When The Levee Breaks (Or, When The Levys Go Broke)
05/04/2009 - 23:00
Anonymous

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

The din has turned into a roar.

 

People who once quietly murmured about the tuition crisis are now shouting. Many who once casually flirted with the idea of putting their children in public school are filling out the paperwork.

 

In the best economic times it was difficult for Jewish families to find $30,000-$40,000 to educate their kids Jewishly full-time. Now it’s become the Herculean task that some are staring to see as Sisyphean.

 

While it’s easy and natural to blame those who collect our checks, it is not necessarily the yeshivas themselves, who face huge financial burdens, that are to blame for this crisis.

 

Rather, it’s a collective failure of the organized Jewish community, so capable in the past of mustering awesome resources for Israel or Soviet Jewry or to fight anti-Semitism, to recognize this internal crisis.

 

As yeshiva and day school enrollment soared over the past 50 years, bringing with it the rise of massive buildings and the hiring of a city-sized workforce, it should have been apparent that these institutions could not indefinitely sustain themselves on the strained income of their constituent families or the kindness of benefactors.

 

There was no shortage of organizations staffed by rabbis and education experts to offer help in developing curricula, training and recruiting teachers or planning the Salute To Israel Parade. A few blessedly generous philanthropists came up with money to insure teachers and buy computers.

 

But only in the 11th hour are we beginning to explore a serious communal funding stream that would give every segment of the community, whether or not they have or will ever have school-age children, a share in the mitzvah of Jewish education.

 

There is talk of a “tax” to be collected by Jewish merchants and manufacturers or shuls and community centers, (which in the case of yeshiva parents would mean taking money from one pocket to put in another). In another initiative, those who anticipate large estates are being asked to designate a percentage to help yeshivas.

 

There has also been increasing activism for a private-tuition tax write-off, or for a voucher. But the political climate for this would have to change substantially for either to have a prayer in the states with the highest yeshiva enrollment, particularly New York, where the teachers union can make or break legislators.

 

Growing awareness of and attention to the problem, as evidenced by The Jewish Week’s panel discussion on the topic on May 20 at Manhattan’s Safra Synagogue, is a good sign that change of some sort is inevitable.

 

But the clock is ticking. It will be of great import to study the statistics on yeshiva enrollment that Marvin Schick is collecting on behalf of the Avi Chai Foundation.

 

The high birth rate of Orthodox families, who make up the large majority of day school enrollment, will likely rule out a decrease  from the last survey. But how will the rate of increase compare to the past? And, down the road a bit, what will the post-recession numbers show?

 

An excellent column in the Jewish Standard of Northern New Jersey by Amy Citron, a physical therapist in Teaneck who can afford to keep her kids in yeshiva, proposes a solution for those who can’t that is gaining increasing popularity: Large groups of yeshiva families enrolling their kids together in the public schools, while paying for Torah instruction afterward,  at a far-smaller cost.

 

This idea, unsurprisingly, has not been proposed by organizations or foundations but is gaining ground informally, in groups at Kiddush after shul or in the supermarket or park.

 

Citron eloquently points out the immediate dividends this plan would reap, not only for overstressed bank accounts, but for the overall functionality of the families.

 

“Relieving a large portion of tuition expense would dramatically improve family life,” she says. “Families could grow larger; mothers and fathers might be able to work less and, most important, worry less. Families could spend more time nurturing their souls and spend more money on tzedakah.”

 

Speaking firsthand, I know that turning to public school is taking a plunge, especially among parents who grew up without ever having seen the inside of one. My wife and I, for non-financial reasons, made a difficult decision with one of our children five months ago. The jury is still out.

 

Here’s what I can report so far. This week we found out that our son’s Nassau County school had scheduled a third-grade history presentation for May 29.

 

 The first day of Shavuot.

 

 He is the only observant Jew in the class and probably one of a handful of Jews in the grade. The options included walking him to the nearby school or keeping him home, as on any other Yom Tov.

 

Before we could decide, the teacher called. Aware of his observance and the occasional challenges, she had checked the calendar, noticed the holiday and brought it to the attention of the principal. His response was to change the day of the event.

 

For the whole grade.

 

As a commercial disclaimer might warn, these results are not necessarily typical. It would be foolish to pretend problems don’t exist, or that some school systems aren’t better than others.

 

But it is clear that today’s yeshiva parents are living in an age far different than when our parents decided to keep us out of public school, when fear of discrimination and prejudice played a key role in making up their minds.

 

The landscape has changed enough to keep all options open. 

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