Continued Angst Over Day School Tuition

OU conference discusses high cost of religious living, especially day schools.

01/18/11
Staff Writer
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In the run-up to the Orthodox Union’s National Convention, which took place last weekend in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., Margy-Ruth Davis polled everyone she met about the topic she planned to speak about: the high cost of Jewish living. Davis, a community activist and executive vice president of the fundraising firm Perry Davis Associates, asked an 85-year-old widower how he had managed to put his children through Jewish day schools. “What choice did I have?” the man responded. “None, so we struggled and we did it.”

Contrast that with the response she received from a woman in her 30s who just pulled her kids out of day school. “Two-thirds of our after-tax income was eaten up by the tuition,” the woman told Davis. The financial strains were adding untold stress to her marriage and prevented her and her husband from putting away money for retirement.

Then her youngest son needed remediation, and there simply wasn’t any money in the budget. So she enrolled her children in public school. With the tens of thousands of dollars she saved, she was able to hire a Jewish studies tutor. “I’m very happy with my decision,” she told Davis. “The financial strain is off; we’ll be able to retire one day.” This woman, Davis told the audience, “feels that she has a choice.”

Most Orthodox Jews still believe that day school is a necessity, not a luxury — but a growing minority is questioning this logic in the face of exorbitant tuition costs.

“It’ll be harder for this generation of young families than it was for us,” Davis said. “The big costs come when Orthodox parents are in their early 30s. We saddle young families with the largest expenses of their lives before they reach their earning potential.”

Davis was one of four panelists who participated in a panel discussion moderated by radio host Nachum Segal, which took place at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, N.J. on Saturday night. The other speakers included Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, founder of the National Jewish Outreach Program; Councilman David Greenfield, who helped found TEACH NYS, an umbrella group that advocates on behalf of the 500,000 Catholic, Jewish and private schoolchildren in New York State; and William Rapfogel, CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. The event, which was free and open to the public, was advertised as a talk addressing the question: Does a family have to be wealthy in order to be observant?

The cost of day schools dominated the discussion for good reason: tuition at Centrist and Modern Orthodox day schools ranges from $13,000 a year to as much as $31,000 a year per child — and Centrist Orthodox families have an average of 3.3 children. (“Day school tuition is the best contraceptive ever created,” Davis remarked.)

Greenfield disagreed that more Orthodox families are choosing not to send their children to day schools. “I simply don’t believe that not sending kids to day school is an option,” he said. He criticized day school parents — whose children make up 7.5 percent of the population of kids in New York City — for not being politically active. “Every conceivable group is organized; that’s politics,” he said. “Whoever is the most organized gets the most results.”

To register in a yeshiva, parents should have to prove that they are registered to vote, he told the audience. More members of the Orthodox community need to vote; voter turnout among Orthodox Jews is only 20 percent, Greenfield said. When the Orthodox do vote, particularly for local politicians, according to Greenfield, they should vote with a message: The single most important issue for our community is day school tuition. The ultimate goal, he said, is to configure a way for the government to pay for the secular portion of day school education.

Many members in the audience expressed little hope in the governmental approach to the day school tuition crisis. “Even if it does work out, [the governmental assistance] will be a miniscule amount of money,” one audience member said during the question-and-answer period. “And yeshivas will raise tuition by that amount of money.”

Greenfield rebutted the argument by saying that he can count on his hands the number of people doing advocacy work on behalf of the Orthodox community when it comes to the issue of governmental support for Jewish day schools. “People say, ‘Howie and Nathan, they’re going to take care of us,” he said, referring to Howie Beigelman, OU’s deputy director of public policy, and Nathan Diament, the director of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs. “But everyone has a responsibility.”

Rabbi Buchwald said that he recently sat down and counted the number of billionaires who are either Orthodox or sympathetic to Orthodox causes. He came up with a staggering 61 billionaires. “We do have the resources,” he said. “We’re just not tapping the resources properly.”

Davis suggested that Orthodox Jews view tuition as a lifelong commitment, not one that only affects parents when their children are school age. “What if everyone who receives a scholarship from a day school agrees that when they are in their 50s, they will repay it? That will make Jewish tuition a lifelong responsibility and spread that responsibility.”

Meanwhile, at the OU’s 112th Anniversary Convention held the next day, Jewish communal leaders adopted several resolutions, including one focused on Jewish education. “Parents should not stand alone in the struggle as to whether or not to provide their children with a day school education,” according the resolution. Therefore, Orthodox Union synagogues should “encourage local day schools to be a Tzedakah priority of each Orthodox Union community” and have their rabbis “counsel and advise young families to appreciate the importance of Jewish education.” The resolutions also called on OU rabbis to work with the lay leadership “to create synagogue liaisons with local and national philanthropic organizations that provide support for families with financial needs for day school education and help publicize this information in the community.”

