StartupChutzpah – A Frum Bootcamp to Learn About Entrepreneurship

By Benyamin Clayman

How can I help change the frum world?

When Zev Wolfson zt’l passed away recently, it greatly inspired me to want to help Am Israel with whatever skills I have. Rav Moshe Hillel Hirsch, the Rosh Yeshiva of Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak said to me that when he was a young man in Lakewood, one core component of the weltanshauung was very different. They felt idealistic, they were rebuilding and changing the world. They were willing to sacrifice to spread Torah and rekindle the soul of the Jewish people. They never felt entitlement or that others will do the job.

When my Lithuanian great-great-grandparents moved to America they came with nothing but a dream for a better life. The first American generation got into Harvard Law School, got elected to public office, and supported numerous Jewish causes. When my Moroccan grandparents came to America in 1974, they had very little. No English, little support, but also a dream. They worked hard, raised their children, and recently merited to see their first great-grandchild born in Jerusalem. Both sides succeed through a lot of Divine Providence and getting help from their fellow Jews. We as a people have always taken tzedakah very seriously, even the least connected still make sure there is not a single Ivy League university, major art museum, or health institution not having a Steinwitzmanberg Wing.

Rambam writes however, “the highest form of charity—above which there is no higher—is one who strengthens the hand of their poor fellow Jew and gives them a gift or loan or enters into a business partnership with the poor person. By this partnership the poor man is really being strengthened as the Torah commands in order to strengthen him till he is able to be independent and no longer dependent on the public purse. It is thus written, “Strengthen him [the poor person] so that he does not fall and become dependent on others” (VaYikra 25:35). Notice the order, the highest level of them all is entering a business partnership.

What is amazing, quite out of this world proof in the unique mission of the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations and contribute to all, is the fact that the greatest tech entreprenuers have mostly been Jews. Google, Paypal, Facebook, the list can go on and on. But where are the frum entrepreneurs that have a burning desire? A quick search will yield some promising results. The top seller in entrepreneurship book on Amazon now is a frum professor at Harvard Business School who lists his greatest accomplishment as finishing Shas in the 11th cycle of Daf Yomi. A professor of quantum physics at MIT founded a company that powers your Kindle and other e readers that sold for $215 million recently was featured on Artscroll’s new Talmud app. How can we expand this?

I was speaking to a group of recent Baalei Teshuva at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem about the power of social media and creating value from tech products. They were hooked and started to think of ways to help the Jewish people through new forms of communication. They also had some great ideas on how to make revenue from the ideas so instead of ever fundraising for kiruv or chinuch projects, they would be self sustainable. We were also discussing the lack of a college education as being a neutral consideration when working in tech startups. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates both dropped out and most successful programmers and developers never step foot into a classroom to learn their skills. The passing of Zev Wolfson zt’l truly reinforces the point of the power of a visionary self-made entrepreneur who used his business acumen to help millions of Jews strength and find Torah.

So what to do with this information? There is a concept that is now all over the world of startup bootcamps that teach participants the gist of creating a create company in 3 days, or even over a weekend. StartupWeekend.org and 3DayStartup have launched recently but have already created companies that have made millions in revenue with hundreds of jobs.

Putting all the pieces of the puzzle together, we decided to create StartupChutzpah. We brought together 10 Yeshiva bocherim during Bein HaZmanim to Nahariya from Mir, Aish HaTorah, Ohr Somyach, and even one straight from the former USSR (he took the train directly from the airport to the event) to learn about entrepreneurship and build a company in less than 54 hours. What we are looking for is ideas on how to make learning about entrepreneurship more accessible to our community and mentors to help young frum people take their concepts to full fledged companies. This can solve a lot of issues, create immense skills and opportunities for those searching for a parnassah, and most of all, be a Kiddush Hashem to create Torah infused companies created and managed by young frum people.

During our inaugural test to see if we could actually pull it off, they built Quanby.com, a pet supply subscription service similar to Diapers.com or DollarShaveClub. They designed the websites, the marketing packages, conducted polls of customers, spoke to suppliers, and wrote a business plan within the time limit. The bocherim also had speakers like a frum businessman who lives in Shanghai about how to manufacture in China and they got to see Rav David Abuchetzera, the famed mekubal and tzadik.

We hope to bring this program to cities throughout the world, develop special courses for girls or the Chassidishe community, and have a mentor network to take the concept to reality. Your comments, any help, advice, and words of encouragement are greatly appreciated, most importantly we are looking to bring this to different communities around the world. If you are interested in contacting us, please email benyamin@startupchutzpah.com

Financial Independence and Success in the T’shuvah Process

By Michoel

I have a feeling that some will read this and their reaction will be “mai k’mashma lan?” As in, “Why is he wasting perfectly good kilobytes on the patently obvious?” But to me, the thoughts contained here were not so self-apparent and I have found them very important. Se even if there are a only few readers who can identify, I feel it is worth sharing this.

