Day School Affordability: Realigning Priorities

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21 Sep 2011

I have read, with great interest, the series of articles and letters in Jewish Action (Fall 5772/2011) regarding the cost of Jewish education.

I take issue with some of Dr. Katz’s writing, where there is a tendency to blame the victim, namely the parents of today’s children in day schools; that they have all their priorities wrong; that they should live in modest apartments and forgo all pleasures of life. Dr. Katz indicates this was the norm in past generations. The response to this is that we don’t live in past generations, to say what was done by a tiny minority of American Jews should be the standard is a weak argument at best, and, in this case, the past can really give no guidance to the current situation. I need not note that most children left formal Jewish education at around age 13, many girls did not receive such education, and the economic status of Jews and non-Jews alike was vastly different than today. I would assume that Dr. Katz would not argue to return to 1930’s Jewry.

As well, the proposal that there are too many “extras” in Jewish day schools today, is vapid at best. No parent wants his or her children to have a second-rate Jewish education. The attraction of Jewish days schools around the country is that one can obtain this education on par with the best of the secular schools. Surely, there is no argument about this, hence the almost silliness of the “no frills” approach.

I also strongly disagree with the near mantra that the answer is government support. This is wrong on many levels. It is not the government’s or our non-Jewish or non-religious neighbor’s problem that we choose to send our children to a Jewish school. Tax dollars should not be used for our religious requirements, because if they are then they will be used for others religious needs that we may not feel so comfortable with, or in fact could be outright hostile to our community. It is also very bad public policy; we need to be concerned for all of society, as everyone – including the Orthodox community – is handicapped when there are bad public schools. One could point to several cities around the United States to illustrate this.

Although I do not disagree with Rabbi Weil’s idea of spreading the cost of education from the parents to the entire community, I would point out that in 19th century Germany the gemeinde (community) had – not really a charity fund – but rather a tax fund that the German government administered to the various religious entities. One controversial act of the late Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was his splitting the community by petitioning the government to establish a separate Orthodox gemeinde.

What needs to happen is realignment of priorities among Jewish organizations in this country. If day school education is truly the priority then the funding needs to go with this. Perhaps, one idea is for the Orthodox Union to lead the way. Let the Union support one teacher in every Modern Orthodox school in the nation. If the salary of one teacher in every school were removed from the budget, this would make a significant impact. Other organizations could follow suit, each funding one or more teachers in the school. The idea being that schools are funded nationally, not only locally, with concrete funds to support education.

Blaming the parents, blaming the schools and asking the government to pay are not answers for our own internal problem. Only we as a nation can solve the education dilemma, but this will mean many national organizations will need to begin funding education directly. Perhaps, all the money used to attempt to (futilely) obtain government support could start funding teachers in the schools today.

Dr. Irwin K. Weiss is a Professor of Pediatrics at David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA

To view more content on the subject of education, please visit the OU’s site on Day School Affordability

To obtain more information on OU Challenge Grants, please visit: Day School Affordability Solutions

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.