Your Money or Your Life

gambling

A true story, as told to RINA BERMAN

Though I didn’t know it at the time, my ordeal began when my husband inherited some stocks from his grandfather, z”l, and he started doing research to find a worthwhile stock investment. He was looking for something stable and lucrative to ensure our future financial stability.

He invested in a fund that a respected avreich in our community had suggested. It yielded $5,000 interest every month. This enabled my husband to continue learning in kollel, and I was able to stay home raising our young children, working a few hours a day as a freelancer. We led such a modest lifestyle that we were able to save a good portion of this huge amount of interest, plus what I earned and my husband’s stipend from kollel, in CDs.

I completely trusted my husband’s wisdom, knowledge and rational ability to make wise decisions about our money. I was very grateful as our lives continued peacefully, fully invested in avodas Hashem.

Then, when the fund interest began to plummet, we knew we had to withdraw our money before everything was lost. This corresponded to the period right before the Twin Tower tragedy, where the fund’s office was located.

At that time, in search of something lucrative in which to invest, my husband discovered “day trading.”

I don’t know how to explain the difference between day trading and “regular” trading; it all “sounds the same” to those of us who are not stock savvy. What I do know is that one day, my usually quiet and intellectual spouse came home very excited and gleefully announced that he had made $120,000 in one day!

I was stunned. This was very big. This was amazing. This meant financial security. This meant giving huge amounts to tzedakah and helping all our struggling friends. This meant marrying off all our children and buying them apartments. This meant my husband being able to stay in learning forever, while working only several lucrative hours a day.

My husband was hooked.

In retrospect, had we simply put that money immediately into a separate bank account, or bought two apartments in Yerushalayim that week (when one could buy them for $60,000 or less!), then perhaps this would be a very different story.

But that’s not how day trading works. The more you “earn,” the more you invest. You can instantly turn $120,000 into $1,000,000 if you are smart and highly motivated and careful and know how to “work the system.” And of course, you also have to daven that you will have good mazel, or whatever it is that makes it work.

The next day, in a new trade, the entire $120,000 was lost.

But “hooked” means you try again. And so my husband did.

And that’s how my life as the wife of a day trader began.

Can I describe in detail what this looks and feels like? Will my attempt to share my words offer support, solace, comfort and hope to others who are in the same predicament?

There are many jobs or professions that a man can have and his wife can happily say, “My husband’s a sofer. My husband’s a Rebbi in a cheder. My husband does maintenance, paints houses, works in computer programming…” The few times that I ever said, “My husband is a day trader,” the response I received was always, “Oh, really? I thought your husband was a Rabbi. Isn’t day trading like gambling?”

But at first, despite my embarrassment at such reactions, I didn’t know that words like “addiction” could apply to people like my husband. I had no idea that there are AA support groups for more than overeaters and alcoholics. All I knew, quite clearly and painfully, was that my husband was withdrawing $5,000 dollars from our bank account, investing it, and losing it — all of it — regularly and consistently.

Determined and highly motivated to regain our losses, he continued. This also meant he spent hours studying methods, signing up (and spending more money) for trading training courses, all in hopes of mastering the “no-fail” trading strategies that supposedly existed.

I had known my husband for over 20 years as a very serious, intelligent, rational person. He was a totally committed ben Torah, who had mastered Shas several times and devotedly taught his talmidim.

He never spent money on himself; we never went out to restaurants or hotels or on vacations. We didn’t travel. We didn’t own a car or an air-conditioner or central heating. No renovations. No painting the apartment. No brand-new appliances. If something broke down, my husband fixed what needed to be repaired, or we bought something secondhand. We didn’t make much money, but we didn’t spend any either. We lived simply, modestly, never wasting money on any extras of any kind. We got by on next to nothing.

We lived a simple, joyous, eizehu ashir hasame’ach b’chelko, kollel life.

So what was this strange, swift loss of funds? What was happening?

At one point, we went to a Rav and I told him how I couldn’t bear to watch another $5,000 almost instantly disappear with my husband’s good intentions to “invest” again and again in day trading. Then my husband explained the potential to learn full time and just spend “a few hours in the evening working,” resulting in financial security.

He didn’t say how many 5,000s had already vanished. I myself didn’t know the extent of our losses, nor did I realize how I could have emphasized to the Rav that I was adamantly opposed to this “parnassah” endeavor and that it had to stop. My husband seemed down-to-earth and calm as he explained his perspective. And so, the Rav agreed that he could “invest” another $5,000 from our dwindling savings.

And that too quickly vanished.

I could tell we were in trouble when those “few hours” at night became many hours. In the past, my husband had retired every night by ten p.m. to get the rest he needed to function the next day. Now he was spending from six or seven p.m. until two or three a.m. on day trading. In addition, my previously calm and easygoing husband was now noticeably tense and agitated, though he tried hard to hide it.

