Seeking a 21st-century WPA-style ‘New Deal’ for Jewish families

Seeking a 21st-century WPA-style ‘New Deal’ for Jewish families

Like many, I have read with interest in recent weeks as a conversation on the topic of “tuition cost” has finally taken hold on these pages. Thanks to The Jewish Standard as well as Rabbi Shmuel Goldin for providing the spark for this needed conversation. It is encouraging to see this issue starting to receive the attention it deserves.

It’s hard to argue with much of what has been written. Indeed, this tuition crisis is one that predated our current economic meltdown. For a long time, we have been mired in a system that requires most of its participants to be in the top percent of income-earners. It is an economic model that is simply unsustainable. It is broken.

It is heartening to see that a variety of good-faith solutions are being discussed and proposed. The solutions outlined are all reasonable. For example, there must be a shifting of the burden of educating children from a parental one to a communal one. Moreover, schools are already engaging in a re-examination of their cost structures. Finally, a broader and more inclusive notion of community must be discussed and established on a range of issues – not just that of tuition relief. In our best tradition, solutions seem to be on the way.

Having said all this, however, I share Rabbi Goldin’s fear that we are “moving too slowly to answer needs confronting our families today.”

There is an immediate and real threat to our families and to our community.

As we all seem to still be reeling from the present economic crisis, this calamity is but the most recent blow being endured by middle-class parents of day-school students. To us, crisis is nothing new. Many of us have long been living paycheck to paycheck. Tuition has left virtually nothing to save for unforeseen emergencies, family smachot, college education, and retirement. And not surprisingly, relationships between husbands and wives have been strained discussing the value of a Jewish education at the expense of everything else. And this was all happening during the “good old days” before we came to know John Thain, AIG, and Bernie Madoff.

But we are not merely consumers. In reality, we are part of important community within our Jewish community – a community, however, now threatened. Long priced out, we have hung in there, hoping that common sense would prevail to help re-vision a system that could educate and promote Jewish continuity and a greater sense of community while also protecting a squeezed middle class.

Some claim that a Jewish day-school education is a luxury – especially in these tough times. In reality, the strength and benefits from these schools accrue not just to attending families. Vibrant Jewish day schools lie at the center of the greater Jewish community. They are philosophical beacons and practical resources to Jewish educators, Jewish families, and this larger community. They are family-friendly places providing leadership to Jewish families whether their children are enrolled at the schools or not.

Moreover, a Solomon Schechter school is the only non-Orthodox option to families seeking an education where the secular meets the Jewish (and that includes proposed “charter schools”).

A Jewish education such as the kind provided at a Schechter school runs to the core of who we are and what we seek to instill in our kids. It also runs to the core of what we are or are not as a community.

For a long time our community has been troubled by trends in Jewish life. We have often spoken of the need of living Jewish lives, while it has become increasingly difficult to actually do so.

The issue of the cost of living Jewishly is not limited to day-school education – it is part of a larger question on what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century and finding ways to support individuals, families, and the greater community as we wrestle with just what this means. It’s about belonging to a shul , a Y/JCC, keeping kosher, b’nai mitzvah, Jewish summer activities, and tzedakah in all its forms. And let’s not forget how important it is for Jewish continuity that our kids experience Israel.

But that is part of that longer range discussion that I trust will work itself out over time.

In the meantime, let’s talk about the right now.

Most individuals and institutions have said and done the right things. Many rabbis and congregations have gone to great lengths to mobilize support for member-families whose children attend day schools.

However, these generous efforts have left many without such “sponsors” – especially those who have been unable to afford to join a shul, have yet to find “their” shul community, or just lack wealthy relatives to make up the difference.

At at least one school, parents are being told to seek immediate help from family, friends, and community.

I write to mobilize support for a Community Temporary Emergency Tuition Relief Fund. This emergency fund would exist only until such time that schools and the broader community are able to adequately create and support a structure that pushes us towards the quality and excellence we all desire, while also protecting a distressed and threatened Jewish middle class.

It’s an idea that is in place in many Jewish communities, but for some reason has not found a place here.

There are so many challenges to our psyche as well as our wallets these days. Our Jewish communities are uniquely situated to provide strength, support, and appropriate relief.

Our future can be exciting and robust – there can and should be more and affordable Jewish schooling and community options – if we can only get past our present.

In today’s environment is this thought a luxury? Can we afford to do this, you ask? But before answering please take a moment to ask, can we afford not to?