Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Tuition Conundrum

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Yeshivos are in crisis. With the economy in decline, parents are strapped, barely making ends meet, and steadily falling behind in their tuition payments. With donations and financial support drying up, today’s yeshivos, many of which have been struggling for years, are in a worse financial bind than ever.

Torah chinuch is the very lifeblood of the Jewish people. To continue flourishing in this country, we must find a way to maintain our yeshivos. Far from existing in a vacuum, these challenges are tied to the broader picture of where this country is heading under the present administration.

End Of A Golden Era?

Could it be that we are seeing the end of the golden era for Jews in America? It’s been a very comfortable golus in the country by and large, and many of us have become complacent. We’ve taken many things for granted. We assumed that the U.S. government would always support Israel and that it would always protect its citizens’ best interests. We began to take for granted that we would always be afforded the maximum opportunity to become, through hard work and siyata dishmaya, an American success story.

Today, as the economy of this blessed country teeters, the present administration appears determined to overhaul the dynamics that have enabled the country to prosper for so many years.

The new policies do not auger well for the nation or its citizens. Many of our businesses and incomes depend on a healthy competitive private sector. If the administration presses ahead with its agenda of imposing heavy new taxes, not only will it set back the economy’s revival, but more of our incomes will be siphoned off to finance an ever-expanding government.

As incomes shrink, we’ll find it increasingly difficult to maintain our present lifestyle and standard of living, even things which we consider imperative to our lives. For the Torah community, that includes the support of yeshivos.

Some have estimated that a family living in the New York area requires a minimum income of $250,000 just to break even, and that is no exaggeration. What are people to do? It is not uncommon for people to have tuition bills in the $40-60,000 range. What percentage of our community earns $250,000? How can people be expected to come up with that kind of money without going into serious debt?

An Irreplaceable Partnership

In better times, our elementary schools relied heavily on their parent bodies for financing. Fundraising efforts, from dinners to teas and Chinese Auctions, primarily targeted the parent body. Most schools didn’t invest time and effort in cultivating friends outside the yeshiva for larger donations, unless there was a building campaign underway. With parents capable of covering the lion’s share of yeshiva budgets, there was little outreach to the broader Jewish community.

Unfortunately, schools began taking parents for granted and became less responsive to their needs. Because of the overflow of students, administrations did not feel the need to accommodate parents, to work with them as a team, or to include them in important educational decisions. At times an adversarial relationship developed. People who expressed dissatisfaction with any aspect of their child’s education were advised to go elsewhere.

As long as times were good and the money was flowing, the system worked more or less effectively in yeshivos and day schools on the east coast. Today, the status quo has changed. With parents falling behind in tuition, and income from dinners and Chinese Auctions drying up, yeshivos are operating at huge deficits. Both sides are paying the price for years of mistrust.

Parents are critical of schools that they perceive to be operating like mini-fiefdoms and dictatorships, with no regard for the wishes and needs of the parent body. They feel no obligation to schools that are run in this manner. They have no compunctions about shirking responsibility when it comes to supporting this kind of school.

When the tuition bill arrives, it is brushed aside, or else parents seek to bargain down the price because they don’t view the school as their representative in educating their child. The schools, desperate for funds, are not interested in negotiation. They squeeze the parents for additional money, even threatening to send home their children unless full payment is received. This policy has further alienated and embittered many parents.

The constant drip-drip of oft-repeated lashon horah and tales of machlokes involving some schools have had a deep impact, leading to an overall erosion of trust in these schools and tainting the reputation of their leaders.

This sad state of affairs has all but obscured some very fundamental truths. To begin with, the job of teaching children Torah ideally rests with parents. The job of chinuch is one of a Jewish parent’s most sacred responsibilities. Schools are at best shluchim—honorable agents whose duty is to fulfill parental obligations.

In essence, parents and mechanchim are intended to be partners in raising healthy, intelligent children who will develop into responsible, caring, observant Torah Jews.

Before any of the problems confronting our schools can be tackled, a sense of partnership must be returned to the education system, whereby each side exercises their obligation to the other, with the student’s welfare always the foremost consideration.

If we don’t arrive at a solution to the pressing problems facing us, they are bound to worsen. Rabbeim and Moros won’t be paid, and no one in their right mind will go into chinuch. Yeshivos will crumble under mounting piles of debt.

No Magic Answers

Several years ago I had the occasion to speak to Binyomin Netanyahu. I asked him what he viewed as the solution to the Arab-Israeli problem and how he proposed to bring an end to the decades-long state of war between Israel and its enemies.

His response had a great deal of truth to it—and is indeed applicable to many of life’s dilemmas. He answered that not every problem has a solution. He didn’t have any magic answers to the Middle East conundrum; he said that sometimes you have to wait years for things to realign themselves in a way that would enable a viable solution to take place.

Granted there are no pat, immediate solutions to many of the problems we face in our community. But perhaps it is time that we at least begin to call the problems by their actual names. For too long we have been getting away with avoiding the real issues. We have avoided saying the truth because we couldn’t bear the thought of slaying anyone’s sacred cows. We have all played along for fear of rocking the boat and being ostracized.

When a society can’t honestly face its problems and manages to keep the status quo by scaring its members into submission, it is a sure sign that moral rot has set in. Unless stopped, the decay will eventually undermine the society’s very foundations.

We must ensure that such a fate doesn’t befall our community. We posses the collective intelligence and ability to honestly analyze where we are going wrong, and to figure out how to rectify and remedy our ills. We know that self-delusion and skewed thinking are the tools of the weak.

Support Vouchers!

On a practical and political level, there is much we can do. People in our communities should be conditioned to vote only for political candidates who promise to work for the legalization of vouchers which can be used towards paying yeshiva tuition. When will we ever learn that voting Democrat is against our best interests? When will people realize that if they vote for the tax-and-spend party, that choice will backfire in their faces? It will end up draining their own pockets of money intended for their family’s upkeep, and for the education of their children.

People have to be educated not to fall for the lies politicians tell during the election season. Papers such as ours should publish report cards on incumbents, based on how they voted on issues directly affecting our way of life. People who promise one thing and deliver another should be voted out of office, in favor of principled supporters of private education, tax breaks, and a decent moral climate.

A summit should be convened of the best frum minds in the country to analyze where we are and where we are headed and to try to come up with rational, reliable solutions to the vexing problem facing us.

To raise esteem for our institutions, a massive public relations campaign should be undertaken to explain the basis of the schools and the reasons they ought to command our respect. Recalling the heroic work Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz began when he campaigned to convince people of the need of Hebrew Day Schools in the 1940s, a similar battle cry is needed today. People have to be reminded of the obviously vital role Torah schools serve in guaranteeing the Jewish future.

Executive Directors should cultivate support for their schools among the broader Jewish community, much as was done in the early nascent days of the Day School movement.

If we truly appreciated the priceless value of Torah education, our schools wouldn’t be in a financial hole today. Shalom Torah centers wouldn’t be gasping for breath. Shuvu wouldn’t be on the verge of closing down six schools engaged in educating the next generation of Israeli youth.

The confused value system that relegates our children’s chinuch to a low rung on our order of priorities must be changed. Instead of being treated as an unwelcome burden or an afterthought, the support of our children’s yeshivos, and of yeshivos educating other Jewish children, must be our supreme concern.

Torah is the Jewish people’s oxygen. Chinuch is our very essence. Let us stretch our material and spiritual resources to the utmost and if possible, make the necessary sacrifices. For the sake of our beloved children, let us rally our forces for change before it is too late.


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