This behavior continued, on and off, for years. To obtain more “resources,” he would call his father and tell him about this great thing he was doing; he just needed some funds to “invest,” and his father would send him a check. And instead of covering our monthly expenses, it would be used for more of his “parnassah” endeavors.

I davened continuously to Hashem to make it clear to my husband this was not what He wanted him to do with his time. I also tried to convince him to stop. Sometimes, before starting something new, he would write and sign a contract to reassure me this was legitimate, that he had “boundaries” he would not cross.

There were five or six different versions of these contracts over the years, and they were meant to help my husband realize that “this was it,” and ensure that he would desist from trading if the investment wasn’t successful. But there always seemed to be some loophole that he would find to allow himself to continue, despite my worried protests.

Then, when I thought he was really done, that he had finally realized that there was no gain and only losses from trading, he left to Ramat Gan for some kind of meeting about a business opportunity.

Later that week, when we were about to go to sleep, I casually asked him how the meeting went.

“Oh, it was very good,” he said evasively. He wasn’t offering any more details, so I laughed and said, “Well, great. As long as it wasn’t about day trading!”

No response.

I turned and looked him straight in the eye and asked, “Was this ‘business opportunity’ about trading?”

“Yes.”

I jumped up and shouted, “What? WHAT!”

I was instantly hysterical. He, of course, answered very calmly, “It is a no-fail trading strategy taught for several months by a highly accomplished trader who is very successful and wants to teach us how to have the same success. The training is full of chareidi avreichim like me.”

This was no reassurance to me at all. This wasn’t the first training he had enrolled in; I had thought we were past all that!

“How much does this program cost?”

“Six thousand dollars,” he answered.

“Where did you get $6,000 from?” I asked, afraid to know the answer. “Not from our savings, right?”

He didn’t answer, so I knew what that meant. I begged him to pull out. I begged him to get our money back. I said I would call the director myself and plead with him to return our money. No, no, no! Why couldn’t I wake up from this ongoing nightmare? When would it end?

The next week, I went for a job interview with a charity organization. I wasn’t highly qualified for the position, but our finances were at an all-time low and I needed a “real job” in an office with a steady monthly income, instead of living the up-and-down life of a freelancer, when one never knows what or when the next job will be.

Sitting beside me in the waiting room were several other candidates for the position, all of us waiting our turn to be interviewed. It was a friendly, non-competitive atmosphere, perhaps because the organization needed a new team of workers and would be hiring more than one of us. So we talked.

The woman beside me, Penina, told me everything about her husband while he sat there and nodded his head in approval of her frankness. He was a reformed drug addict, and they had been through a lot together. Now he was on the upswing, beginning a new life. A steady job would enhance his self-esteem and make him feel like a productive, positive, contributing person in the world.

She, and then he, shared so much that I felt I could do the same. I told them of our tremendous losses over the years, my brokenness and feelings of helplessness, my inability to do anything to stop our boat from sinking.

“Your husband needs help,” Penina insisted. “He can’t stop trading without counseling. He’s addicted!”

Addiction? I hadn’t ever heard that word in association with what my husband was doing. Penina gave me her phone number and told me that I could call her any time. She also gave me the phone number of the head of the AA chapter in our area. “Don’t worry… there is support for spouses with all kinds of addictions,” she explained to me. “Your husband has a gambling addiction. Look it up and read the symptoms, and see if it resonates with you. And come to a support meeting. You are not alone!”

I wasn’t hired for the job in the end, but the hashgachah pratis that led me to meet Penina and her husband caused me to start a new chapter in my life. I learned, I reached out, I did hishtadlus.

Then, several important things happened at the same time. I contacted the Rav who had once supported my husband when he wanted to continue day trading. It was an “anonymous” phone call because if I went to the Rav personally, he would see who I was and maybe remember our earlier encounter. It was much too embarrassing.

So, I called the Rav during his phone hours and said, “My husband is doing something called day trading. I don’t even know what our savings once were, but I do know that we have lost nearly everything. Is it permissible for me to transfer whatever is left into a private bank account that will be only in my name?”

The Rav asked more details about our situation and eventually concluded by advising me that I must do this.

Then, when I called our bank I was able to do this with only my name on the request. I don’t know how that was possible. Usually, both owners of a bank account have to sign to withdraw all the funds from the account.

Shortly thereafter, I went to my first AA meeting. I met people I knew — people whom I hadn’t had a clue were suffering the same gehinnom, living with a loved one who had an addiction — and I met new people as well. Everything was very secretive because of the need to retain privacy and dignity, while at the same time the atmosphere was honest and open so we could receive the life-giving support we needed to survive and thrive. I also researched and found counselors living in America who knew specifically about day trading addictions, people I could talk to anonymously on their hotlines.

I also began therapy. To my astonishment, the therapist knew all about day trading. She was in the midst of helping a young woman whose husband had given all their savings to her father-in-law, because he was millions of shekels in debt… as he had lost everything and more via day trading. Her father-in-law had asked each one of his ten children to “lend” him money to pay back money he had borrowed, so he could stay out of jail. The extent of what he owed was beyond what his family could do, and now his daughter-in-law was in counseling, because of the stress on their marriage.

