Is there a better way?
Twenty years ago, his Simcha Guidelines stalled. Today, Reb Shia Markowitz hopes we’re ready to honestly reexamine the issue
In the litany of rising voices, letters to editors, website comments, and random back-of-the-shul conversations, you hear the angst and worry and mild resentment about the rising cost of making a simchah. The rich are guilty, because they’re the ones who raised the bar. No, the middle class is guilty, because they can’t live within their means. Actually, it’s the lower-income families, because by being swept along, they leave no options for those who want to buck the trend of expensive simchahs.
It’s all a big question mark, because until someone actually figures it out — the numbers, the practicalities, the details — it’s just background noise.
The thing is, there is someone who did.
At a simpler time, nearly 20 years ago, Reb Shia Markowitz made it his mission to help create uniform simchah guidelines, a concept dating back to the great kehillos of centuries ago. A skilled and experienced businessman, Reb Shia invested personal resources, time, and energy when he undertook the project, networking, persuading, listening.
At the end of his research, calculations, discussions, and consultations, the Simcha Guidelines were launched. Ads in Hamodia and Yated touted long-awaited relief for the frum community by outlining specific dos, don’ts, numbers, and limitations so parents could make weddings with dignity and respect and still be able to keep their heads above water.
But the initiative came apart, never reaching the intended goal.
The people weren’t ready.
Reb Shia quietly moved on, focusing on the needs of Keren Hashevi’is before turning to Agudath Israel of America, where, two years ago, he was appointed CEO in what’s still a volunteer position.
Now he sits across from me in his Monsey home and ponders my question: Has the community evolved to the point where it might be considered ready to renew the discussion about revisiting our wedding norms?
“I’ll tell you what’s changed,” he says, “and then we’ll analyze your question. The frum middle class has disappeared. When we tried to launch the Guidelines back then, there was a vibrant middle class we were working with.”
Middle class, he explains, means making enough money to live within one’s means and put away a little bit in savings at the end of the month.
“We don’t really have families like that anymore,” he says. “We have the wealthy, and then there’s everyone else. A person who might have been able to retire comfortably faces new expenses today. Today’s grandparents are expected — maybe being forced is a better word — to help their married children with tuitions, camps, their own simchahs; that’s a separate conversation, a separate article. Our infrastructure is in danger. You have people in their sixties who, instead of finally relaxing, have to remortgage their homes and take care of a new generation. Many people rely on credit cards to get through the month. For many of these couples, it’s hard to stop working, and that’s unfortunate. So when it comes to takanos, the very wealthy don’t need guidelines and they won’t keep them — but for everyone else, I don’t see a choice.”
Along with the rising and continuing expenses, families are larger than they were a generation ago. “And suddenly,” says Reb Shia, “costs have escalated because so much is considered ‘standard.’ Sheitels and clothing and the l’chayim and vort can set you back tens of thousands of dollars, and you haven’t even gotten to the chasunah yet. Then it’s become normal to invite the whole city to join the seudos at the aufruf or Shabbos sheva brachos… a mechutan who isn’t wealthy is completely underwater by that point.”
So today, it might be more realistic to try again, he concedes. And the target audience is that much bigger.
“The original Guidelines were meant for those who could afford to make fancy weddings, and the hope was that it would trickle down. Today, you can address 80 percent of the people who are being forced in that direction through no fault of their own, forced to meet a bar set by others. The only question is if they want to face reality or live in denial.”
Reb Shia speaks with a CEO’s candidness. “It’s like a ‘Simcha Tax,’ ” he says without irony, “and the tax collectors include the service providers, designers, advisors, planners, and vendors. It starts at the vacht-nacht. Then the bris. All of a sudden, you need to rent props and create ambience. We’re within five years of having violinists playing during the bris milah itself.”
He doesn’t smile.
“The baalei simchah are completely stressed out. And honestly, I’m not sure if there’s a solution. Did HaKadosh Baruch Hu create us as shomrei Torah u’mitzvos, only to be crushed by this Simcha Tax? Did He really want a world where being a frumme Yid means needing to earn so much more money? And the essential question we have to ask ourselves: Are we living our lives or someone else’s life?”
The CEO pauses, then shows me the palms of his hands, like that shrug emoji.
“The only eitzah is for parents to actually talk to their children. Say, sheifele, we can’t use our money that way. Parents have to stop being afraid to say it like it is. ‘Tzaddik, that Borsalino looks great on you and maybe down the road we’ll get you one, but now we need to pay for tefillin and a smaller bar mitzvah seudah, okay?’ And, ‘We’re very excited for you, but making two events, a l’chayim and a vort, is simply unnecessary and beyond our budget.’
“Find a coach, a rav, a financial guide, whatever you need. But give yourself the tools to live within your means. You will be doing yourself a favor and your children a favor too.”
He taps on the table and offers his own informal guidelines. “You don’t have to invite the whole shul to your chasunah, just your close friends. What’s a close friend?”
Reb Shia answers his own question. “A close friend is someone you would lend money to. The other ones are moichel your chicken, they’re happy to come say mazel tov and not feel obligated to invite you back.”
He looks at me for a long moment, as if trying to decide whether I’m capable of understanding what he’s about to say.
He goes for it.
“I want to tell you a vort that changed my life, the real secret of why the guidelines didn’t catch.”
It was 2002 and Reb Shia had signed on many roshei yeshivah and rabbanim to the newly launched initiative. He’d publicized the Guidelines and it looked like they might gain traction.
“Then I met with a very respected rav and explained the concept. I see he’s not as convinced as the others that it can work, and finally he looks me in the eye and takes my hand and says, ‘Reb Shia, I have a large shul, filled with balabatim who are making simchahs. And Reb Shia, I can’t think of a single one who has learned a blatt Gemara b’iyun in the last 25 years. And you want me to sign the Guidelines?’ ”
I understand the story Reb Shia is saying one way. Then he tells me his pshat and it’s different from what I imagined.
“The rav meant that in order to make guidelines, you need people who see beneath the surface — people who see beyond themselves, who can see ‘b’iyun.’ And this rav was saying, his balabatim aren’t there, they don’t see things b’iyun. Learning a blatt Gemara b’iyun means you can see a bigger picture, understand that whatever you do has ramifications and repercussions for others.”
The rav knew his people and he didn’t sign.
Today, Reb Shia concludes, we now have a new generation who have learned seriously b’iyun in yeshivos, who have a different context for their view of reality. “Maybe they’re ready. It’s like water on a stone — if we keep talking about it, who knows? I look at Yitzchok Perlstein’s Stop-Talking-in-Shul campaign as a success; he made a dent. Tavo alav brachah. Maybe it’s time to have this conversation again.
“I’m hopeful that people are now more receptive, willing to understand and listen. The economic reality is forcing us to look in the mirror again, and to be honest, I’m not sure we have a choice.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 773)