Saturday, May 30, 2020

I’d like to thank those who responded last week in this paper and the over 70 people who corresponded via email in the days following the publication of “A Viral Opportunity” (April 23, 2020). Jon Lamm makes the point (“Seizing a Viral Opportunity,” April 30, 2020) that my OpEd was short on practical suggestions on how we should go about making real changes in our community. He is correct. That was not the intent of my piece. The first step in addressing any issue is to acknowledge that there is a problem, and too many in our community are still not at that stage. I do have some ideas (one of which I will share below) but I certainly don’t have all the answers. The intent of my original piece was to be a wakeup call aimed at getting everyone engaged and primed to get involved and propose their own ideas. Doing nothing will end in disaster. So I applaud Mr. Lamm for proposing some of his own suggestions.

What I would like to address is the letter written by Yosef Rubinstein (“A Viral Opportunity? Not So Simple,” April 30, 2020). To quote the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” I would like to correct several of Mr. Rubinstein’s erroneous claims.

First, Mr. Rubinstein writes: “But lowering tuition and not providing scholarships…” 100% false: Yeshivat He’Atid has given scholarships from day one. I speak with first-hand knowledge, having run the scholarship committee for the first five years of the school’s existence. Since He’Atid’s tuition is 40% lower than the average of the other local day schools, by definition their scholarship needs are far lower than others, which results in easily being able to raise the funds required from donors and not having to charge full-paying parents any additional amount on their tuition line to subsidize others. Not surprisingly, scholarships comprise only approximately 1% of He’Atid’s annual budget, while significantly higher at the other schools.

Second, “Where do families send their children if they can’t afford this tuition? To the other local schools, who provide significant financial support for families, some of whom can pay very little.” Nonsense. If a family can only afford $8k, that’s what they pay to He’Atid and that’s what they pay to any of the other local schools. The difference is that He’Atid has to raise only $2-3k for that child, and the other schools have to raise $8-12k for that child. So if that’s what Mr. Rubinstein means when he uses the word “significant,” I’d wholeheartedly agree!

But Mr. Rubinstein’s quote above is misleading in a more important way. He implies that many families are paying far less to the other schools than the $10,150/11,400 He’Atid charges. That is simply incorrect. The overwhelming majority of families receiving financial aid pay more than they would pay at He’Atid. And for the minority who don’t, it’s not as if the schools are handing out $15-20k checks per child. Families are asked to turn to relatives to help. Rabbis’ discretionary funds write checks. Project Ezrah gets involved. It is rare for a school to receive less than $6-7k/child from a combination of all of these sources. This idea that He’Atid subsidizes anything might make for a good talking point, but is not supported by the actual facts.

Third, Mr. Rubinstein asserts: “These other schools also provide a significant amount of special learning services…and all parents who pay tuition in these schools are helping to provide special services whether they need them or not.” Now I’m not exactly sure what he means by “special learning services.” But Mr. Rubinstein is comparing apples to oranges. He’Atid has a completely different educational model than the other schools, one that services the children inside the classroom through a rotational model as opposed to the other schools, which primarily utilize the traditional frontal teaching model, necessitating both enrichment and remedial activities outside of the classroom. No school successfully services every child. A small percentage of children do not succeed at He’Atid and they end up doing well in other schools just like there is a small percentage of children who don’t succeed at other schools and thrive at He’Atid.

To be fair, it behooves me to correct a factual error of my own from “A Viral Opportunity.” I said that 97% of He’Atid parents pay full tuition. That’s the number I had in my head from when I ran the scholarship committee there which is three years stale. I apologize for not checking before publishing, but He’Atid informs me it is now 93%. I also said that over 30% of families receive financial aid. To clarify, this is an average number and will obviously vary by school. I do think it’s relevant to point out that just this past week, one high school sent out a fundraising letter which stated that 60% of their families are on scholarship. That is a number bordering on collapse. If that doesn’t scare people, I don’t know what will.

Despite the factual errors I have corrected above, I am quite grateful to Mr. Rubinstein for writing his letter. In it, he assumes the “conventional wisdom” in the broader Jewish community that it is the responsibility of a Jewish day school to provide scholarships (financial aid) to those families who can not afford to pay. He has given me the opportunity to argue strongly how wrong, inefficient and short-sighted this approach is. Hopefully Mr. Lamm will appreciate the practical suggestions I will make for change.

