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Day School Affordability: Whose Responsibility?

Day School Affordability: Whose Responsibility?

Families with school-age children cannot afford to sustain the schools alone.


The tuition crisis is one of the most significant issues challenging the Jewish community today. School administrators and board members know the staggering costs of providing a quality education. The parent body, frequently both mom and dad, work long hours. And even if they make upwards of $200,000 a year, they can still be challenged to make ends meet if they have multiple tuitions to pay.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Scholarship committees have proposed drastic restrictions on the spending habits of families receiving assistance. Many schools have been forced to close their doors for good. Tragically, many students have been pulled out of day schools and enrolled in public school. Read the blogs. Families are buckling under the stress and anxiety caused by the skyrocketing costs of educating their children. Sadly, too many couples are opting not to have additional children, making the high cost of tuition the most effective birth control today.

To call this a crisis is not an exaggeration. The current system where the costs outweigh what the parents can pay is certain to implode. I personally believe that the long-term solution will ultimately come through legislation on the state and federal levels. Tax code issues, corporate tax credits, and funding for secular education (assuming a limited interpretation of the Blaine Amendment, which prohibits the use of state funds at “sectarian” schools) are all options being pursued by Jewish communal leaders, but unfortunately, they are still years down the road. Another excellent long-term solution is for people to leave 15 percent of their assets to their local day schools. As the years go by and the endowments grow, the financial stress borne by the schools will be alleviated.

Historically, Jewish communities in Western Europe never had a tuition crisis.

We may not be able to fix the problem in the short-term, but there is a way we can begin to improve the situation. This will require full, and perhaps unpopular, participation of the entire community. Historically, Jewish communities in Western Europe never had a tuition crisis. They had a gemeinde, a communal fund created by an equal percentage of everyone’s funds. The leaders of the communities decided how much each individual should contribute and how the money would be distributed. Consistent with Jewish tradition, the mikvah was the first priority; Jewish education was second. This meant that every member of the community was committed to giving a majority of his charity money to the local schools.

With the exception of Zurich, Switzerland and German Jewry, the gemeinde has become obsolete. People today do not want to be told how much money they must give away or to whom it must be given. It is true that today significant dollars are given to worthy causes, but our local schools are not often enough the beneficiaries of the community’s largesse.

From a Torah point of view, this is a terrible mistake. Our greatest leaders have advocated that anywhere from 67 to 75 percent of our obligatory charity dollars must be given locally – aniyei ircha kodmin, "the needs of your local community take precedence.“ Imagine if every member of the community gave 10 percent of his income to tzedakah, and a majority of that money went to our schools! We would still have challenges, but we would not have a crisis.

Related Article: Why I Send My Kids to Day School

The 60/60 Proposal

Jewish communities consist of five components: singles; couples who either have no children or have very young children; families with school-age children; empty nesters and seniors. Singles and young couples are still finishing their education and establishing their careers. They may not feel rooted in the community they live in, and they may have little or no connection to the day school. Why should it be their responsibility? Empty nesters and seniors can justifiably say they have done their share – they have paid their tuitions and worked tirelessly on behalf of the schools. Now they want to support other causes that are meaningful to them. Why should the responsibility fall on them?

Without day schools, we face staggering rates of assimilation.

With all due respect, while these attitudes are understandable, they are not acceptable. Families with school-age children simply cannot afford to sustain the schools alone. From a Jewish standpoint, the obligation to keep the majority of charity dollars local applies to all ages and stages of life – not just to those with school-age children. Historically, members of the community made it an absolute priority to take care of their own. And philosophically, all of us who are part of a community must recognize that Jewish education is not a luxury – it is a necessity! American Jewish history has clearly shown that without yeshivot and day schools, we face staggering rates of intermarriage and assimilation.

If we care about the future of our community – its growth, its strength, its commitment to our values and traditions – then all who are members of that community must accept the responsibility to make sure our schools are viable and healthy by committing our charity dollars first and foremost to supporting Jewish education in our hometowns.

One community had an outstanding idea that I hope will become the norm: every member of the community must make a pledge to give 60 percent of his or her charity money to local institutions, and 60 percent of the funds earmarked for local causes should be invested directly in the day schools. I want to urge rabbis, principals, presidents, and other community leaders to advocate this idea in every community struggling to make Jewish education sustainable. If every member of the community made and honored this pledge, we would not solve the tuition crisis in the long run, but we would bring much-needed relief to families who are consumed with stress and worry over their tuition costs.

We are approaching the High Holidays, when as individuals and as a community we face judgment. How can we stand in the presence of the Almighty and beseech Him to bless and protect us if we are not doing all that we can to share our blessings and protect our own?

