Over the past few decades, we have been so intent on celebrating our achievements in Jewish education that we have effectively ignored a critical concern looming on the horizon – the skyrocketing cost of Jewish day school tuition. For too long the cost of education has been borne by a select few, the parents of our community’s students. As a result, a vicious cycle has emerged. The high quality that we have demanded and gained for our children has pushed the cost of their education higher and higher, forcing a great number of families onto scholarship rolls. Then, the increased financial burden upon the school budgets – created by inflation, further educational advancements, and greater scholarship needs – has caused tuition to rise even higher, compelling even more families to apply for financial assistance.
We have closed our eyes to the problem. In the creation of our exceptional day-school system, we have not seriously heeded the warnings of those who have pointed to the price tag and to the burden being placed upon our families. Every now and then, some have raised red flags, while others have joked that day-school tuition is the best form of Jewish birth control. As a community, however, we have done nothing substantive about the issue. Instead of finding ways to make day schools attractive options for those still “sitting on the fence,” we have allowed tuition to rise to the point where even those firmly committed to day school education find it harder and harder to pay the bill. As a result, this critical concern has now become a crisis. The cost of educating our children, for many, has reached unsustainable rates, particularly in the present economic climate.
The fault lies with us all: rabbis, schools, community agencies, and the community at large.
Two events last week within my own Englewood community underscored the dimensions of the crisis. The first, at Ahavath Torah, was another in a series of unprecedented meetings of representatives of local day schools. Issues such as shared cost-cutting, shared fund-raising, the establishment of a communal fund for Jewish education, educating the community at large to its educational responsibilities, and others were all on the table. Additional meetings have also been held with representatives of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey aimed towards the establishment of a communal educational “superfund.” There is a general recognition that the present equation cannot work. Somehow the cost of Jewish education cannot rest only on the shoulders of the parents of students but must be shared by the community at large.
The second event was a public meeting with representatives of the Englewood schools to discuss the creation of a Hebrew immersion track within the public school system. Hebrew language and culture would be taught along with secular studies during regular school hours and an optional after-school program would be created for religious education. While many predicted that only a small few would attend this meeting, I expected a large crowd. I was not wrong. Hundreds of interested parents from our community and beyond crowded the assembly room, many of them parents of current day-school students. The huge attendance was the clearest indication possible of the tremendous financial pain that many of our families are currently experiencing and of their willingness to consider educational alternatives for their children.
I believe that, like the Israelites standing on the banks of the Sea of Reeds, we have reached a watershed moment (pun intended) in the area of Jewish education.
I believe that we must take stock and then move forward, cogently and carefully.
Programs such as the one being considered by the Englewood public schools are a welcome addition to the educational tapestry of our Jewish community. Such efforts will potentially attract new students who have not, in the past, been candidates for day schools and will provide resources for those students who cannot be accommodated for within the day-school system. These programs will also provide alternatives for some who have felt that they simply cannot afford day-school tuition.
There is, however, a substantial danger. These programs cannot be allowed to undermine the day-school system for which we have labored so long and so hard. Make no mistake: There simply is no substitute for day school education. Our day schools have been the single greatest factor combating assimilation within our community. We sometimes forget the vast majority of American Jews who are disappearing around us.
We must recognize as well that over the years the after-school Talmud Torah model has generally proven to be an abysmal failure. While there are certainly many exceptions, scores of children who went through the Talmud Torah system emerged with extremely negative attitudes concerning their experiences and concerning Judaism itself. The establishment of Solomon Schechter schools by the Conservative movement, after years of opposing day-school education, is a clear indication of the bankruptcy of the Talmud Torah system. It stands to reason that any program that educates its students after school, when other students have already been dismissed, and on Sundays, when other students are off, is working against nearly insurmountable odds.
I would plead with any parent within this community or elsewhere to think carefully before leaving day schools behind. The education of our children remains the single most important aspect of our lives, more important than the vacations and other luxuries that we have come to see as our due. While other options are financially tempting and may offer extra services that even the best day schools cannot, the personal, social, and religious cost of placing our children in a public school setting, relinquishing much of the control of their formal and informal education to others, will be exorbitantly high. I would ask any family that is thinking of leaving the day-school system to speak with me or other community representatives. In cases of real need, we will move heaven and earth to try to help you afford to stay.
All this said, everything now depends upon the day schools themselves and the community at large. Will we take this crisis seriously? I’m deeply frightened that we’re going to move too slowly to answer the needs confronting our families today. We are already playing catch-up.
Unless a concerted effort is made to change the equation; unless we find a way to fund Jewish education communally, through mega-funds, kehilla taxes, governmental grants or subsidies, and the like; unless the schools themselves find creative ways to work together and cut costs; we may well witness a severe weakening of an educational system toward which we had worked so assiduously and so long.
We stand on the banks of the Sea of Reeds. We must take this moment seriously. The choices we make will determine our children’s and our nation’s future.