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The Day School Dilemma
A family is soul searching after a child's admission to a Hebrew-language charter school.
Wed, 05/01/2013
Editor and Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

Carolyn and Don recently found out that they won a highly competitive lottery. They’re excited, of course, but the news has also precipitated some serious questioning on their part about their religious and educational goals — for themselves and their three young children.

And at a time of sky-high day school tuitions, the questioning likely resonates with many families here as they weigh the risks and rewards of their educational choices.

You see the lottery Carolyn and Don won was for admission to next fall’s first-grade class, for the couple’s oldest child, at the Harlem Hebrew Language Academy Charter School, opening this fall. The youngster is currently a pre-schooler at a popular and much-admired Jewish day school close to where the family lives, in the New York area.

The parents are very happy with the local day school their son attends. “He’s speaking Hebrew at home,” says his mom. “He’s becoming a mensch — the program works.”

The only problem is that she estimates tuition next year for first grade, along with building fund and other expenses, to be more than $20,000. And with two younger siblings soon to follow, that could mean more than $65,000 a year in tuition for the young family. Of course the charter school, which offers an hour of Hebrew language study a day and some exploration of the culture and history of Israel, is free, and offers admission as well for siblings of those accepted.

Carolyn and Don are not the parents’ real names — they requested anonymity in return for speaking openly on a delicate subject. But the issue they are struggling with at the moment is very real. Namely, just how much is a day school education worth, and how do you measure it?

A great deal has been written about the day school tuition crisis, often on a communal policy level. But the conversation I had with Carolyn provided me with an insight into how one family is calculating the nexus between education and lifestyle, which includes finances, peer acceptance and religious continuity.

“We discuss it endlessly but we haven’t gotten there yet,” Carolyn told me.

She said Don has a good job and makes about $200,000 a year, so they may not qualify for a tuition break. Their parents are not in a position to help out financially.

The couple is reviewing several options, each of which has its strengths and weaknesses, they say. For example, there is a new blended-learning day school opening in a neighboring community this fall, a long-term possibility for the family, and they’ve applied there. Tuition will be under $10,000, which is appealing. And as a teacher herself, Carolyn sees the trend among day schools moving toward more such schools, which she says offer a more dynamic classroom. But “it’s still untested,” she worries, reluctant to have her children become educational “guinea pigs.”

The Harlem charter school would give the couple’s children an opportunity to interact with classmates beyond their own Orthodox community, and Carolyn says she and Don have talked about providing additional Jewish content by sending the kids to an afternoon Hebrew school or hiring a rabbi to tutor them at home several times a week.

The financial savings would be substantial, but the couple is concerned about segmenting their children’s educational and social lives — one part secular, one part Jewish — and would prefer the more natural environment a day school offers. Plus, after a full day of classes in the charter school, they fear the children may resent more time spent studying Torah and the biblical commentaries.

If the children went to the charter school, “they wouldn’t have the real skill sets that a day school provides” or the immersion experience of being in a strong Jewish environment every day, says Carolyn, adding: “My biggest concern is Jewish identity. We want a Shabbat community where the kids can interact and play with friends they go to school with.”

One compromise the couple has considered is sending their children to the charter school for a few years — it will offer kindergarten through fifth grade classes — saving well over $300,000 during that time, and then transitioning them into day school for sixth grade.

But Carolyn notes that she and her husband are ba’al teshuvas (newly Orthodox), so they are particularly interested in finding a school that can give their children the foundational Jewish education they themselves didn’t have growing up.

“A child’s moral compass and lifestyle” may be set by fifth grade, she says, making the transition to day school all the more difficult.

Such concerns lead the couple full circle, back to the local day school where their older son attends kindergarten now. But they worry that spending such a large percentage of their income on day school education would make a deep impact on their finances, and possibly beyond.

“What do we have to sacrifice?” Carolyn asks. “What else is lost? Will it create tension in the home? A lack of shalom bayit [family harmony]?”

They worry about whether the tuition burden of day school will force them to modify their housing plans, cut back on vacations, and impact on their future retirement.

Carolyn and Don have discussed their dilemma with a few close friends but say that there is still a stigma in their community to consider the charter school alternative.

