Responding to the Affordability Crisis
In the summer issue of Jewish Action (“Making Orthodox Life More Affordable”), OU President Dr. Simcha Katz paints the tuition problem with too broad a brush. He seems to blame the victim by challenging the spending habits of Jewish parents without examining the spending habits of the schools.
Dr. Katz endorses sacrifice for Jewish education, but places that sacrifice on the shoulders of families, with no mention of the schools’ responsibility to engage in similar sacrifices. Why does he suggest a “cheshbon hanefesh” for those with “lavish lifestyles” without suggesting a similar self-assessment by educational institutions?
He describes our grandparents who paid tuition and rarely went on vacations or purchased new vehicles. But he fails to describe the simpler schools of that era. Those schools did not see the need for expansive extracurricular programs, and did not create multi-layered administrative staffs with highly-paid personnel.
I am confident that the tuition crisis is generating sacrifice and compromise on both sides of the fence, by both parents and schools. Rather than point a finger at only one side, Dr. Katz should have dedicated his message to parents who are vacationing locally by car, and to schools that are trimming costs.
West Orange, NJ
I read with interest Dr. Katz’s message on affordable Orthodox life. While I appreciate the initiatives to increase fundraising for Orthodox schools, I was disappointed at the absence of ideas to decrease operating costs. I would like to suggest that schools undertake the following:
Consolidate plans for employee benefits and commercial and property insurance that would take the combined buying power of multiple schools to produce lower premium costs.
Negotiate with vendors of products and services to produce group purchasing discounts for participating schools.
Provide courses on school budgeting and financial issues to administrators and lay leaders, as well as on facility management to assist the administrative and lay leaders with controlling operating costs.
Controlling costs is a key to providing an affordable Orthodox life. If we work together, we can achieve this.
Matthew Bobman, CPA
New York, NY
Although the issue of affordability is multifactorial, schools should be held accountable for not appropriately controlling spending and for failing to be sufficiently sensitive to the crisis that has been evolving for many years now. Before the economic downturn, they continued to add additional administrative costs and overhead in the face of what was clearly a growing and worsening tuition crisis. The economic downturn has simply magnified the issue and has made the status quo unsustainable. The need for a readjustment of financial priorities and fiscal responsibility should be required of schools and their administrators and boards. Charging $14,000 or more annually for kindergarten or preschool only exacerbates the problem and exemplifies what is wrong with the current model.
Finally, communities should consider the financial waste involved in opening multiple schools in close proximity to each other and justifying the need in the name of different hashkafot.
Woodmere, New York
As chairman of a yeshivah scholarship committee, I deal with dozens of families each year facing the dilemmas you so eloquently describe. Indeed the crisis is one of spending and priority setting. But the root of the problem lies in the “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome which permeates our communities. Nothing will change until the rabbis begin to take this seriously. People need to understand that tzeniut is not a halachah limited to the length of one’s dress or sleeve. It is about how we conduct ourselves day-to-day: what kind of houses we live in, what kinds of vacations we take, how we choose to celebrate our semachot, et cetera. The rabbinic leadership must step up and take the lead in a very serious way—$25,000 bar mitzvahs, $50,000 cars, and $75,000 family Pesach getaways must be strongly discouraged. Talking in shul and kavanah in davening are important sermon messages, but enough already. Let’s address some issues that really threaten the fabric of our community.
Project Ezrah in New Jersey does a solid job helping families through tough times by teaching them how to live within a realistic budget. The service should be expanded beyond the “needy,” as much of the hamon am is in dire need of basic training in how to live day-to-day within their means.
Chairman of The Moriah School