The Orthodox Union wants to make paying for day school a responsibility of the entire Jewish community to relieve some of the financial burden placed on parents.
Families devoted to day school education pay a minimum tuition of $10,000 per year per child. In some schools, the cost per child can reach as high as $20,000. Add in the country’s economic crisis and multiply by three, four, or five (or more) children per home, as is typical in many Orthodox families, and parents must bear an immense financial burden to give their children Jewish educations.
The O.U. presented 20 possible solutions to stem rising costs at a meeting last week with day-school administrators. On Monday, a conference call between the O.U. and 25 day-school representatives laid the groundwork to begin moving forward.
While not all of the O.U.’s 20 points will be put into effect, Rabbi Saul Zucker, the O.U.’s director of day-school and education services, was confident that at least three of the initiatives will get further attention. Those points call for creating 1. national insurance coverage for day-school faculty; 2. a public relations campaign to raise awareness among non-day school parents of the problem and possible solutions; and 3. donation opportunities through Jewish vendors, similar to supermarket donation programs.
“Right now, Jewish education is overwhelmingly paid for by the user, that is the parents, and secondarily by major donors,” said Zucker, who lives in Teaneck. “We have to have a paradigm shift, and the first step in doing that is really informing the community what’s involved in Jewish education and what the costs are.”
Health insurance is a major issue for yeshivas, said Rabbi Shmuel Goldstein, dean of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge and a participant in Monday’s call. Day schools need good insurance, which can be costly, to attract the right teachers.
“Creating an umbrella that would cover a number of schools would be very positive,” he said.
“If they can manage that, that’d be absolutely fantastic,” said Ceil Olivestone, administrator of Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck. “The school would certainly be willing to participate if it means we save money and have a policy that works.”
Olivestone agreed with the need to expand income sources and the O.U.’s suggestion to look to the wider community, even among families that do not send their children to day schools.
“The community really needs to understand that [Jewish education] is a community-wide obligation,” she said.
Parents have already begun calling TABC about how they have been affected by the financial downturn, and Olivestone expects more calls as the crisis deepens. She did not participate in Monday’s call but did attend last week’s meeting and praised the O.U.’s proposals.
“Some of their suggestions are wonderful,” she said. “It makes you feel a little more secure knowing there’s a national organization aware of the situation trying to help.”
If the O.U. can implement its proposal for national insurance, that would be “a home run,” said Joel Kirschner, executive director of Yavneh Academy in Paramus. Still, it’s only a first step in making Jewish education affordable.
“I do believe it’s time for other national agencies to make this their mantra,” he said. “Jewish education is one of the most effective ways to avoid assimilation and intermarriage. We need more core-based community support for this endeavor to attract new students who aren’t affiliated and keep old students having financial difficulties making it work.”
The country’s economic crisis did not create the financial problems within the day schools, but it did highlight them, which, Zucker said, may be a good thing.
“Unfortunately, sometimes it takes an acute symptom to really get people moving,” he said. “The silver lining of this cloud is we’re all getting together and rethinking some things to make Jewish education run more smoothly.”
The O.U.’s involvement is a good step, but unlikely to solve the entire problem, Goldstein said. The economic downturn has amplified the day schools’ already existing problems and it will take many attempts from different people to completely fix them, he continued.
“I’m very happy that they are trying to take some initiative,” he said.
Another phone conference has been scheduled for Feb. 23. Zucker said he hopes to have the framework for the insurance program within three months, although, he added, it depends on practicality. The public relations campaign, meanwhile, is likely to launch in two months.
“Out of the 20 suggestions, if we implement 10 and they’re effective, the schools are saving a tremendous amount of money,” he said. “Within a week of the summit conference we already scheduled the next conference. We’re moving on it.”