‘We have been living beyond our means’

‘We have been living beyond our means’

For all the recent meetings and discussions in Bergen County on Jewish education and yeshiva tuition, I cannot help but feel that we will be left with the painful status quo that will continue to punish Jewish parents for aspiring to provide their children with a Jewish education. Other than talks of “charter schools,” “afterschool Talmud Torah programs,” “communal funds,” and “vouchers,” we have yet to see real results on the ground stemming from any broad communal effort.

The Jewish community has long been spending money with reckless abandon on a wide array of communal and personal priorities. These include: Jewish communal organizations, Israeli settlements, museums, hospitals, political action committees, synagogue expansions, myriad small Jewish charities, and a host of non-Jewish causes. This is coupled with an essential materialistic tendency shared by many in our community: We make gala bar and bat mitzvahs, go away for Passover, travel to Israel at least once a year, and take one exotic vacation a year, and so forth. An inherent peer pressure feeds this cycle of recklessness.

As a community, we have been living beyond our means. We have also have been flattered to be viewed as sources of funding for a diverse set of causes. As a result, we have been blind to a fundamental truth: The wealth of our community is a finite pool, not a bottomless pit. The harsh reality is that every dollar spent outside of the community is a dollar taken away from the community.

Consequently, I believe that we must address our crisis as a community and make difficult decisions together. Communities must build for their futures by investing in their futures. And there is no greater investment than education. Every other cause in America and elsewhere should be subordinate.

As a community we should aspire to provide universally accessible Jewish education available to all streams of Judaism for whoever wants it – religious and secular, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. These programs should not be in the form of afternoon programs, but heavily subsidized community day schools that provide both secular and Jewish studies. We have the economic means to create this opportunity. But it will require the greatest degree of personal and community discipline because it will require us to make difficult decisions on where to spend our money.

I envision the solution to be a communal fund that looks something like a university endowment that, once up and running, will generate adequate interest to subsidize the base tuitions of all students. For Bergen County alone, I would estimate that the endowment would have to be equal to $2 billion.

There are many details that will need to be worked out. The first two that come to mind are: Where will this money come from? How will schools qualify? Obviously, these are big questions that require a communal effort to address, but here are some preliminary thoughts:

Where will the money come from? I imagine that if we looked across the broad spectrum of all of the contributions by Jews in Bergen Country, religious and secular, in a single year to all manner of causes in the United States, Israel, and elsewhere, we would easily identify a sum in the tens if not hundreds of millions. The proposed endowment would have to be seen as the No. 1 priority of the community, and people would have to make difficult decisions that would require redirecting funds that would have gone elsewhere.

How will schools qualify? Jewish schools of all streams and ideologies should benefit from this program, so ideology or religious affiliation should not be a factor. Rather, schools should be measured on compliance with designated tuition standards, efficiency, impact, and need. For example, tuition for elementary school should be capped at a reasonable sum, say, $5,000 per child. All participating schools should be required to submit to an outside audit that looks at efficiency. A day school that is sub-scale in size should be forced to merge with another school of similar ideology (for example, two local Orthodox high schools for girls with small student bodies might be forced to merge). Finally, there would be a grace period for newer programs designed to address unmet needs (for example, a Reform day school), to provide time for them to achieve a critical mass.

Admittedly, this is not a minor aspiration or a small idea. But the current crisis calls for grand efforts. Within our community we have the need, we have the skills, and we have the funds. The key question is: Do we have the will and the communal and personal self-discipline?