With American Jewish families increasingly feeling the strain of what has come to be known as the Jewish day school “tuition crisis,” the allure of free, Jewish, public education in Israel is enticing, especially for those who are already considering aliyah for ideological or spiritual reasons.
The concept of Jewish public school was certainly a draw for the Gertz family, who made aliyah in July from Passaic, N.J., to Bet Shemesh with five children ranging in age from 3 to 15. Last year, they spent $56,000 on tuition and transportation to send three children to Yeshivat Bet Hillel in Passaic and one to Bat Torah Academy in Paramus. Although tuition was not the primary factor in their decision to emigrate, the prospect of spending almost $900,000 — assuming tuition never rises — over the course of his family’s journey from preschool to 12th grade galled Nissan Gertz so deeply that “it was definitely an important fringe benefit” in the decision, he said.
“The problem wasn’t just where tuition was,” Gertz said, “but where it was headed, which was crazy. My youngest was about to join the ranks of elementary school, which would add another several thousand dollars to the program. As the kids entered high school, the increases would be tremendous. And that is not even including tuition hikes, which for our family has been going up about $4,000 per year. And then college — we all know how much that costs. I saw the writing on the wall.”
“When we decided to move, to live in our homeland, it was based on a desire to bring the Redemption,” he said. “But the inspiration to actually make that move was fed by my frustration of years over the tuition issue. Now my kids go to public school, and I’m elated.”
But is Jewish education in Israel really free, as so many claim?
Not entirely, immigrants and aliyah experts said, especially taking into account the lower average salaries in Israel. As a percentage of one’s take-home income, tuition can be a greater budget line item than some families anticipate. Still, the differences in absolute numbers can be astounding; this year, for example, the Gertz family budget for education, including after-school activities, is under $7,000.
“Informing parents of how much education will cost before they come is important to us,” said Avi Silverman, education coordinator for Nefesh B’Nefesh, the aliyah organization. “The lower costs are an obvious draw for a lot of parents, but there are hidden costs that must be considered.”
First are the aforementioned after-school activities, known here as “chugim,” or clubs. American parents almost always opt to sign up their children for soccer, karate, art or cooking classes because “school days here are truncated,” Silverman explained, “and the programs aren’t as rich,” especially compared to American Jewish day schools, where elementary school children are dismissed between 3 and 4 p.m. and high school students don’t finish classes until 5 or 6 p.m.
In Israel, public elementary schools, whether secular or religious, charge “service fees” of $130 to $250 per year for field trips and special events, and end the school day at 1:30 p.m. Semi-private schools — popular among the Modern Orthodox both for their “elongated” sessions and additional Judaic studies — have annual tuitions ranging from $800 to $1,600 and have a dismissal time of 3:30 or 4 p.m. Round-trip van transportation for children in regional schools can cost about $1,500 per year.
High schools students generally finish their classes at around 3:30 or earlier, depending on which matriculation exams they are taking, Silverman said. Many students live in dormitories in high school, he said, which adds to a school’s cost. Public schools with dormitories charge $3,000 to $5,000 per year; students living at home pay $1,500 to $2,300.
Families who opt for “special” schools, such as those with enriched science programs or comprehensive services for students with special needs, pay more. By way of example, Silverman said that Maarava, a prestigious religious high school in the settlement of Matisyahu, charges about $5,200 per year. “If you send your kid there,” he said, “and you have four other kids, it’s a chunk of your salary. Nowhere what you would pay in America, but it’s a chunk of your Israeli salary.”
Still, he added, “even with the pay reduction, parents say that the price between tuition here versus Frisch or Maayanot, Ramaz, Flatbush — it just doesn’t even compare.”
American immigrants typically invest in one or two weekly chugim for each child, at a cost of $350-450 per chug per year (“This isn’t America where you have stressed-out, overscheduled kids,” Silverman said. “And not everyone has the money to pay for three or four chugim for each of their four or five children.”) The Gertz children take dance, soccer, karate, gymnastics and hip-hop between them; the two oldest are also in the Ezra Religious Zionist youth movement, which meets weekly, and they volunteer once a week in their community.
Since books are usually not covered by tuition, Israel-bound families should prepare to spend $50 to $150 on texts and school supplies for each child.
Tutoring is an important budget line item, Silverman said, because “even children who were stellar students in America need an extra boost when they come to Israel, because of the language change and transition. It’s a natural part of being immigrants.” Tutors charge anywhere from $8 to $37 per hour, depending on their credentials, the number of hours they work and whether they work in their own home or come to the client’s home.
A chart showing a typical school budget for a family of four is available at the Nefesh B’Nefesh (www.nbn.org.il). The organization includes summer camp on the chart; Silverman reported that summer activities can run anywhere from $25 per week for “Tammy and Chaya’s backyard camp” to $50 per week for a national drama camp, or a program at a university. This sounds like piddling amounts to jaded New Yorkers, Silverman said, until they realize that “for four kids, at $400 each, that’s $1,600. That might be a month’s salary.”
Still, while the Gertzes shelled out a third to a half of their take-home pay to Jewish schools in the States, the percentage of their income going to tuition is now so little that when a reporter asked them to calculate it, Nissan just laughed and said, “It’s nothing. Nothing.”
“Before, we had no college fund, and no plan how to get one,” Gilan said. “Every cent that would normally go into a college fund or a retirement account was going to tuition. Actually, the plan was to re-mortgage the house. It was worth it because we believed that Jewish day school was a good investment. But in Israel, we get quality schools that follow our belief system, and we get to live in Israel. It’s a much better plan.”