“We still straddle both worlds,” Carolyn says of herself and Don, each of whom have chosen an Orthodox lifestyle but value their strong secular education and want the same for their children.

“We don’t want to settle” for less on either front, Carolyn says.

So far, she acknowledges, she and Don have come to one conclusion: “There’s going to have to be a huge compromise somewhere.” Follow my blogs on RosenBlog at


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Having children who receive an excellent Jewish as well as secular education is not just in the interests of the family, but of all klal Israel as well, since these children are our people's future. The intermarriage rate of kids who graduated from a day school is a fraction of that of children who went to just a Sunday (Jewish very light) program. Yet, we as a community expect the family of these children to carry the entire financial burden. Yet, we seem to have no problem sponsoring over the top kiddushes that are featured in the Wall Street Journal and more and more Holocaust museums (the latest opened a few weeks ago in the Bronx). There was talk a few years ago about imposing a 5% tax on all simchas, with the proceeds to go to pay for communal responsibilities like day schools. What happened to that laudable idea? We can pay now to develop Jews who are literate and committed, or we can pay later in the form of an even more Jewishly ignorant and uncommitted generation.

This is just another example of how the ONLY place for a Jew to live is Israel.

If you value Jewish Education and a Torah Lifestyle (even just a little bit), it works best in Israel. This country was built for (and by) Jews. It is the ONLY place to truly live a Torah lifestyle.

Stop worrying about Yeshiva Tuition, building funds, expensive kosher food, finding a house near a shul (an affordable one no less). It's all taken care of here!

If Judaism and Jewish education are important values to you, then this is the ONLY place to live!

About Israel: The WORST reason to move to Israel is for a tuition break. That's a recipe for disaster, for crisis of culture and identity, not to mention increased financial woes... The idea that aliyah is being sold as financial relief -- well, I just hope that the people listening to this do some research first about what salaries in Israel look like before seeing dollar signs in the eyes. Even the post-taxes, post tuition single income of say $70,000 would put that earner in the top decile of Israeli workers. So you better pray that when you make aliyah, you're as good at your job in Israel (and in Hebrew) as you were in America so you can find that top-decile job, and keep it... Most Israelis would be thrilled to be able to live on "only" $70,000 a year....

I made aliya, but kept my job: i telecommute! My finances have improved tremendously. Mortgage and school costs A LOT less here in Israel.
Talk to nefesh be nefesh about it...

Riko... What are you talking about!!

This is a very genuine story. In a simple, well written essay, it captures the struggle of many families. There are no easy answers. Day Schools are really only in the second or third generation, and already we are in a financial crises. What does that portend? While I hope to work hard and provide my youngest a day school education for the balance of his formal education, I often wonder what experience my children's kids (G-d willing) might have.

I don't understand the math. If he makes $200,000 a year, he should be able to afford even $65,000 a year. You didn't mention how much they spend on vacations per year...

$200,000 a year and they are complaining about tuition? People make a fraction of that and pay full tuition, me included. Indeed, they need to do some soul searching.

you know, they have to pay TAXES on these 200k, and maybe they want to live somewhere, eat, clothing...

If you could pass this on to the couple, I would appreciate it. On the most practical level, Israel is the answer. Education is fraction of the cost of day school's in America. It offers the most real of normalizing as Jews. And the money saved would more than pay for Aliyah. You should at least sit with a representative with Nefesh b'Nefesh as to employment possibilities in the husband's field. Don't rule it out.

As far as all the expressed worries and concerns, I would offer the following for your consideration: Life is here and it is now. No one knows what the future will bring. Life needs to be purposeful and meaningful now. If the now is properly taken care of, then you will always be in the right place. There really is no Hebrew/Jewish word for 'compromise.' If you measure all questions and challenges from HaShem in terms of possible compromises, then it doesn't make a difference what choices you make; you will always be unhappy.

If rather you look to and affirm the choices already made to be Orthodox - Torah - Jews, than you know that you are here to serve the One and the Only One. I would urge you to reframe your questions as to what choices affirm and strengthen the commitments you have made to the One who brings you all things, including the life force within each Neshima - Neshama - you take.

