A Crisis Deeper than Just Tuition

It’s hard to be a Jew. This classic refrain has spilled off the lips of Jews throughout the ages as they struggled through the worst of predicaments. Sometimes, they faced outright physical persecution and feared for their lives. Other times, Jews were pressured into giving up their religion by working on Shabbat or by otherwise assimilating into the native culture. By the standards of the past, being Jewish in twenty-first century America is not so difficult. The constitutional right to freedom of religion allows Jews to worship freely, and other laws criminalize religious discrimination in the workplace. Orthodox Jews of yesteryear would have enviously looked at the ease with which American Jews live their lives as completely religious people, never thinking that there could be a difficulty lurking behind the seemingly perfect veneer of contemporary American Orthodoxy. Yet, many of today’s Orthodox parents would likely respond emphatically by paraphrasing Jimmy McMillan: “Tuition is too damn high.”

The yeshivah day-school system, combining both limmudei kodesh and secular studies under a single roof, is a symbol of the reconciliation of Jewish life with American culture. The cost of providing this dual-curriculum education has skyrocketed, making it possibly the largest expense for Orthodox parents in this faltering economy. In order to cope with this challenge, some have turned away from the ideals which we aim to teach our children. They respond to the problem in increasingly negative ways instead of acting with derekh erets and hakarat ha-tov to the institutions and people who have taken upon themselves this most important responsibility of educating the next generation.

The core function of the yeshivah system is the teaching of Torah. The father delegates his responsibility of “Ve-limmadtem otam et beneikhem” 1 to the professionally trained educators. A father is also required to teach his children a profession, as well as how to swim for survival.2 At first glance, all that the yeshivah does is formalize these two requirements, with the limmudei kodesh portion of the school-day corresponding to the former obligation, whereas the secular studies component corresponds to the latter two.3 However, the yeshivah also teaches children Jewish values. Sometimes this may be in a formal setting, such as learning about the mitsvot bein adam le-havero or, for older children, Rambam’s Hilkhot De’ot, topics of interpersonal relationships subsumed within the halakhic system. But at other times, children learn from watching people interact with each other and with God. Rabbis and teachers are role models from whom we hope children glean some sense of what it means to be a Jew.

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch outlines an educational theory in his work, Horeb, whichemphasizes two central tenets: the importance of teaching Jewish values through living those values, and the responsibility of a parent to actively contribute to all aspects of his or her children’s education.4 The current communal response to the tuition crisis reveals an abdication of both of these values, which may constitute a bigger problem than the crisis itself.

R. Hirsch does not promote this methodology at the expense of the traditional talmud Torah curriculum, but feels it necessary to highlight additional components of Jewish education. One might think that when a parent delegates responsibility for a child’s education to professionals, he or she is able to stand back and watch without taking any role in that child’s development. R. Hirsch warns against this complacency by clarifying that “even if [the father] lets the greater part of [education] be carried out by the school he should not forget that the school is only an instrument and that, even when he has handed over to the school, the duty still remains with him of watching over the progress of his child and assisting it where and as he can.”5 With this in mind, R. Hirsch gives numerous examples of ways in which a father must educate his child in the moral aspects of life; for example, “Habituate him early to obedience, to sacrifice his own satisfaction and enjoyment for something higher… Teach him early… to love and respect God’s children.”6

The parent must continue to play a role in his or her child’s education. Sometimes this comes through the daily grind of reviewing that day’s new material or helping with homework, both for Torah and secular studies. While these actions constitute a more formal participation in a child’s education, a parent’s behavior is just as crucial in helping the child learn what is and is not the correct way to live life. “But do you know the great instrument which you have in your hands for giving him this training? Your own example! In the life of his parents the child sees the picture of what will one day be his own life, and he copies it eagerly and quickly.”7 R. Hirsch draws attention to the parent’s silent role in formulating the moral backbone of his or her child’s life. What is learned in school “must be like another room fitted into your house,”8 but is not the only and perhaps not even the most important element in a child’s Jewish education.

A parent’s attitude filters down to his or her children. R. Hirsch focuses on the positive values which a parent can bequeath to a child by acting in a certain way. I am concerned that there are negative values being drawn out by the tuition crisis which may also be passed down to children and have disastrous consequences for the Orthodox community. Certainly, as someone who is not yet paying tuition, I cannot completely sympathize with the financial difficulties of raising children in the Orthodox community. The tuition crisis is undoubtedly a very real challenge faced by Modern Orthodox Jewry, and much hard work remains before it can be resolved. Nevertheless, the way that some in our community have responded to the tuition crisis seems to contradict this basic but incredibly important learning-by-example element of Jewish education.

An analysis of some of the numerous different proposals and strategies that have been set forth in order to help combat the rapid rise of tuition for Jewish day-schools reveals some of these disturbing tendencies. The most extreme plans involve leaving the yeshivah system behind altogether. Some parents have begun to send their children to public schools, with tutoring or a classical “Talmud Torah” providing religious instruction. A number of charter schools teaching Hebrew language, which have either opened in recent years or plan to open in the coming years, have attracted Orthodox parents opting out of the yeshivah system.9 Some critics have unfairly ostracized all parents who make this presumably difficult choice or classified them as not frum. There are obviously situations when the right choice is to take a child out of yeshivah. However, even assuming that tutoring provides public or charter school children with the same Torah background and knowledge as their yeshivah peers is, at best, a skeptical proposition, considering that the yeshivah students are spending far more time on Torah subjects. Many parents who leave the day-school system because of the tuition crisis are giving their children a message that a Torah education in a full-time Jewish environment is not as important when it becomes difficult to pay tuition and continue to live a comfortable suburban lifestyle. Children see when material desires such as vacations take precedence over Jewish education.