E-mail: tamar@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

05/08/2011 - 21:18

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It is very hard for me to read these articles because after years of spending thousands of dollars towards Jewish education for my children we came to the very sad and disappointing realization that the education itself - both the Jewish and secular studies - were of ridiculously and shamefully low quality. On top of that, the lack of meritocratic behavior towards the students was upsetting and the nature of the behavior of students in school both towards each other and towards the teachers was inappropriate and frankly, not within Torah prescribed bounds.

We have found public school (albeit in a top school district) to be fantastic academically and socially. I think that only we Jews are to blame for the nature of our current Day School predicament and it will require a cold hard and critical look at ourselves - our expressed values (not just those we claim to uphold) and where we put our efforts (both time and finances) that speak loudest about who we are as individuals, communities, and as a nation.

How about the money spent at Pesach hotels? One year of that money could help create an edyucation pool. How about more frum men working to raise tuition money?
The rabbi of my shul, who also runs a yeshiva, has always said that the priorities of American Jewish communities have always been backwards. We pour millions upon millions of dollars into fancy shuls with a dozen Torahs, shul dinners and fundraisers - but, by comparison, almost nothing to help fund Jewish schools. Tuition must be high in order to allow for scholarships - in that sense, the "community" (wherever it may be) is indeed supporting local yeshivas - but it is clearly not enough.
I disagree with the idea that Jewish parents should be solely or even primarily obligated to pay day school tuition. Certainly, parents should be asked to pay a reasonable share of the costs. However, Jewish day schools benefit the Jewish community as much or more than individual parents, so if the Jewish community urges us to send our kids to day school, it should be prepared to support the costs in partnership with parents.
A million dinners every year for all sorts of organizations that provide marginal impact on few if any people other than those whom they employ. All of this instead of raising funds for local yeshivot which should be the single priority and effort of every Orthodox shul
So sad that religious Jews in America have so few children. Jacob - father of six (Ramat Gan)
So sad that many people feel bullied into having more children than they can afford to feed, cloth and educate. You clearly are unaware of the many religious Jewish children living in squalor below the poverty level. Each parent must first be responsible to support his/her own children. This sense of entitlement expecting others to pay for your poor choices is a terrible message to teach the children and above that a true chilul Hashem.
Day School isn't just for the Orthodox. All Jews are entitled to freedom of religion, which includes deciding how to educate our children. The continued economic assualt on the middle class is is also an assault on our Freedom of Religion. We need to protest the continual erosion of our economic standing. In Soviet Russia Jews could not obtain a relgious education. How sad that this situation is now creeping up on us in America as well.
Freedom of Religion is part of our constitution. That our economy has fallen into such shambles that we cannot exercise our constitutional rights to educate our children as we see fit is a disaster! Don't forget, Jewish education is an option exercised by many Jews, not just the Orthodox. It is a fallacy to make this look like only an Orthodox issue, instead of a freedom of religion issue that affects all Jews. I urge those 61 Billionaires to step up to the plate and preserve our heritage and our people. Let's save our Jewish heritage so that our children will be enriched by it, instead of reading a few lines about it in a generic textbook.
Interesting article; real dillema. I would like to remind American Orthodox Jews that there is also another option! There is a country over here in the Middle East where day school tuition is funded almost entirely by the government. And although salaries are lower here, other expenses (like health care) are also much lower than they are in the States. I am well aware (from personal experience!) that the decision to make Aliya is not an easy one, and that there are many factors that can legitimately affect the decision. Still, it is worth pointing out that there was a time very recently when the single most important reason NOT to make Aliya was the fear of not being able to manage financially. Today, however, for Orthodox families in America struggling with tuition and other expenses, the reverse is often true: you will be much better off financially here than you are there. So at least give it some thought! Make a phone call to Nefesh b'Nefesh and at least consider your options! We're waiting for you over here.... Rabbi Alan Haber Alon Shvut
OK, you convinced me to leave my parents, sisters, nieces, nephews, and job to immigrate to an overcrowded, arid to semi-arid country which is severely lacking in fresh water that is the main target of terrorists some of whom run countries which are creating atomic bombs and which due to its Arab-Jewish problems may become a state on par with Lebanon in the next half-century? Unless you believe in messianic and promised land myths, America (and our neighbors to the north) is still the safest and most stable place to be for a Jew or any other human being.

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