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Opinion: Make day school affordability a priority

August 31, 2011 | 11:41 am

One of the most daunting challenges facing Jewish communities in North America is the high cost of living an Orthodox lifestyle. Particularly in these difficult economic times, when so many are either unemployed or underemployed, the financial demands seem overwhelming.

The No. 1 expense for most traditionally observant families is, of course, tuition. The day school tuition crisis is no longer something that looms on the distant horizon; it has arrived. The Avi Chai Foundation’s most recent census indicates an across-the-board enrollment drop of 3 percent.

Consider a family with four children earning $200,000 a year. Only 3.5 percent of Americans earn more, yet such families are having difficulty paying tuition bills that typically exceed their mortgage obligations.

Our schools are under enormous pressure as they struggle to deliver a high-quality Torah and secular education to our children. The stress factor is filtering down to families; it deteriorates “simchat hachayim” (joy of living) and erodes “shalom bayit” (domestic tranquility).

Most troubling is the alarming number of students who are considering the Hebrew language charter school option. It is a sad state of affairs for the Jewish people if a Jewish education is comprised of nothing more than the study of linguistics and culture. Unfortunately, parents are considering this option for strictly financial considerations.

The tuition problem has been decades in the making, and we are now facing a broken and unsustainable system. Our success in dealing with this issue is going to be crucial in determining what Orthodox Judaism in America will look like in 25 years.

It is of critical necessity that the Jewish community demonstrates creativity in dealing with the complex and multifaceted issues and challenges surrounding this crisis. At the outset we should be honest: Generations of Jews have sacrificed in order to educate their children, and we must be willing to follow suit. This is particularly difficult for our generation; many of us have been blessed with prosperity and grown accustomed to living an upper-middle-class lifestyle.

Our grandparents and parents paid tuition, but they rarely if ever took vacations or purchased new vehicles on a regular basis. They lived in small residences that were far more modest than those we live in today. The economic downturn has created a new financial reality for many of us. As such, we need to rethink our lifestyles and reassess our spending habits.

Beyond this, however, we need additional honesty to face the multifaceted and complex issues of this crisis that have been avoided in attempting to maintain the status quo; any call to arms also must include the general community, lay leaders, rabbinate and even the schools themselves.

Schools can and should be held accountable for out-of-control spending and quality of education. The increasingly high administrative and infrastructure costs, which were evolving well before the economic downturn, must be restrained. There is a dire necessity for readjusting financial priorities and fiscal responsibility; we must now ask this of our schools, administrators and boards of directors.

Different community settings present different needs. Providing day schooling for smaller populations versus larger ones creates diverse challenges and cost considerations. Opening multiple schools in close proximity in the name of differing “hashkafot” (personal religious philosophies) now demands critical re-evaluation by communities and parents. Achdut (unity) is a baseline spiritual necessity that comes with cost benefits and economy of scale.

How do we ensure that sustaining our schools becomes a communal responsibility? For starters, we should strongly urge that the majority of one’s charitable giving be kept in the local community and that the majority of those funds be allocated to local schools. Additionally, we should develop a system of communal educational endowment funds in which people leave a small portion of their estates to the local community to assure its viability beyond their lifetimes.

The Orthodox Union recently expanded its efforts to address the tuition challenge by creating a Task Force on Jewish Education Affordability meant to interface with community leaders, institutions, federations and local schools. We also have enlarged the resources of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs, which focuses on legislative initiatives on the state and federal levels aimed at assisting day schools. The institute will continue to advocate forcefully for an array of initiatives, including tax credits for scholarship contributions, state support for busing and special education services, along with other opportunities for various legislative breakthroughs toward tuition relief.

The need to partner with Jewish federations and philanthropic organizations is obvious. The OU will continue to urge their leadership to recognize that Jewish continuity can only be assured through Jewish education. To encourage this response, the OU will accept applications for challenge grants starting this fall. Grants will be awarded to inventive, cutting-edge or novel paradigms that can be implemented, replicated and have broad communal support.

More than 200,000 students are attending Jewish day schools in America, but that number unfortunately is beginning to shrink. Yeshivat Rambam in Baltimore and the Moshe Aaron Yeshiva High School in New Jersey recently closed their doors.

The American Jewish community is perched on a financial precipice. We at the OU—and all those who care about the future of American Orthodoxy—must continue to make day school affordability a priority.

(Dr. Simcha Katz is president of the Orthodox Union.)

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