If I surveyed everyone in the Orthodox Jewish community and asked the following question: “Should every Jewish child be provided a Jewish day school education regardless of his/her parent’s ability to pay?” my guess is that it would poll at close to 100% in the affirmative. I would strongly agree. But note how that’s a very different statement than what I said in the preceding paragraph.

Every Jewish child should get a yeshiva education, but why in the world should the schools be in the business of collecting charitable dollars and disbursing them? Do we set up any other charity in our community in this fashion? Of course not! We never have the provider of a paid service determine how much each customer can afford to pay for the service and then raise the money required to subsidize the amount the customer can’t afford. It’s a huge conflict of interest, it’s inefficient and it results in questionable practices as I will explain shortly.

Let me drive the point home by making a comparison to another value we all hold dear. I think we can all agree that as a community we want to provide Shabbat meals to families that unfortunately can’t afford to do so for themselves. And thankfully, we as a community have created—and, importantly, funded—a wonderful organization called Tomchei Shabbos to provide that service for people in need. Imagine if instead we created a system like we do for our schools. Local kosher grocery stores would raise the price of every item by x%, create some administrative function that would vet applicants, decide who gets what, and distribute food to those who can’t afford to shop on their own. Does anyone think that makes any sense? Yet that’s exactly what we do in our schools. Allow me to highlight some of the problems with the system as it exists today.

1. First and foremost, the entire premise of the scholarship structure is flawed. The obligation is on the community to fund anyone who can’t afford to provide their child a Jewish education. I would argue it is morally wrong to ask only other parents in the same school to subsidize it. Chazal are clear on this point, and here the American system actually gets it right. You pay the same property taxes whether you have zero or 10 kids in the school system. It doesn’t matter—it’s a communal obligation. We have it exactly backwards! The reality is even more perverse because the more children I have in the school, and all else being equal the less I can afford it, the more I have to subsidize those who can’t afford it! This has to stop! If a family can’t afford to send a child to yeshiva, it is incumbent on everyone in the community to pitch in, young or old, single or married, kids or no kids.

2. Whenever we force parents to subsidize anything with tuition dollars, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. The government is willing to subsidize anything that is given voluntarily. So us “taxing” already overstretched parents with after-tax dollars instead of finding a way for the community to give with pre-tax dollars effectively means that it costs us more communal dollars to fund what we need.

3. This system has created a vicious cycle. Some percentage of families can’t afford to pay full tuition, so tuition is raised to cover the shortfall. That tuition increase causes even more families to seek financial aid, resulting in tuition being raised even further. Taken to its logical conclusion, one day our day schools will no longer be able to sustain themselves financially, a point we are rapidly approaching. Fundraising is also challenged by this model. By saying that you will admit every child, you are essentially telling donors that whether they give a sizable gift or nothing at all, that won’t affect the amount available for financial aid.

4. Because the short-term marginal cost of educating an additional child is near zero, it always makes more sense for a given institution to take a child who pays something than to see that child go to another school. This is an extremely shortsighted approach because eventually schools will need more classes, a bigger building, more administrators, and so on. This is a textbook case taught in business school of a company thinking that their variable costs are low in the short-run without recognizing that almost all costs are variable in the long-run.

5. Finally, when schools are desperate to fill empty seats since any near-term revenue falls to the bottom line, some recruit parents to their school with financial incentives that are not needs based. This is actually the opposite of what Mr. Rubinstein claimed—higher-priced schools offer to match the lower prices of other schools in order to attract students. Hard to really blame those who do this since schools are in survival mode, but at the heart of it is a very flawed financial model that is in desperate need of a complete overhaul as this practice puts further long-term pressure on the tuition line. We need a revolution from below to insist upon change.

Perhaps the most common retort I hear when I share these views privately is that these have always been problems, they were problems for our parents, they will be problems for our children, it’s just the way life is. That attitude completely misunderstands the nature of bubbles. That is the very definition of a bubble. Anyone who has studied bubbles from the first one recorded in history (1637 Dutch Tulip bubble) to the more modern ones know full well that before a bubble bursts, there is an invincibility complex that somehow, someway things will carry on as they always have.

