As Englewood Hebrew charter school moves forward, increased buzz about a previously unthinkable option.
Soon after Jason “Yitzi” Flynn transferred his 10-year-old son from the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey to Teaneck’s Thomas Jefferson Middle School this fall, the phone calls started coming in.
Local Orthodox parents — sometimes as many as eight in one week — would call, wanting to know how his son was adjusting to public school, were the teachers good, was he managing to continue his Jewish learning, did he still have friends from yeshiva?
“People are saying, ‘We’re interested in hearing what it’s like, because we’re considering this for our kids,’” Flynn, an attorney, volunteer soccer coach and yeshiva graduate, told The Jewish Week.
In the two months since Shalom Academy, a Hebrew charter school serving heavily Orthodox Englewood and Teaneck, won state approval (now being contested in court by the Englewood Public School District) and began moving forward with plans for a September launch, local rabbis and day school leaders have voiced concerns that the 160-student school could siphon away many tuition-paying students from Jewish schools, hurting not only the children (by depriving them of the intensive Jewish education/socialization of a yeshiva) but also the institutions.
Nonetheless, the debate over whether Hebrew charter schools are an appropriate choice for tuition-squeezed day school parents may only be the tip of the iceberg.
Not only are a number of Bergen County Orthodox parents, themselves yeshiva graduates, at least considering Shalom Academy Charter School (SACS), but some appear to be seriously considering what was once unthinkable, almost taboo: non-charter public schools.
To be sure, Orthodox parents who opt out of the Jewish yeshiva/day school system are a small minority, and their choice still provokes disapproval and criticism from rabbis, friends and family members (as well as numerous anonymous commenters in the blogosphere). Indicative of the stigma still attached to opting out of day school is that most parents agreed to speak to The Jewish Week only if their real names were not printed.
Nonetheless, conversations with Teaneck parents who are pulling their children out, or considering pulling them out, of yeshivas and day schools (along with a quick perusal of the controversial and largely anonymous, but widely read, “Bergen County Yeshiva Tuition” blog) reveal that many families are financially overwhelmed, resentful of those they think are abusing the scholarship system and increasingly skeptical that a full-day intensive Jewish education is worth sacrificing seemingly everything else for.
“Twenty or 30 years from now the Orthodox community is going to have a serious retirement crisis,” said “Mira,” a Teaneck mother of toddlers who is already looking into options like charter school and public school. She was referring to a sense that yeshiva parents are unable to save enough for the future.
“People are not planning properly; most are in denial. And the communal leadership across the board, no one is getting up and saying ‘This is not sustainable.’”
Groups like the Orthodox Union, Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership, Jewish Education for Future Generations (JEFG) and its Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools (NNJKIDS) project are talking about the “tuition crisis” and moving forward with various projects, such as a community-wide scholarship fund and a “benchmarking” project to reduce school operating costs.
But for some parents, these efforts are too little too late.
“There’s so much soreness around the topic of rising tuition costs, it comes up at almost every Shabbos meal we sit at,” said “Melissa Rosen.” “It really is starting to consume everyone and become this sore subject, and it’s sad. People are getting so hostile against these schools, and it’s not good for the kids.”
Melissa and her husband “Yoni,” both of whom work full time, won spots for their 4-year-old and 8-year-old in the SACS admission lottery last month and have decided to give the new school a try. The decision came after the couple seriously considered sending their children to their local public school, which they visited. They didn’t elaborate on why they didn’t’ choose the public school.
Like many other families who spoke to The Jewish Week, the Rosens, whose older child currently attends Yavneh Academy, said that while they were happy with the yeshiva, they earn too much to qualify for financial aid, or at least more than a modest scholarship, yet do not have enough money to afford full tuition.
“We were getting nowhere on our bills,” explained Yoni. “They were getting larger and larger.”
The Rosens say they are under no illusion that SACS will be a yeshiva, or that the children will be in an all-Orthodox or even all-Jewish environment.
“We knew it would just be Hebrew,” Melissa said. “But we also knew that a lot of the [Judaic studies] learning at a yeshiva is speaking, writing and reading Hebrew — and often the graduates don’t come out even speaking Hebrew with fluency.”
