A Time to Unite

by | in President's Message

As this issue of Jewish Action rolls off the press and with Pesach fast approaching, we are entering the final third of the current yeshivah/day school academic year. That means yeshivah parents will soon be writing their checks for the coming school year. In the vast majority of these homes, the implications of yet another year of tuition and other costs will be very much on parents’ minds.

These costs are, as you well know, also very much on our minds here at the Orthodox Union. I would like, therefore, to call your attention to a message written by Rabbi Chaim Jachter of Teaneck, New Jersey, that resonated with me, in which he connects the first chapter of the Book of Daniel to the contemporary tuition crisis.

After Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Yerushalayim and exiling of the Jews to Babylonia, the king ordered a select group of young Jews to be raised in his palace. The boys were to be treated as royalty, and gradually, the king believed, their loyalties would shift to the Babylonians. Daniel and three of his friends were among those chosen; they were given Babylonian names and provided with the best the royal kitchens had to offer, particularly meat and wine. Despite the great risk, the young men refused to eat non-kosher food. They turned their backs on assimilation and remained Jews.

“The major theme of Sefer Daniel,” writes Rabbi Jachter, is that “absent willingness to engage in dramatic mesirat nefesh [sacrifices], Jews will assimilate in exile.” Using public school as an example of exile, he points out that in today’s environment the unfortunate reality is that Jews educated in the public schools have a very high rate of assimilation. The situation, of course, is reversed in Jewish day schools.

“Each generation has its unique nisayon [test or trial],” Rabbi Jachter writes. “For our generation, our nisayon is not Shabbat or kashrut, which is relatively easy to observe in today’s multicultural society. Yeshivah tuition is the nisayon of our generation. If we step up to the challenge and are willing to make extraordinary sacrifices, like Daniel and his three friends did, we too will join the long chain of Jews who have heroically preserved the Jewish heritage.”

Even as Rabbi Jachter calls for extraordinary sacrifices, which our parents have been making for years, the OU has stepped into the lion’s den to limit these sacrifices to what is tolerable for our families and communities.

Understanding that sacrifice alone will not suffice and that action on a number of fronts will be required, the OU convened a two-day summit on Jewish day school affordability in December. More than 175 attendees participated—rabbis, Jewish federation and foundation representatives and lay and day school leaders—“to deliberate, analyze, and develop possible strategies to remedy this issue,” as was noted in the event summary.

A number of solutions were proposed by the experts such as government action as well as the community assuming responsibility for funding day schools rather than leaving it to the parents and grandparents. Suggestions also included close coordination with local Jewish federations and applications to foundations for grants. Synagogue rabbis must play a substantial role in emphasizing to their congregations the need to support the local day schools. Above all, local needs must be stressed in discussions about tzedakah, and the greatest local need is support of day schools. (Please visit www.ou.org/tuition/summit/summit-on-the-affordability-of-jewish-education-action-steps/ to view the individual panel presentations at the summit as well as a detailed list of recommendations for communal action.)

At the summit the OU also announced seven winners of “Day School Affordability Challenge Grants,” totaling up to $150,000 for producing what we termed “innovative and replicable solutions” to the day school affordability challenge. The winners came from a variety of large and small communities—from Brooklyn, New York to Scranton, Pennsylvania—and from across the nation, as far west as Denver and as far south as Southern Florida. We will carefully monitor these plans as they go into effect, bolstered by the OU grants. If they are successful, we will propose that they be adopted nationally.

What was further affirmed at the summit was the need for forceful political action to encourage our elected officials to be supportive of pro-day school affordability government legislation, and in that area the OU is uniquely positioned to take a lead role. We accept that responsibility.

In addition, the OU, in whatever supportive role would be helpful, is eager to collaborate with and has reached out to organizations that have been actively engaged in addressing the affordability issue, such as the Avi Chai Foundation, Yeshiva University, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), Agudath Israel, Torah Umesorah, and other like-minded organizations.