Financial pressure is a major part of frum family life. It is quite common for FFBs and BTs alike to solicit and / or receive help from family. I am now, Baruch Hashem, frum for 22 years. Just this year, I have made it my biggest priority to wean myself of familial help. And moving in that direction has already had an enormous positive effect.

There is maamar Chazal somewhere (sorry, I don’t have the makor handy) that states that once a person accepts a gift from another, he is “kanui lo l’olam”; the one who accepts the gift is permanently “acquired” by the giver. It can be extremely unhealthful to have a sense of dependence toward someone that is lukewarm, or worse, toward your values. Even when family is %100 behind the decision to become observant, there are very good reasons to decline offers of help.

Until a few years ago, there was simply no way that I could cover my tuition obligations without a major change in life circumstances. We would have needed either my wife going to work full time, with young children still at home, or myself working at least 1.5 full time jobs. I realize there are many who do such things. But we knew that it was really beyond our kochos. I happen to be blessed with a close relative who is both naturally giving and fantastically wealthy. They are also not frum and fairly secure and confident in their present lifestyle which comes across in various ways. We relied on them heavily.

But a few years ago, I found a better paying job. We re-did all the math, and were extremely gratified to find (at least on paper) that we could just barely cover our expenses without coming on to help from relatives. So we davened for Siyata D’shmaya and set hour minds to the task. Our heat is turned way down from where it was. Our food choices have become greatly simplified but still healthful. And we have taken on small parnassa-expanded opportunities. It feels fantastic. If a m’shulach approaches me and I give him a dollar, I no longer suffer from confusion over whose dollar it is that I am giving away. (As in, maybe I should save this dollar and ask my relative for a dollar less next fall.)

I feel so much better about my interactions with my relative. There had always been a nagging undertone in my thoughts that I was devaluing Torah observance in their eyes. “Yes, I am frum and pious, but we both know that I am only able to pull it off on your back.”

My learning has also improved, since there is a greater sense of my time belonging to me.

And one extremely gratifying aspect of all this, is that our kids have completely bought into it in a very positive way. They eat A LOT of popcorn. But they do not feel deprived. Quite the opposite, I would say that the their kibbud av v’eim has improved. This is because, they respect parents that have principles and that are financially organized and self disciplined. But much more than all of that, a truly frugal person is forced to say “no” with conviction. And kids need lots of “nos” in order to grow up emotionally healthful and respecting their parents.

I had been told in my days in yeshiva, that it was a big z’chus for non-frum relatives to allow them the pay for your tuition. This was a classic case of mis-applied-ffb-bt-hyper-religious-gobbly-gook. First, build yourself. Then worry about saving the world. And then worry about saving your family. The biggest z’cus for them is to see frum Jews living in a way that will cause them to respect frum Jews. And you might be the only example they have.

So while I am not advocating starvation, it is well worth it to do whatever you can to assert your financial independence.

Financial Realities II: The Unwritten Contract

By “Sam Smith”

In retrospect, I’m not surprised that my first article on “Financial Realities in the Frum World” received such an overwhelming response (currently, 240 responses, plus a direct-offshoot article, “Suggestions to Address the Tuition Crisis” of 61 responses). I knew I was touching a raw nerve, because this topic has touched a raw nerve in me.

In trying to understand the reason for the raw nerve I’ve wavered between righteous indignation and guilt. I am outraged at some of the uncompromising positions the whole tuition business corners us into – as individual tuition-payers and as a community — while at the same time feeling guilty that I am outraged by it. The yeshivos are only trying to collect money for teaching our kids Torah, and paying less-than-ideal salaries to usually dedicated teachers. That’s why I feel guilty, because I love Torah, I love the ideals, I love the idealists in our midst. But I hate… I hate…

What?

I had been having a hard time trying to put my finger on exactly what I hate. What do I hate about this situation and why do I hate it and do I have a right to hate it? Then, the other night, I came upon the answer as I was pondering a contract one of my children’s yeshivos had sent me and asked me to sign. And that answer is the “unwritten contract.”

The Unwritten Contract

When I became a baal teshuva I had certain expectations, whether I was conscious of them or not. These expectations were based on the ideals I was attracted to, and the assumption that if I followed through on the ideals, then the community I was becoming part of would follow through on the ideals too. This, in effect, became an “Unwritten Contract” — in my mind at least. The part I hate, or that at least incenses me, is the perception that the community – or, in this case at least, one specific yeshiva – is not following through on its part.

Let me explain myself.

My side of the “contract” was that if I did my best to raise my kids in Torah and be responsible about making hishtadlus in the world (i.e. doing my best to earn a living), while at the same time living as frugally as I could, then the institutions representing Torah would be understanding. That means they would accept my kids and do their best to teach them even if I simply did not have the money to pay full or partial or even any tuition (if I truly did not have the money).