The Rosens are also, pending more information, planning to enroll both children in the optional Talmud Torah that is being developed by Hebrew Options in Public Education, a new nonprofit (pending 501(c)(3) approval) that is also helping to fund SACS.
While some question how much Judaic material an after-school program can cover, pointing to the failure of Talmud Torah programs in generations past, the Rosens are hopeful.
“This will be a little shorter, but we come from a home where we are proud of our Yiddishkeit and take joy in the holidays, so we feel we can reinforce” the Judaic learning at home, Melissa said.
The Rosens, both yeshiva graduates themselves, are skeptical of the argument that, without day school or yeshiva, their children will go “off the derech” [religious path] a term commonly used to describe people who cease to be religiously observant.
“We have family members that you would never guess went to yeshiva all their lives,” said Yoni. “We’re mindful that there are no guarantees.”
Sidney Vidaver, whose 6-year-old daughter, currently at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, will attend the charter school this fall, said that while day schools tend to claim credit for graduates’ Jewish engagement, most of these graduates grew up in committed Jewish homes.
A graduate of a Modern Orthodox school in Baltimore, Vidaver, who now identifies as Conservative, said, “From my class, a few became rabbis, a few do nothing and the majority of people are very identified and are affiliated with a Jewish community in some way or another.
“It almost entirely dovetails with the types of families they grew up in. The person who grew up going to shul every week, he still goes to shul every week, even if he experimented in college. People generally do what their families did.”
Vidaver noted that day school is itself a relatively new phenomenon, “a movement of the past two generations.”
Like the Rosens, Vidaver has no complaints about the day school education his daughter is getting, other than the price tag.
But even with just one child (the Vidavers also have a 3-year-old) in day school “we didn’t have a financial cushion in case of emergencies, and it wasn’t a tenable way for us to live.”
“We talked about how we could have more children or educate our children,” he said. “I can’t accept living that way. We absolutely could not have afforded to have a third child if we were going to pay another $13,000 to $18,000 a year. And it’s not like we’re taking trips to Florida or going to Pesach resorts.”
“Sarah,” a Modern Orthodox Teaneck mother of four, is dreading telling her mother (and the yeshiva) about the decision to move her two older children from a yeshiva to SACS.
She said that she and her husband could continue paying tuition if they absolutely had to. But she’s no longer sure it’s worth the stress.
“Do we want to live this way where we’re dipping into our savings and not going to have any savings, not being able to go on vacation, borrowing money from our in-laws?” she said, adding, “I don’t want to feel guilty or like I have to explain to my husband that I spent a lot of money at the drugstore. I want to feel like it’s OK to buy the things we need, or even something we want. Not Louis Vuitton bags, but if you need a new computer or new shelves.”
With no tuition to pay next year, she and the Rosens now have the luxury of thinking about other uses for the money they expect to save: putting aside money for yeshiva high school and college, making long-delayed home repairs, maybe taking the kids on a trip to Israel.
“They called [the SACS admissions process] a lottery, and we did the math of what we wouldn’t be paying,” Yoni said. “You really did win the lottery. Even after paying for the Talmud Torah, you’re still way ahead of the game.”
While money is a driving force, it is not the only factor pulling some families out of yeshivas.
One Englewood mother who is planning to transfer her children from a yeshiva to SACS told The Jewish Week that money is only one factor: that she and other parents she knows are “very unhappy” with their schools, particularly what they see as a “black box”-like lack of financial transparency and a teaching staff that is uneven in quality.
She sees parents’ willingness to give the unproven charter school a try as an “act of desperation” stemming from their deep frustration with the yeshivas.
Instead, he decided that his son, who was struggling in some secular subjects, would do better academically in the public schools, where secular studies start the day and an array of learning specialists are available.
The boy has thrived in the new environment, Flynn said, noting that not only is he in a mainstream (rather than special-needs) class, but on the honor roll.
School officials have been accommodating of the boy’s religious needs, offering to provide kosher options at class programs, and he has had no difficulty fitting in socially, Flynn said. In addition, he continues to socialize regularly with other Orthodox kids, is studying privately with a rabbi and participates in a “mishmar” evening learning program.