My counselor understood what was happening. She knew about this particular, oppressive problem… and I didn’t feel alone anymore.

When my husband found out that the money in our shared account was gone, he demanded an explanation. He was very angry that I had done this behind his back. Of course, I couldn’t make him understand how deceived I felt that our mutual finances had been vanishing against my will. I told him about calling the Rav and explaining to him what was happening, though I didn’t tell him about the AA meetings I was attending.

All he had left under his name was $18,000 in his retirement fund. He withdrew the entire sum, and in five days that too was gone.

I had learned in the AA support group meetings that all addicts think they do not have a problem and do not need counseling or rehabilitation. They think they are fine! I had also learned that spouses can do or say things that “enable” their spouses to continue their detrimental behavior. I felt so helpless. I did not want to be an “enabler,” but it wasn’t my nature to be tough and make strong statements like, “It’s me or it’s trading!”

In any case, it wouldn’t have helped. My usually devoted and loving husband had actually used the word “divorce” when he felt threatened by my insistence that he stop day trading forever. My heart broke. How much more could I daven and beg Hashem to make it clear to my husband that day trading was not what he should do with his life?

At that point, to “prove” he wasn’t addicted, my husband went to a work agency and got a job doing steady maintenance work for a firm that sent workers wherever repairs were needed. He was handy, reliable and dependable, never missed work and stayed with this agency for over a year.

Five years have passed since my husband took that step, and he hasn’t done any more trading. However, for a long time I continued to live in fear that at any moment he would begin again. I detested seeing him turn on the computer because I was afraid that it wasn’t really over, that his addiction was just “on hold,” like an alcoholic who is “dry” but will not be able to stop after he has one drink.

Besides the fear, I also lived with regret and remorse. I was always thinking, I should have done this or I should have done that. If only I would have done things differently, we would still have finances! We would still have savings!

Another thought I often had was, why didn’t we spend money on new furniture or go on vacation now and then when we could? Why didn’t we do something useful and productive with our savings? Why didn’t we give more to charities needing funds? Why didn’t we buy our children apartments? Always the torturous Why, why, why?

But then I would remember the “other side.” Wasn’t I aware, didn’t I believe, that Hashem is in charge? Isn’t it decided on Rosh Hashanah what we will earn, what we will lose? Isn’t this all decreed by the Master of the Universe, our King and Creator?

When we face illness or tsunamis or earthquakes, it often seems so much clearer that these are “Acts of G-d.” But when there is a shaliach of Hashem that brings about our troubles, it seems as though he is responsible for our loss, our tragedy, our intense physical and emotional pain. When there is a human being we can blame for our harrowing, challenging, horrible circumstances — whether it is ourselves, our boss, the driver of the car that crashed into us, the terrorist, the politicians that “created” the environment where revenge festers… or our own spouse — we feel like this messenger can be blamed for everything!

I would try to remember all that, but it was hard. Very recently, though, something happened that changed my entire perspective. Though I knew before that Hashem was in charge, I didn’t feel it in a deep, inner way that could provide calm acceptance that we were not supposed to have the money. That we could have lost it the way so many millions were lost in Ponzi schemes, or through one big stock loss that had nothing to do with day trading, or in various different ways that did not involve my husband.

On Rosh Chodesh, there is a special, private prayer I have in mind while I sing the words of Hallel of Hodu l’Hashem ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo, and again in Ana Hashem, hoshia na. It is a private prayer I try to say to express my immense gratitude to the Holy One for the precious gift of life.

Because, actually, it is a nes that I am alive. I know this and I live with this knowledge every day. I know that the end can come in an unexpected instant. During the half century I’ve been privileged to exist, the list of close calls I have endured is very long, including life-threatening illnesses, complicated operations, terrorist attacks, drownings, an almost head-on vehicle collision when crossing the street, my heart ceasing to beat, and more.

And throughout almost every one of these serious events, my husband was beside me, offering his calm, devoted, continuous support and encouragement, and even medical intervention when the doctors treating me were not doing the right things.

Through it all, he was there…

So, one recent Rosh Chodesh, there I was, singing the words of Hallel and thanking Hashem again for keeping me alive, when I had a sudden epiphany. I realized with astonishing clarity that, according to “statistics,” I shouldn’t be alive. How could I be? It must be only in the zechus of my family, community, and extended family worldwide davening for me when I was in the midst of those critical, life-threatening crises.

The truth was suddenly so clear and so comforting: In the “Big Plan” that Hashem orchestrates to every detail, it is either my money or my life. Not both.

Hashem is totally in charge. Hashem decides our income and our losses. It may seem a person is responsible, based on his choices and “investments,” but really and truly it is only Hashem Who decides what will be.

And I am here. Now.

Alive. And very, very grateful.