With regard to political action, the OU has developed an Agenda of Public Policy Initiatives for 2012 which lays out the plan to engage the federal, state and local government in helping our schools and parents. (See the accompanying sidebar for a listing of some of those initiatives.)

The OU will indeed take a leading role in political action, but to be successful, our communities must be organized and engaged so that our voices are heard in the state legislatures as well as in Washington. We are prepared to help our communities organize in order to be effective in this approach.

To that end, we have assembled a team of political professionals to direct our efforts. Nathan Diament (federal/state), Maury Litwack (federal/state), Josh Pruzansky (New Jersey) and Michael Cohen (New York) are our experts on the federal, state and local levels of government. They are savvy observers of the political scene. They know how to approach politicians and their staff. They are experienced in the bureaucracies of government and in building grassroot support, and they are tireless and passionate about their work.

It cannot be emphasized enough: to be successful, we must work together—rabbis and principals, congressmen and governors, foundations and federations, the OU and other like-minded organizations, and most importantly, the leaders and individual members of our communities. We must all pool our time, energy, creativity and intellectual resources to produce our desired goal—affordable Jewish education and thriving Orthodox communities. And with God’s help, we will succeed.

Agenda for Public Policy Education Initiatives

The Orthodox Union, through its Institute for Public Affairs (IPA), is active in all levels of government on issues of significance to the Orthodox community, including, of course, day school affordability.  In 2012, our educational affordability initiatives include the following:

Support for Tuition-Paying Parents—The OU will seek major “pocketbook” savings to alleviate Jewish day school parents’ tuition payments through innovative federal tax law initiatives.

Ensure Services for our Schools—The OU will work to better ensure that our schools and children receive basic federal services that they are entitled to such as after-school tutoring, special education and more.

Secure our Schools—The OU spearheaded the creation of a federal grant that delivers tens of millions of dollars to keep Jewish day schools safe. The funds provide schools with security cameras, new locks, windows and barriers.

Energy Efficient School Buildings—The OU is leading the effort to provide government funding for energy efficient non-public schools. This funding will repair and replace everything from lighting and windows to heating and air conditioning systems.

Financial Relief for Special Needs—The OU will work to provide parents of special needs children with greater federal financial support for their educational costs. Through its National Jewish Council for Disabilities (NJCD) and its signature programs, Yachad and Our Way, the OU for years has been involved in promoting the Inclusion of those with disabilities into all aspects of Jewish life. Our advocacy in Congress goes hand in hand with the work of NJCD.

Restoring and Increasing Technology, Textbook and Nursing Aid—Working together with other non-public school advocates, the OU intends to restore and expand programs in several states that currently have, or in the past have, provided such aid to our schools. For example, if restored to Governor Christie’s budget, almost two million dollars of state funding will accrue to Jewish day schools and yeshivot in New Jersey.

Corporate Tax Credit Scholarships—In states such as Florida and Pennsylvania that have such tax credit programs, the OU will be working to expand their funding to deliver more support to our students. In states that lack such programs, i.e., Maryland and New Jersey, we will be working to launch them for the first time. In states that have scholarship tax credits in place, millions of dollars in aid have been raised over the past decade aiding struggling families and easing the scholarship burden faced by schools.

Special Needs Funding—Special needs students in religious private schools are often excluded by statutes from receiving services. The OU will work to eliminate this sectarian exclusion. The passage of such legislation could save families with special needs students thousands of dollars and at the same time provide those schools which offer these essential services a significant amount of funding.

Family Tuition Tax Credit—New York State currently offers tax credits for tuition-paying families. These tax credits are worth several hundred dollars per child and considerably ease the tuition burden on middle-class families. In the 2012-2013 legislative session, the OU will work to secure similar tax credits for New Jersey families.

Repeal of the Blaine Amendment—This amendment to state constitutions exists in a majority of states and prohibits taxpayer funds from being allocated toward religious organizations. The origin of this amendment goes back to the late nineteenth century, a time of great bigotry against Catholics and their schools. That it should continue to be in effect across the country in this day and age is unthinkable.  We are active in many of these states—particularly Florida—to seek repeal of this amendment.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2012.

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