. It works for us.

G'mar Chasimah Tova

Wishing all my readers a g'mar chasimah tova and an easy fast. May we be zocheh to yomai ha'moshiach in our time, but should that not happen, may we next year at this time be zocheh to be wishing each other that same easy fast, in health and in happiness,

Monday, October 6, 2008


Shakespeare may have advised "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" (Hamlet), but the English language has long ignored this edict. (To be fair, a number of other languages are also borrowers and lenders.) It is one reason why spelling in English presents so many problems.

As noted in the comment thread on a recent posting, the orthography (the way we write a word) and the pronunciation (the way we say a word) often have no seeming relationship to each other. Nor, when we do just a little bit of research, is the orthography/pronunciation relationship always the same. Sometimes "ancient" pronunciation exists in words whose spelling has been changed. Sometimes we pronounce words differently now even though we maintain an older written version of a word. Let's look at the "-ough" construction in English.

Tough, rough, enough--the -ough is pronounced as if spelled uff. (Interesting note: there is a word enow, an archaic form of enough, used by Shakespeare. It apparently didn't "take" and we are still stuck with enough instead.)

Cough--the -ough is pronounced as if spelled off.

Borough, thorough, dough--the -ough is pronounced as if spelled oh.

Through--pronounced as if spelled ooh.

Ought, bought,fought, brought, sought, thought--pronounced as if spelled awt.

Slough, bough, drought--pronounced as if spelled ow

Further complicating things is the -aught construction, giving us caught, taught and daughter pronounced as if the -aught is awt, and draught pronounced as draft, with the -aught as aft.

If you delve into the history of the words above you will not find the -ought or -aught spellings in the origins of the words. It was someone's attempt at standardizing the spelling, but didn't take into consideration the different pronunciation that remained.

Many people have suggested that we need to standardize our spelling to conform to the way that words are pronounced. This is problematic for two reasons: 1) American English is pronounced differently in many instances depending on geographic location in the country and 2) we could well lose the historical trail of the original roots and meanings of words.

There have been movements before to standardize English spelling; they have all basically failed. For now we are all going to have to grin and bear it, and make close friends with a dictionary.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Whole Truth

I'm eclectic in my reading matter and enjoy many of the authors whose works are termed best sellers. One of these authors is David Baldacci. His most recent work is "The Whole Truth," and boy did it give me lots to think about. Key to the book is the idea of perception management: manipulating how we think and what we think about. He is one of the first authors I've read who gives full credit to the blogs for being a prime source for spreading information around the world. Clearly what he writes about is fiction, but the ideas raised in the book really do raise some questions about what goes on in the real world and how we know what we know. As a plus he writes well. This is one book I have no trouble in recommending.

J-pix Carnival #19

Some beautiful photos here that are a real feast for the eyes. Thanks to Raizy for the hat tip.

A Lesson in Simple Arithmetic

Arithmetical functions are fairly simple: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. But these simple functions are responsible for an awful lot of the messes that Klal seems to get into with depressing regularity, while their efficient and thoughtful use could help us out tremendously.

Let's look at addition. We really love this function. We regularly add new and improved chumras, whose net result is to subtract time from what we really should be concentrating on, to multiply the dis-ease and discomfort for many members of Klal and to divide us in our feelings about who is really running the show. Routinely we add more and more must-haves to our shopping lists, resulting in a multiplication of debt. Where we should be adding, in trying to bring back those members of Klal who have fallen off the derech or who were never on it to begin with, we instead write them off, taking their subtraction from our midsts as a "so what?"

Multiplying? Some parts of Klal are really good at this part. Literally, they are increasing the numbers in Klal. That they are doing so with no idea as to how these people are going to be kept alive and/or given even the most basic of services subtracts from the joy that we should be feeling that Klal is growing, and multiplies the headaches. And because this multiplication is going on so, too, is division arising, as segments of Klal disagree on just who is going to bear the financial burden for all this multiplying.

Subtraction? Yup, we're really good at this too. We routinely subtract subjects of weight and urgency from the public list of what is important or good for Klal to be dealing with. Got a problem? Just subtract it from the list and problem solved, until it smacks us square in the face multiplied beyond reason.

Division? Now that we really seem to excel at. The formula seems to go like this. Scratch two Jews, get 5 opinions, add in at least one broigess, and divide into warring camps. Months ago I wrote that the way we are going now, not too far down the line every individual is going to be another sub-division of Yiddishkeit. There is no one definition for who is a frum Jew because we have divided frumkeit into so many sub-atomic particles.

We are soon going to be asked to give a chesbon ha'nefesh, and we will all be contrite about our errors during this past year. In the year to come let's not repeat the same arithmetical errors we have made in the past. Let's learn to use addition, subtraction, multiplication and division for the good of Klal, the good of all of Klal. And while we are at it, let's learn to use some higher mathematical formulas as well. We could begin with the precept that a part cannot be greater than the whole it is a part of. That a whole is the sum of ALL of its parts. That yes, it is possible to add apples and oranges, as long as we remember that they are both fruits.

May we have a year where blessings are added, woes subtracted, happiness multiplied, and where we can see our Klal united, not divided.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

On Being Besides Myself

I am, for a change marking papers. Marking papers can be a neutral activity, providing neither pleasure nor pain. Sometimes there is real pleasure in what I am reading. And sometimes I'd rather go to the dentist then to have to mark some of the papers.

In particular, I am no fan of "Yeshivish" or "Yinglish." It has become so institutionalized in the frum community that no less an "expert" source than the Wiki refers to it as a patois or dialect of English. Baloney! It's sheer laziness or incompetence on the part of the mostly male schools in teaching the correct patterns of English. My students are not, for the most part, speakers of Yiddish. So just why is it that so many of them speak as if they are translating from Yiddish into English?

One particular construction that creeps up in far too many papers is the use of the word "besides" coupled with the word "for." Okay, listen up and please pass the news. Standard English does not, I repeat does not have the construction "besides for."

Those people who use "besides for" are looking for "aside from," "in addition to," or "except for." Sometimes they should simply be using the word "besides."

It is a little known fact that incorrect usage can make English teachers homicidal. "Besides for" is one of those egregious usages that sets our teeth on edge and makes us dream of stabbing red pens, if not worse. Save a student's life today; pass on the message that "besides for" is officially banished from the vocabulary that educated people should be choosing from. Those who were born here in the US should not be sounding like they are going to get off the boat tomorrow. Being frum is no excuse.