This Rosh Hashanah, let us all make a pledge to say “it is my responsibility” – because by taking responsibility we can alleviate the very real and destructive suffering of so many good and hard-working families. By taking responsibility, we can make the ultimate investment in the health and future of our people, and insure that every child, every family, and every community reaps the immeasurable benefits of Jewish education.

Reprinted with permission from the fall 2011 issue of Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union.

September 17, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 13

(12) Anonymous, April 14, 2012 10:24 PM

I am so happy to have found this site re: day school affordability. My daughter's day school experience in upstate NY was a relatively positive one -- up until the time parents (of her classmates), holding board positions on the financial committee, became aware of our economic status (i.e. lower middle-class) and our need for financial assistance. My daughter, to this day, remembers the taunting and belittling instead of the positive aspects of her Jewish education (there were many). Regardless of a community's good intentions and dedication to our children, it is important to keep the details (e.g. day school families experiencing financial hardship) from our children. Once a student is labeled "in need" by fellow classmates, he/she will gradually (emotionally) withdraw from their day school community and might even eventually feel less connected with Judaism as a result of the alienating behavior of both day school teachers, students and their parents.

(11) Anonymous, December 30, 2011 5:36 AM

Affordable Jewish Education equals KIRUV

I was raised secularly and was blessed to have found Oorah and an orthodox outreach school to send my 2 young boys to learn Judaism. I constantly ask myself "but how will my 2 boys afford to send their children to Jewish schools which is absolutely necessary for the survival of their offsprings' Jewish Neshamas?" Many people in my family have completely assimilated or intermarried. I lived a secular life. Without Jewish Education being affordable we must accept responsibility for literally turning our backs on the future of Judaism. We need those same federal and state monies and should lobby heavily for them. I agree that we need to point out that we have educated our children to state requirements and should thus be eligible for funding.

(10) David, September 21, 2011 5:07 PM

not the real problem

The day school system is imploding. It is not jsut becuase of the amount of dollars they are taking in, but also how they spend them. The schools are rife with polotical issues that cause less qualified people to recive promotions becuase of things like whos husband is learning where. Also, the schools have turned to a 1984ish policing system where children are encouraged to turn their parents in for violating stupid polocies that major donors dont have to follow. These are reasons I am considering when thinking about where/if I will send my kids to yeshivot. Also, the horror stories I hear comming out of yeshiva are crazy. In a local yeshiva here, in the past 10 years, there was a sex tape made in the dorms, constant drug problems. There are also horrible problems with kids acting like little brats and like they own the world. There was even an instance where a teacher was fired becuase they were too hard on a major donors child. The system is complelly broken, and there is a lot more then money that needs to be given to fix it!

(9) Gabriella Bedarida, September 19, 2011 9:40 PM

The Gemeinde is still alive in Italy as well

I really appreciated and agree with a lot of points of your article. Please note that a unified Jewry under a "gemeinde" concept and fair taxation system of all members is still in effect in italy and many places in France and other countries in Europe, such as Hungary, Austria etc. In all these communities the schools are a responsibility of the gemeinde, they are not private initiatives of a few parents, and they draw synergy from the gemeinde, for example the food is catered from the jewish Nursing Home to the school for a very low price, the Rabbi teaches also in the Jewish school etc etc. Last but not least if Americans were to become more open to a less strict separtaion of State and Church (which does not exist anyway given the President is sworn into office on the Bible etc etc, )any private but government-recognized school based on ability to reach standardized levels on national testing and fulfill a State-demanded curriculum, should be able to get funded by the government for what the cost of each enrolled child would have been to the public if that child would have been enrolled in the public school system. This happens in Europe and that is why Jewish education is affordable there.

(8) Anonymous, September 19, 2011 7:43 PM

I was able to get 2 of my older children through the day school system, my youngest in now in the 10th grade in Nassau County, New York. If I could do it all over again, I would NOT send them to yeshiva, I should have enrolled them all in the local public school and paid for private Hebrew tutors! My husband and I endured the worst shame from tuition committees and this impacted negatively on all oarea of our life, there was no joy in life, only worrying how to obtain the enrollment cards at the beginning of the year of hoping that the yeshiva wouldn't overdraw my checking account month and bounce my mortgage payment because of the mandatory "tuition payment system". Early on, we were shunned by our fellow community members when we voiced our inability to pay the fees, as our neighbors were re-doing their homes and also somehow getting tuition breaks, while our house was falling apart! I'm just so sick of this topic already. A yeshiva education/tuition does not prevent society's woes..........It causes them!

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