Parents often assume that whatever Jewish educational values are missed because their children are not in yeshivah can easily be compensated for at home. However, the core value that a Jewish life requires mesirut nefesh, self-sacrifice, is undermined by this entire enterprise. When a child sees that the parent will not sacrifice for Torah education, he or she will feel less likely to make sacrifices for Judaism later in life. To be fair, one cannot use this as a perfect predictor of future religious success. Some yeshivah children will “go off the derekh” (leave Orthodox observance) and some public school children will not. However, parents’ attitude towards self-sacrifice will likely have an effect on their children’s future behavior.

As parents have increasingly more difficulty paying tuition, they raise questions about how their schools operate. These questions largely center on issues of efficiency- whether or not the school can provide the same education at a smaller cost. Parents critique school policy and wonder if they should be getting more bang for their buck. Some look back to their own younger days and remember schools with far fewer administrators, larger class sizes, and the simplicity of chalk and blackboard, while wondering whether today’s students really need layers of administrators overseeing their Smartboard-using teachers. Others wonder whether the schools should really be closed on days like erev yom tov when two working parents have difficulty taking off from work. Some criticize the proliferation of resource or enrichment work for children who would benefit from such programming. Another common complaint revolves around those who receive scholarships and what kind of lifestyle they should be living. The list of questions is endless but not necessarily baseless. The skyrocketing of tuition makes obvious that not every perk, as educationally beneficial as it may be, is necessarily sustainable. However, the manner in which some parents ask these questions reveals what seems to be a far greater issue than purely the dollars and cents going to the schools. Basic middot, such as derekh erets and hakarat ha-tov, go by the wayside as some parents mercilessly and viciously attack the schools and those who work for them.

A (perhaps) extreme example of this phenomenon is the Bergen County Yeshiva Tuition Blog, also known as the 200K Chump Blog.10 Methodologically, it may be unfair to focus on this particular medium, as those who tend to comment on blogs are often the most emotionally invested in a particular issue and thus may have stronger feelings about it. Nevertheless, I am concerned that this attitude is a real problem throughout the community at large. Many of those who comment on the blog are venomous towards those with whom they may disagree regarding the operation of the schools. For example, one recent commentator felt it necessary to use profanity to express his disagreement with the schools being closed on erev Rosh ha-Shanah. Many comment threads include attacks on administrators and teachers whom they believe are excessively compensated and do not do enough work. Those who attempt to defend the existing schools are derided as “legacy hacks.”11 Some local schools have been able to reduce tuition slightly because of communal programs or government funds, which have been made available for security and energy improvements, but were criticized for not doing enough. I am not the only one to notice the strident tone of the commenters on this website; one prominent principal pointed this out in a guest post on the blog.12

When children see their parent’s negative attitude, not just toward the schools but also the vicious and often ad hominem attacks on people in general, they subconsciously learn to react similarly. The questions raised by the blogging critics of the yeshivot may be legitimate but the way that they are asked makes me worry about what will be for the future of the Jewish people. As hard as tuition may be to pay, people haveno license to be nasty to anyone, let alone those who work tirelessly to educate their children.

There is no question that the high cost of tuition is a major problem facing today’s Modern Orthodox community. When people are getting priced out of providing quality Jewish educations for their children, it becomes time to reassess the system. Legitimate questions can and should be asked about the way that the yeshivah day-school system operates. However, the response to the tuition crisis should be one rooted in what our educational system is meant to teach: Torah and middot. These two pillars of Judaism seem to get ignored when people react viciously with regards to the schools which they have entrusted to teach their children. The response should not be one of accusation or of abandonment; it should be one of working together to make things better. Just as Rome was not built in a day, so too tuition will not come crashing down right away. But when parents act with such unabashed negativity towards the very people and institutions to which they give the great responsibility of education, children notice and could easily begin to take on the very same harmful attitudes. If this continues as it is, the tuition crisis has the potential to balloon into a far deeper and existential one as children see their parents behave in a way that is antagonistic to the sweet ways of the Torah and inculcate those pernicious beliefs into their own characters.

Moshe Karp is a senior at YC majoring in Jewish Studies, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.

1  Devarim 6:7.

2  Kiddushin 29a-b.

3  For the purposes of this piece, I am only presenting the minimalist approach to secular studies. For a more maximalist view, see Norman Lamm, Torah Umadda : The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition (Northvale, N.J: Jason Aronson, 1990).

4  Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb; A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observations, transl. by Isidor Grunfeld (London: Soncino Press, 1962), 412-416.

5  Ibid. 415.

6  Ibid. 412.

7  Ibid. 413.

8  Ibid. 415.

9  Julie Wiener, “The Ben Gamla Boom,” The Jewish Week. 23 Aug. 2011.

10  Bergen County Yeshiva Tuition Blog, available at: http://200kchump.blogspot.com.

11  See, for example, “Schools, Technology, Test Scores, and the New York Times,” Bergen County Yeshiva Tuition Blog, 8 Sept. 2011.

12  Eliyahu Teitz, “Chump Blog Exclusive: Guest Post From Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz (JEC-Elizabeth),” Bergen County Yeshiva Tuition Blog, 16 Aug. 2011.