Making Orthodox Life More Affordable

by | in President's Message

There is no question that one of the most challenging issues facing our community is the high cost of living an Orthodox lifestyle. Especially in these difficult economic times, when so many are either unemployed or underemployed, the financial demands often seem overwhelming.

The number-one expense for most frum families is, of course, yeshivah tuition. It is not unusual for families with an annual income of as much as $200,000 (only 3.5 percent of Americans earn more) with four or more children in yeshivah day schools to have difficulty paying tuition bills that exceed their mortgage obligations. The situation creates enormous pressures on our struggling day schools and yeshivos as they strive to deliver quality Torah and secular education to our children, and causes tremendous stress on families, reducing simchas hachayim and even leading to shalom bayis problems. Most troubling is the alarming number of students who are transferring from day schools to charter or public schools. This problem has been decades in the making, and we now are facing a broken and unsustainable system. Our success in dealing with this issue will determine what Orthodox Judaism in America will look like twenty-five years from now.

At the outset, we should note that Jewish education always entailed an element of sacrifice. The Gemara states, “There are three things which can only be obtained through suffering: Torah, Eretz Yisrael and Olam Haba.” In order to acquire Torah and transmit it to our children, we must be prepared to make sacrifices. Generations of Jews have sacrificed in order to educate their children. We have to pay the price as well. This is particularly difficult for our eneration, as we have grown accustomed to living an upper-middle-class lifestyle—despite the fact that many of us can no longer afford to do so.

Our grandparents and parents paid yeshivah tuition, but they rarely, if ever, took their children on mid-winter vacations or purchased new vehicles on a regular basis. They lived in small apartments or in homes that are far more modest than those we live in today.

The economic downturn has created a new financial reality for many of us. As such, we need to rethink our lifestyles and reassess our spending habits. After speaking with a number of families, I am convinced that for some, the tuition crisis is not so much an income crisis as it is a spending crisis.

Even those who have not directly been affected by the recession should engage in a cheshbon hanefesh. Those who live lavish lifestyles inadvertently help to create unrealistic standards that the average middle-class earner simply cannot match. People blessed with means have a responsibility to spend wisely and perhaps live a little more modestly.

In Parashas Miketz, the Torah states that during a severe famine, Yaakov Avinu, who was aware that there was food in Egypt, asked his sons, “Why do you make yourselves conspicuous?” What did Yaakov mean by this?

Rashi, quoting the gemara, explains that although his family still had provisions, Yaakov nevertheless told his sons to travel to Egypt to acquire more supplies. He did so in order not to create enmity and jealousy among his neighbors, the Bnei Esav and Yishmael, who were suffering and would have resented his prosperity. What a powerful and timeless message Yaakov teaches us: we must be sensitive to the difficulties of others and never flaunt what we have.

The economic downturn has created a new financial reality for many of us.

One of my heroes in Teaneck, New Jersey, in the 1970s was Arthur Joseph. A wealthy importer/exporter, Mr. Joseph was a leader of the local Conservative synagogue and head of the UJA-Federation of Northern New Jersey. Every week or so, he was mentioned in the paper for giving yet another major donation to a Jewish cause. Mr. Joseph lived in a modest home and drove a five-year-old Chevy. I knew he could afford to buy several homes on the most expensive block in the neighborhood and fill the driveways with the latest model luxury cars. At one point, I visited him to request a donation to help the struggling frum community in Teaneck build a mikvah. He had no relationship with the nascent Orthodox community, but he gave me one of the larger checks we received for the mikvah. He was a model of modest living and priority giving.

What made Mr. Joseph so remarkable? Aside from his modesty, Mr. Joseph was unique in that he felt a strong sense of responsibility to the community. It is this sense of communal responsibility that we must promote as an element in our quest to resolve the tuition crisis. The obligation to educate the future generations falls on the entire community, not just on parents. Indeed, in the Shulchan Aruch, the halachos of supporting yeshivah education do not appear in Hilchos Tzedakah, the laws of giving charity, as one would expect. Instead, they appear in Hilchos Shutfim, which deal with communal services funded by the kehillah.

How do we ensure that sustaining our schools becomes a communal responsibility? By insisting that the majority of one’s charitable giving be kept in the local community and that most of those funds be allocated to the local schools; by developing a system of communal educational endowment funds, where people leave a small portion of their estates to the local community to assure its viability beyond their lifetimes.

The OU has recently expanded its efforts to address the tuition challenge. In one community we are currently working with, we are developing a pilot program that will attempt to shift the responsibility of Jewish education to the entire kehillah. If this is successful, we will implement such programs in communities across the country.

We have also appointed Yehuda Neuberger, the grandson of the renowned Rabbi Naftali Neuberger of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, Maryland, to be the chairman of the newly created OU Task Force on Jewish Education Affordability. A graduate of Ner Israel and a Harvard trained lawyer, Mr. Neuberger is a successful businessman with experience interfacing with Federations, AIPAC and local schools. In his new role, he will oversee and help coordinate the OU’s legislative and communal efforts aimed at easing the tuition burden as well as collaborate with other communal institutions.

The OU is committed to taking a leadership role in contending with this vital issue. To that end, we have expanded the resources of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs, headed by Nathan Diament, to enable a more focused effort on various legislative initiatives that will assist day schools both on the state and federal levels. The IPA will continue to advocate forcefully for an array of initiatives, including tax credits for scholarship contributions, state support for busing and special education services, homeland security and energy efficiency grants and other opportunities for various legislative breakthroughs toward tuition relief. While these legislative efforts will require patience and vision, we intend to pursue them aggressively.

We are also considering offering challenge grants to encourage communities to come up with innovative ideas and initiatives to address the tuition crisis. The OU will award grants to communities whose ideas seem most promising. Cognizant of the need to think “out of the box,” we will look at innovative and even offbeat educational models including the “no-frills” Jewish day school and distance-learning schools among other creative initiatives.

We also need to partner with our Federations, and impress upon their leadership that Jewish continuity can only be assured through Jewish education.

Currently, there are more than 200,000 Jewish day school students in America. Unfortunately, that number is beginning to shrink. Just recently, Yeshivat Rambam in Baltimore and the Moshe Aaron Yeshiva High School (MAYHS) in New Jersey closed their doors. The American Jewish community is perched on a financial precipice. We at the OU—and all those who care about the future of American Orthodoxy—must continue to make day school affordability a priority.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2011.

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