What I didn’t expect, but what I have experienced, from one institution in particular, is this: We will not accept your child in the doors in the first place if you do not sign a contract to pay what we say you need to pay. We expect you to be grateful that we are giving you a reduction in our outlandishly high tuition and other fees. And thou shalt feel grateful even if that reduction is still more than you can afford, even if it causes you to go into serious debt. We will even send you a letter threatening to expel your kids, if you fall behind or become unable to pay what we said you need to pay.

Now, in all fairness, this describes only one of the yeshivos I send my kids to (two kids to the same institution). Others want their pound of flesh, too, but are not going about it in the same aggressive, and, frankly, highly un-Torah-like (IMO) way. It is quite enough to ruin one’s rosy state of mind. Practically speaking, I can’t switch my kids out of this institution now because they are good students, have friends and are happy. We managed to pay partial tuition in years past by going into outrageous credit card debt, which is now an unacceptable and untenable alternative.

In any event, the brutal truth is that, especially now that I have older kids, I am simply overwhelmed by all the expenses, unable to carry all my accumulated debt, and even the partial tuitions I am paying have pushed me to and over the edge of financial ruin. There is no retirement plan in my life, no hidden stocks, no wealthy parents, in-laws or uncles ready to leave me their fortune and rescue me.

After many years and many tuitions I simply didn’t make it financially, at least in contemporary, North American Orthodox-community terms. I didn’t become a doctor or lawyer or businessman. I didn’t marry into wealth.

In my darkest moments, it’s all a great communal hypocrisy. Some people simply can’t pay… even a portion of the partial tuition. Yet some yeshivos, while teaching kids wonderful, beautiful ideals like living austerely for Torah as did the Chofetz Chaim (including large pictures throughout the halls), make their parents feel like shmattas for not earning more than $100-150,000!

This is my “righteous indignation” side.

But then the guilt kicks in: They are only trying to keep the lights on, pay their rabbeim and teachers, overcome their own financial deficits, etc.

I don’t want to be fighting them, to feel that they are the “enemy.” But that’s the corner this situation paints me – and them – into. Parents and yeshivos become adversaries, rather than advocates. It’s a crime. And the toll – the spiritual toll: on parents, children and generations — is incalculable. There has to be a different way of doing this.

Financial Realities in the Frum World

By “Sam Smith”

I want to share a conversation I had with the executive director of a yeshiva about the financial realities of raising and educating a family in the frum world today.

He said that households earning a combined $200,000 or more generally easily meet their financial responsibilities. Households in the $100-150,000 range, on the other hand, were “making it, but not necessarily easily” or were “making it but struggling.” He added he was talking about a typical family with 3-4 kids in yeshiva.

Then, he said, families earning less than $100,000 have “real issues” (including possible “marital” issues). Nevertheless, at his yeshiva, even kollel families, he explained, are required to pay at least $3,000 per child. No exceptions.

What if someone can’t pay?

“We’ll work with them,” he said, “but the board does not authorize me to reduce anyone’s tuition obligation to anything less” than the $3,000 per child. (And that figure doesn’t include lunch, transportation, books, tutors, etc.)
Read more Financial Realities in the Frum World

Materialism and Hiddur Mitzvah

Someone recently commented here that she was shocked by the level of materialism that exists in the frum world. I have also often felt that way, but I’ve recently come to the conclusion that it was an unfair judgment on my part, so I thought I’d share a bit about what caused me to change my attitude.

Many BTs start out with an anti-materialistic stance. That’s partly because we are spiritually inclined by nature and partly because we are reacting to the extreme materialism of the secular culture in which we were raised. I, for one, spent a great part of my teenage years proving to myself that I was not – please excuse my language – a J.A.P. I went so far as to attend far-left indoctrination meetings on a regular basis. The main thing I learned there was resentment toward the wealthy. That attitude stuck for years, well beyond my involvement with the Left.
Read more Materialism and Hiddur Mitzvah

Financial Squeeze

We all feel as if we are taxed to death! It seems for most people that we spend more than we earn. I recently landed a great job and couldn’t believe how much I would be making especially after living in eretz yisroel and earning not even a fifth of that. But when I got my first pay cheque I cried!! I couldn’t believe how much of my $ went to taxes. I soon got over the initial shock but then once you take away mortgage payments or rent, insurance fees, car loans, clothing, food and travel expenses, what is left? For many of us, not much.
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Getting Your Money’s Worth

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that money is very often uppermost on my mind. Between basic living expenses, house expenses, two major yom tov seasons per year, and tuition, keeping up with the cost of Jewish living can be quite stressful. But Hashem does send chizuk in various forms, and I hope the following story will inspire you as much as it did me.

This year, my husband and I changed our children’s yeshiva to an excellent but rather pricey one. The Gemara in Beitzah 16a (thanks to my husband for finding the reference) tells us that all the money we spend on chinuch comes back to us. Besides this, we also receive the nachas of frum children. Clearly, schar limud is a worthwhile investment. But again, making those payments does not come easily, at least not for me.
Read more Getting Your Money’s Worth