Flynn recently began organizing families interested in starting a Modern Orthodox after-school Jewish studies program for children not enrolled in yeshiva or day school.
His program is, at least for now, separate from the one organized by HOPE. Flynn said has left messages with HOPE expressing interest in partnering, but no one has gotten back to him yet.
Even without the support of HOPE, Flynn’s fledgling after-school program has already formed a steering committee of 20 people, has found an Orthodox rabbi willing to help run the program (starting this fall) and has identified a potential location, he told The Jewish Week.
“I can’t right now discuss the rabbi and facilities because they have asked me to keep it confidential, but we’d be able to accommodate 250 to 350 people,” he said.
Details of curriculum and logistics have yet to be determined, but Flynn said the thinking so far is to offer homework help and social activities, along with Torah learning.
Flynn’s Talmud Torah effort has gained momentum in the past few weeks, since he published a detailed account on the Bergen County Yeshiva Tuition Blog about his family’s experience with the public schools.
“There are more Jews in the Public School system currently than you may be aware of,” Flynn wrote in a posting. “A school administrative assistant who happens to be Jewish told me there are more Jews in Teaneck High School NOW than at any point in recent history.”
But in a sign of just how hot-button the issue of public school remains, Flynn and “200K Chump,” the anonymous editor of the blog, removed the post within hours because the blog was flooded with angry comments. An edited version of the post was published on the blog later, with many details removed and a caveat added: “This posting is an example of what is currently good for one of my children. I believe Yeshiva is the best option for most children and, IY”H [if it is the will of God] if appropriate, I plan on all of my children being in a Yeshiva...”
Just how SACS, and the weakening of the public school taboo, will affect area day schools and yeshivas remains to be seen.
With only 160 spots at the charter for this fall, and over 4,000 students currently enrolled in the eight yeshivas and day schools, it is unlikely that any one school will lose a sizeable percentage of its students. However, many schools are relatively small and have little flexibility in their budgets; the loss of even a handful of tuition-paying students would not go unnoticed.
While enrollment has not been finalized (the school is full, but is still adding names to its wait list) it is widely believed that the school is attracting a largely Jewish — and day school/yeshiva — crowd. Rumors abound that at least 100 children admitted so far are Orthodox.
Raphael Bachrach, the SACS organizer, and the other members of the school’s board have declined repeated requests for interviews.
Similarly, few Jewish schools were willing to speak on the record about SACS.
Of five schools contacted, only the leaders of Ben Porat Yosef agreed to be interviewed about the charter school.
In a joint interview, Ruth Roth, the Paramus school’s director of admissions and Rabbi Tomer Ronen, its rosh yeshiva, said they know of three families so far that are transferring from BPY to SACS — all for financial reasons. They do not know of any families transferring to non-charter public schools.
However, Roth emphasized that as a relatively new school, the 215-student BPY is still “in a rapid growth phase” and increasing by 30 to 40 percent each year.
Said Rabbi Ronen: “I feel really bad for the families that their children are going to lose a yeshiva education. If they’re thinking they’re going to be substituting yeshiva with a 45-minute club in the afternoon, it’s not going to happen.”
The presence of the tuition-free option, however “has made us even more sensitive to the fact that we have to be respectful more and more of our families and offer them value for every dollar they spend on yeshiva tuition,” Roth said.
Gershon Distenfeld is treasurer of Jewish Education for Future Generations (JEFG) and chair of its Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools (NNJKIDS) project, a community-wide effort to raise scholarship funds for the eight Jewish day schools and yeshivas in the area.
In addition to raising scholarship money, JEFG is also seeking other solutions to the “tuition crisis,” including working with the eight day schools on a “benchmarking study” to improve their “operating efficiency,” helping schools standardize scholarship guidelines and a project in the works to help middle-income families that are ineligible for financial aid yet unable to afford tuition.
Distenfeld told The Jewish Week that although he understands why SACS, the Hebrew charter school, is “appealing to some families for financial reasons, I don’t think it’s an overall solution for the Jewish day school tuition crisis.
“Most parents [currently in the day school system] want a day school environment for their children, they want a certain amount of the day dedicated to Jewish studies,” he said.
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