The financial model of yeshiva day schools is the mother of all bubbles. It has two characteristics that make the lead-up to this bubble so much greater and the inevitable bursting of the bubble likely to be so much more painful—what economists refer to as the lack of substitute goods and subsidization. There is no choice to opt out, as public school is not a viable option for most families and we have a mechanism for those who can’t afford it to partake of the service anyway. This has created a bloated system that can’t possibly survive much longer.

So what’s the solution? Again, I don’t claim to have all the answers and I welcome others getting involved with their ideas and actions. It’s clear to me that the entire financial aid system has to be revamped immediately. The overhaul alone won’t solve the problem but it’s clearly a prerequisite to doing so. Here is what I suggest:

We have the components to get this done quickly. The schools should immediately get out of the tzedakah business. They are educational institutions. They should stick to that. We have a 501(c)3 that was created in 2009 called NNJKIDS (Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools) that can easily be resurrected. That umbrella should immediately be charged with collecting scholarship dollars for all community day schools. Project Ezrah could then expand to oversee all scholarship allocations. They actually have the expertise to do that. No doubt they would need expanded resources to do so, but between all the existing scholarship committees across the schools, I’m sure there is enough talent to do so. There are undoubtedly many other details to be worked out but I am confident we have enough bright minds to figure it all out. The scholarship application process is already centralized under yeshivahaid.com. The schools are clearly capable of working together for the common good and this idea is the natural next step.

What if the community doesn’t raise the required funds? Well, I guess we’ll have proven to ourselves that we don’t really believe that every child deserves a Jewish education. I for one believe that the community would rise to the occasion. It happens all the time in out-of-town communities. There is one school, they can’t meet budget and the community leaders find a way to convince everyone that they need to step up. What a system of centralizing financial aid would most certainly do is end the unchecked spending at every school, which would be the first step toward creating more sustainable models for the future.

I hope many of you are asking yourselves what you can do. If you’re a shul rabbi reading this, I hope you will rethink using your discretionary fund to blindly write checks to schools until real change occurs. If you are a donor, realize that you writing a check to your school’s scholarship fund doesn’t actually result in any child attending a yeshiva that otherwise wouldn’t have. All you are doing is perpetuating a system that will inevitably crash. You too should be demanding change and refuse to give until you see that change. If you are a full-paying parent, I realize it can be difficult to speak up alone. Gather together with your friends. Speak to your shul rabbis. Tell them how the time for talk is over and ask for guidance on how to push for real change in the near term. Band together and insist on meetings with the heads of school and your board presidents. If schools don’t hear from their full-paying customers, they have little incentive to even consider making meaningful changes.

I would like to conclude with the following: I have spilled most of the ink here on the inevitability of the system collapsing. While undoubtedly true, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that it’s already a failed system. It has been for many years now, long before the coronavirus. Too many families are priced out of living a Modern Orthodox life. Too many families are maxed out on credit cards, have no savings, have shalom bayis issues, mental health issues, young adults being forced into careers they aren’t suited for; the list unfortunately goes on and on.

I don’t have the space to share with you all of the heartbreaking emails I have received since “A Viral Opportunity” was published. There is one from a young couple who wrote that they will not be having more than the two children they already have because they are already in debt and can’t afford more. There is another from a young man in his 20s who wrote: “Are the leaders in our community aware how routine it now is for kids my age to make life-altering decisions about their level of observance because they realize they won’t be able to afford the Jewish community?” There are many more echoing these sentiments and so much more.

I am beseeching all of those in our community who were blessed by their creator with material wealth to lead by example. To pledge to consistently spend far less on various luxuries as I wrote about in my original piece two weeks ago—be it house expansions, exotic vacations, designer clothing, lavish smachot and so much more. Use the funds saved to give even more tzedakah.

But do it wisely. Don’t blindly give to a broken and bloated yeshiva day school system with little in the way of cost controls and accountability. Demand change. I obviously think my idea of a centralized financial aid mechanism is a really good one, but if you don’t agree, come up with an idea of your own. But recognize that the status quo of just throwing more and more money at an antiquated system that is already hurting so many of our friends and neighbors is not charity. It is destroying so many lives and families! Do not stand idly by as your neighbors suffer. For the sake of the present and futures of so many in the modern Orthodox communities we all so love, the time for talk is over; the time to act is now. And the clock is ticking…

The author can be reached at [email protected] The views cited are his own and not necessarily shared by any organization with which he is affiliated.