If you would research all the current literature about what 'millenials' have a right to expect in their future, you realize how much expectations are kind of silly. If you define everything by American values than yes, what's good for your children will often conflict with what you want for yourselves, bigger houses, geographical location, vacations and other material rewards. If you define them by how do we nurture children whose commitments will also be founded on devotion to HaShem, then you will have Heaven's guidance and assistance.

Finally, this just might be the underlying challenge coming to you from HaShem: Are you choosing Me first, as becoming Baalei T'shuva suggests or are you choosing yourselves first, which could equate with choosing material America over HaShem, when it comes down to it. I bless you to make good choices reflecting the highest Jewish integrity. It is indeed a challenge to at yourselves in the ultimate mirror.

I am not expert. But what does "psha-ra" mean?

The Jewish day school tuition crisis in the US is real, and seems only to be getting worse, especially in large metropolitan areas like New York. One option that was not presented in the article, but that is definitely a realistic one for families seeking not only a quality Jewish and general education, but also a holistic, natural Jewish environment in which to raise their children and be part of a close-knit community -- is aliyah.

While not completely free, religious education through the state religious school system in Israel offers much of what today's committed, modern Orthodox parents seek for their children, in an affordable way. For the family, communities like my town, and those in the surrounding area of Gush Etzion are extremely welcoming and supportive of new arrivals, and especially olim. Yes, salaries are generally lower than in the US, and moving to a new country is always a complex, emotional and existential upheaval. However, even leaving aside the Zionist and religious aspects of living in Israel, particularly for observant Jews life here -- from many practical standpoints -- is simply more affordable, doable and natural. It offers a "quality of being" that is not available anywhere else -- even in NY. (As an added bonus, your kids will most probably be speaking fluent Hebrew within a year, especially if they are in preschool or the lower elementary school grades, and laughing at your "American" accent!).

I am writing this as a private individual, and I am not affiliated with any organization. However, Nefesh b'Nefesh can be a great resource (before, during and after aliyah) for anyone who wants to find out what Israel has to offer:

Shabbat Shalom!

This scenario is all too common, and a great example of why schools and communities should take a moment and look at their practices and decisions through the lens of affordability. By anticipating parents' needs and concerns, and proactively engaging prospective parents in a conversation about their investment in their children and Jewish education, school leadership can ease much of the anxiety that is so clearly laid out in this article.
Why not host an information session led by the CFO about the school’s budget and tuition, or a meeting with current parents about how they handle the financial burden? Use this challenge as an opportunity to engage parents, and show them how seriously you consider their concerns. By working with communal leaders and national resources like PEJE, school leadership can ensure that parents like Carolyn and Don understand how their financial investment will yield children who are passionate about their Jewish identity, and who have the skills and knowledge to compete and achieve in the 21st century.

Charles Cohen
Manager, Jewish Day School Affordability Knowledge Center
A partnership of PEJE and the OU

This is an idiotic story. If public schools aren't good enough for your precious little Moishe or Rivka, don't bitch about how much it costs to send them to a third-rate school whose only qualification is that it has Sunday School every day. The "secular" education at day schools is crap because they know that the parents don't really care if their kids learn history, math or chemistry as long as they can braid a challah and recite kiddush.

You are WRONG!!! We have a similar dillema where I live. The current day school is closing, a Hebrew Language charter school is opening, and an Orthodox Torah Day School is opening as well. The charter school will be basically a public school with Hebrew language as well as Israeli culture but no religious studies since a public school cannot have that. The Torah Day School will have excellent Judaics AND secular studies. It will NOT be a thrid rate school and the Judaics will be much better than Sunday school every day. The parents who are applying to the Torah Day School DO care if our kids learn history, math, etc. Tuition is a big problem for some people and THAT is the dillema. I cannot imagine that you have had good experiences, otherwise you wouldn't be so thoughtless.

I think if you removed the chip on your shoulder just long enough, you could see many day schools that do offer a wonderful secular education without compromising Jewish education. Obviously, a child who grows up Jewishly knowledgeable but secularly illiterate is not an ideal outcome. But I'm not sure how a child who is secularly knowledgeable but Jewishly illiterate is better. Again, many day schools do offer the best of both worlds, but at a cost, which is exactly why the parents in the story have a difficult decision.


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