The article below first appeared in Ami Magazine on August 21, 2011. It is also available in PDF format: Ami_Magazine,_Op-Ed.pdf
I’ll never forget a phone call I received from a wonderful man in Suffolk County, New York. He had two teenage daughters in public school. They had become involved in the OU/JSU public school outreach program, and every week their appreciation for Judaism increased and grew at a rapid pace. Both of their parents were pleasantly surprised, and encouraged the girls to continue in their quest for the true meaning of Jewish life.
One day, their father called me. He said, “While I am grateful for your program and thrilled that my daughters are now proud Jews, you have a product that I can’t afford.”
I asked him what he meant.
He responded, “I can’t afford to live in an Orthodox community and send my girls to yeshiva, based on my current income.”
I was heartbroken. Although we had achieved the goal of instilling the spirit of Judaism into these wonderful girls, because of finances they would not be able to receive a Torah education. I wondered how many other families were in the same situation.
I almost questioned the objective of our program, or even any kiruv program, if our product was only affordable to the top five percent of American wage earners.
This problem, of course, is not limited to the baal teshuva community but rather has severe ramifications for the entire frum world. Is there a mode of living that we can afford? Or will Orthodox Judaism be unattainable for our children and grandchildren? What are the alternatives?
We can either feel frustrated and hopeless and give up, or we can use creativity and ingenuity to find solutions.
We at the Orthodox Union have embarked on a multi-dimensional approach to alleviate the insurmountable financial burdens, and thus restore the simchas hachaim (joy of life) that is threatened in our community.
The biggest issue is yeshiva tuition. We are attacking this problem at the federal, legislative, political, and communal levels. We are leaving no stone unturned until we and other organizations like the Agudah and Yeshiva University explore every feasible option. We are working with national school choice organizations, as well as the Catholic Church, as our partners. We must find a solution, but it will take time, money, and patience. I believe we will make significant progress in the next few years.
One of the solutions we expect is that the funding of secular education in yeshivos will be paid for by the city, state, or federal government. The money must follow the student, and every student by law has the right to a secular education.
At the same time, we have to look at existing opportunities for Orthodox Jewish life to thrive at less cost. During my tenure as president of the OU, from November 2004 until January 2011, and during the current administration of my good friend and outstanding communal leader, Dr. Simcha Katz, we have begun to work on this problem.
My wife and I have had the good fortune to travel to almost 50 Jewish communities around the country, and we have seen that there is thriving Jewish life outside the Tristate area. The major Jewish communities are well-known: Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, Miami, etc. Many have the same problems that exist in the New York area, including high housing costs and expensive tuition. But we have also found that there are gems out there, Jewish communities that have a high quality of life, yet also feature affordable housing, an excellent yeshiva system, and a simchas hachaim that is challenged in larger communities.
Based upon my visits to these communities, we organized an emerging-community fair in New York. Every year, representatives of 30 communities come together on a Sunday to showcase what they have to offer. Each year, over 1,000 people attend the fair, looking for alternate living options. We are certainly proud to be pioneers in this endeavor.
But that is just the beginning. We are working now to identify four model communities that will become viable options outside of the Tri-state area.
These model communities must possess four basic components:
– First, a community must possess the basic infrastructure: shuls, mikvahs, a yeshiva environment, access to kosher shopping, an eruv, and kosher restaurants.
– Second, it must have serious opportunities for employment at all levels. Without jobs, we will not be successful in encouraging people to move.
– Third, it must be a warm, caring and cohesive community that offers financial incentives for people to move; it must have affordable housing and education; and the community has to be willing to engage in outreach as unaffiliated Jews become attracted to their synagogues.
– Fourth, there has to be stability in rabbinic, educational, and lay leadership. Why invest in a community if its rabbinic leadership changes every few years?
Do such communities exist? Absolutely.
Have we identified any yet? Yes. We have a short list of 10 communities that meet the criteria.
Over the next few months we will select our first model city, then we will add two more next year, and one the following year.
We will invest considerable resources to make certain that these communities are viable and will provide real options for frum families. We are working on a 12-step plan to help families move to those communities, and to help develop strong kiruv programs.
I anticipate that if I ever receive a call from a parent saying that he cannot afford to be an Orthodox Jew, I will be able to direct him to a place where his family can afford to be Orthodox, and simchas hachaim will return.
I am optimistic that we will be successful in our endeavor. These are challenging but exciting times. I am convinced that with innovative and creative strategies, working together, k’ish echad b’lev echad—as one man with one heart—we will provide new opportunities for the frum world.
Steve Savitsky is the chairman of the board and former president of the Orthodox Union.