Dr. Simcha Katz is President of the Orthodox Union
There is no question that one of the most daunting challenges facing Jewish communities in North America is the high cost of living an Orthodox lifestyle. Particularly in these difficult economic times, when so many are either unemployed or underemployed, the financial demands seem overwhelming.
The number one expense for most traditionally observant families is, of course, tuition. The day school tuition crisis is no longer something that looms on the distant horizon; it has arrived. The Avi Chai Foundation’s most recent census, based on data for 2009-2010 from 120 schools with enrollment greater than 250 students, indicates an across the board enrollment drop of 3%.
Consider a family with four children earning $200,000/year. Only 3.5 percent of Americans earn more, and yet such families are having difficulty paying tuition bills that typically exceed their mortgage obligations!
Our schools are under enormous pressure as they struggle to deliver both a quality Torah and secular education to our children. The stress factor is filtering down to families; it deteriorates simchat hachayim (joy of living) and it erodes shalom bayit (domestic tranquility). Most troubling is the alarming number of students who are transferring from day schools to Hebrew Language Charter Schools. A recent Huffington Post article (Jewish School Tuition Crisis: Parents Feeling ‘Priced Out’ of Their Religion, Shira Hirschman Weiss) describes such transfers which can only be viewed as heartbreaking. It is a sad state of affairs for the Jewish people if a Jewish education is comprised of nothing more than the study of linguistics and culture. Unfortunately, parents are considering this option for strictly financial considerations.
This problem has been decades in the making, and we are now facing a broken and unsustainable system. Our success in dealing with this issue is going to be crucial in determining what Orthodox Judaism in America will look like twenty-five years from now.
It is of critical necessity that the Jewish community demonstrates creativity in dealing with the complex and multi-faceted issues and challenges surrounding this crisis. To encourage this creativity and to facilitate a forceful response, the Orthodox Union is pursuing a strategic campaign that will include “challenge” grants in the form of $10,000 – $25,000 awards, scheduled to begin fall 2011.
At the outset, we should be honest: Jewish education has always entailed an element of sacrifice and it always will. The Talmud states, “There are three things which can only be obtained through suffering: Torah, Eretz Yisrael and Olam Haba (the Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World to Come).” 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, and we must be willing to follow suit. This is particularly difficult for our generation, as we have been unusually blessed with prosperity; many of us 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 tuition, but they rarely, if ever, took mid-winter vacations or purchased new vehicles on a regular basis. They lived in small apartments or in homes that were 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.
Beyond this, however, we need additional honesty to face the multi-faceted and complex issues of this crisis which have been avoided in attempting to maintain the status quo; any call to arms must also include the general community, lay leaders, rabbinate and even the schools themselves.
Schools can and should be held accountable for out-of-control spending and quality of education. The increasingly high administrative and infrastructure costs, which were evolving well before the economic downturn, must be restrained. There is a dire necessity for readjusting financial priorities and fiscal responsibility; we must now ask this of our schools, administrators and boards of directors.
Different community settings present different needs. Providing day schooling for smaller populations versus larger ones creates diverse challenges and cost considerations. Opening multiple schools in close proximity in the name of differing “hashkafot” (personal religious philosophies) now demands critical reevaluation by communities and parents.Achdut (unity) is a baseline spiritual necessity that comes with cost benefits and economy of scale.
How do we ensure that sustaining our schools becomes a communal responsibility? For starters, we should strongly urge that the majority of one’s charitable giving be kept in the local community and that the majority of those funds be allocated to local schools. Additionally, we should develop 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 to develop a pilot program that will attempt to shift the responsibility of Jewish education to the entire kehillah (community). If this is successful, we will implement such programs in communities across the country.
We have also appointed Yehuda Neuberger as chair of a 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 efforts aimed at easing the tuition burden as well as interfacing 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 (IPA), headed by Nathan Diament. The IPA’s endeavors will enable a focus on various legislative initiatives aimed at assisting day schools both on the state and federal levels. 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, along with other opportunities for various legislative breakthroughs toward tuition relief. While these legislative efforts will require patience and vision, we intend to pursue them aggressively.
The need to partner with Jewish federations and philanthropic organizations is obvious. We will continue urging their leadership to recognize that Jewish continuity can only be assured through Jewish education. In order to encourage this response, the OU will accept applications for “challenge grants” starting this fall, as previously indicated.
These awards are intended to “challenge” or stimulate matching grants from local federations, foundations and philanthropists with the aim of supporting/piloting initiatives that have broad communal support or represent an innovative approach to day school affordability. Grants will be awarded to the most promising ideas that can be implemented and potentially replicated. Further details can be found by visiting: OU Day School Affordability Grants
Cognizant of the need to think “out of the box,” the OU will consider inventive, cutting-edge or novel educational paradigms such as the cooperative day school model, distance-learning platforms, interactive web-based curricula, and cost-effective vocational training programs for non-college-bound high school students.
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.
For more details about the OU Challenge Grants, requirements, application process and application form, please visit: OU Day School Affordability Grants