Thursday, July 02, 2020

What our community has termed the “day school tuition crisis” may seem intractable. But our community is not a poor one, and communal and para-communal organizations raise millions of dollars from it for various programs and services here and in Israel. The open secret that is the answer to this paradox is that the Orthodox community does not contribute a large percentage of its charitable pie to day schools.

It seems the Jewish community has been taken in by the liberal capitalism ethos of the United States, and just like any business is free to compete, so too organizations are free to compete for charitable dollars, with little to no oversight or pushback. Further, people in the Orthodox community do not contribute to day schools because they, day school parents or alumni themselves, look at their relationship with day schools, at best, largely on an arm’s-length basis, like any capitalist venture. They protest minor issues like “efficiency” when day schools that provide a double curriculum frequently charge less tuition than public schools receive per student.

Additionally, the Orthodox community has increasingly lost touch with the broader Jewish community and reaches out to the secular government for assistance before its Jewish brethren, even though 30% of the Forbes 400 are Jewish. Finally, there is no national brand to consolidate fundraising, hire fundraisers, or attract funding from donors who are not current family members.

I propose for Jewish community leaders to push community members to provide the “lion’s share” of their charitable contributions to day schools or day school-supporting organizations. One reason that day schools should take precedence is because currently there are many devout Orthodox individuals who do not believe they can afford to have more than three or perhaps four children, specifically due to the cost of day school education. That belief, however much anyone would wish to attack it, is not irrational. Yes, there are some people who simply do not believe they are emotionally capable of having more children, and others who are just not interested in doing so, but we should do what we can to encourage people to have more children in our own community, without finances interfering in the decision.

I believe that Orthodox individuals would donate to day schools given a strong communal push, and the right vehicle with the right branding could attract very significant funding from non-Orthodox as well. Some will argue that the laissez-faire nature of the community that has created competition among organizations is intractable and cannot be fixed. Considering how communal organizations lobbying governmental bodies for funding for day schools are seeking to overturn decades, if not centuries, of practice in the U.S., it is strange to argue that that is possible, but that reorganizing charitable giving cannot be done.

I propose the creation of a centralized North American organization to distribute funding to day schools.

If the community is pushed to send their charitable giving to the day school board, day school finances can become stabilized. Moreover, the “arm’s length” feeling that stops day school parents and alumni from donating will be eliminated with a national organization, while people will always be able to direct resources toward specific schools or donate directly if they so wish.

The branding, platform, professionalism and energy that the board will bring to Jewish education will encourage donors, even those without school-age children and even non-Orthodox individuals, to donate to schools. The board is a strong concept that can be marketed as an organization, directly ensuring the continuity of the Jewish people more than any other. Today, there is no way for day schools to fundraise efficiently from Jews outside of the geographic and ideological communities they serve, and it makes little sense for such individuals to pick one school over another even if they wanted to donate. The board provides the vehicle.

The board would immediately distribute almost all funds raised in one year to institutions, and require that funding to reduce tuition for all students dollar-for-dollar. The simplicity of the mission distinguishes the board from the attempts to create para-communal organizations to raise money for day schools in the past.

Other organizations, past or present, generally center around a specific geographic community. I believe that this model fails to attract donations from non-Orthodox individuals who do not feel a connection with the local Orthodox community and day schools, and would find a national brand more meaningful.

Additionally, previous attempts generally sought to raise money for “scholarship” funds for families who have voluntarily elected to apply for scholarships on a need basis. I believe this model has failed to attract support, in part, because it fails to directly attack the core issue: that tuition is just too high. This model encourages applying for scholarships and provides no relief for anyone who, due to pride or simply making slightly too much, does not apply for scholarships. A model that aims to execute the goal of lowering tuition costs overall is more likely to attract interest from Orthodox and non-Orthodox individuals alike.

Finally, prior fundraising attempts sought to raise funding on an endowment basis, investing donations and donating the interest to day schools. Like the scholarship model, an endowment model makes the impact more indirect and harder to see for the donor, and also requires raising larger amounts of money to make an impact. I believe that investing in a large team of the best and most dedicated fundraisers, and incentivizing them appropriately, would make it possible to attract significant annual funding.

The phrase “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste” was first used by Paul Romer, an economist, discussing the decrease in educational quality in the United States in relation to other countries. It should also apply to the Orthodox community’s own educational crisis, not in educational quality, but in its cost.

Rabbi O.B. Felsenthal is a yeshiva day school parent and an attorney. He can contacted via the Jewish Link at: [email protected]