Over the last few weeks there has been a lot of discussion regarding the viability of the current financial landscape within the Modern Orthodox community with the focus on Bergen County.
Gershon Distenfeld restarted a conversation that he initiated a few years ago with the inception of NNJKIDS (“Seizing a “Viral Opportunity,” April 30, 2020). The premise is a simple one. While it is indeed a privilege for our children to attend yeshiva day schools and high schools, we need to be fiscally responsible with regard to the cost of tuition. Mr. Distenfeld recently revived the discussion with two op-ed articles focused on the “viral opportunity” that we have to effect changes that will ultimately lower the price of our day school and high school education for our children.
Subsequent letters to the editor focused on the need to reevaluate the way we spend in general, with examples that included, among others, limiting summer camp, rethinking new home construction and renovations, and toning down smachot. Others focused on the need for our yeshivot to band together in cutting down spending on swag for open houses, recruitment videos, and other subjective non-essential expenses. Mr. Distenfeld put forth a centralized communal scholarship process that can holistically assess the needs of the entire community. Families can support communal organizations rather than their own individual schools of choice. All of these ideas and the ensuing virtual Shabbos lunch table discussions are extremely positive and a step in the right direction.
My focus for this article is not to critique, assess or analyze how we can collectively change our behaviors to make our community financially stable for our children for many years to come. The reality is that the cost of private education is a sacrifice that we all are making in order to give our children the best chance to succeed in carrying on our mesorah to the next generation, just as our parents and grandparents sacrificed for us.
I would like to focus on the fact that 80-85 percent of any yeshiva budget is allocated to faculty salaries and benefits. The second largest expense of the budget is usually debt service and building operations. The call to cut expenses at our current schools is understandable. Every school needs to be as efficient as possible. They each need to self evaluate and ask: is this expense needed? How will cutting it impact the programming and the overall experience?
In my extensive lay leadership experience in these organizations, this is what our yeshivot have been doing. I don’t think there is a board of directors that doesn’t care immensely about the budget, tries to limit tuition increases and focuses on the amount of scholarships that have to be given out because of our collective needs-blind policies. However, the reality is that in order to make a significant dent in the overall cost structure that will have a material impact on the community, a yeshiva would need to either reduce the number of teachers, reduce the cost of the current staff or a combination of both.
Mr. Distenfeld has asserted that Yeshivat He’Atid has been able to successfully offer a reduced cost model for our community. The school is full and it is thriving. I have not been fully educated on the model and the differences between He’Atid and the other five major local day schools in Bergen County. I assume there are differences and the point of this article is not to debate them.
Perhaps my thought process is influenced by my upbringing; growing up in the presence of my father, Rabbi Yosef Adler, and two grandmothers who taught first grade for over 45 years. As Rav Soloveitchik would say, “I am a melamed first” and that’s who my father is and who all teachers are at their core. No one goes into education thinking they will one day strike it big; perhaps get a six-figure bonus or even a four-figure one. Many would agree that teachers are underpaid. Very few teachers can pay their bills being the primary breadwinner on the salary they are making. Yes, they have off during the summer (though most of them work full time in camps for additional income) and during the chagim, but overall salaries averaging $50,000-$75,000 will not pay the bills. If you calculate an approximate rate per hour given the amount of time they put in, they are clearly under compensated. I personally have an affinity for trying to compensate them fairly.
When the main revenue source of the school is the hard earned dollars that we all make, the schools need to spend the money appropriately. I do not think a total overhaul of the current system will benefit the community at large. The Gemara tells us that one is obligated to spend up to one fifth of his or her total income in order to perform a mitzvah. The Halacha understands financial stress and hardships and takes all of that into account. Decisions need to be made family by family in order to make sure we are spending in the right areas.
As the recent discussions have suggested, many of us have been overspending our discretionary income on items and events that are seemingly unnecessary. How can we look ourselves in the mirror and complain about yeshiva tuition under the current environment? We need to curtail and reevaluate all spending. We need to be more consistent in our approach to smachot. We need our rabbinic leadership to guide us.
Our primary spending should be allocated to our children. Most of our children are thriving in their current schools. Most enjoy going to school day to day. Most are very successful in high school and beyond. They are being set up for success in our overall mission of raising the next generation of true Torah observant Jews. The reality is that in order to offer a product that many of us demand, we need to pay for those services by offering teachers a decent salary/benefits and providing the children with a physical environment in which they can succeed.
Should we significantly alter our model by replacing certain teachers with computer programs or distance learning, we will likely see negative repercussions down the road. Many of us were initially very excited about the remote learning and Zoom classes our schools have put together during this pandemic. However, many of us would now agree that there are severe limitations with this type of learning and spending hours in front of a screen is not healthy for anyone. We all need to evaluate all areas of spending before we start cutting into our current curriculum in a significant way. When companies make cuts they don’t cut the heart of the organization first. They cut the peripherals. What can we live without? Only once we have implemented change in our personal behaviors and still find ourselves struggling do we then cut the “heart,” the education of our children, which would be viewed as a desperate plea for survival.
One of the ways that we currently ensure that all children are able to receive a yeshiva education is through the scholarship process. Is it perfect? No. Does it help many families who are not blessed with the financial means necessary to be able to afford it? Of course.
Mr. Distenfeld questions, “why in the world should the schools be in the business of collecting charitable dollars and disbursing them?” He encourages us not to give to our local schools until the scholarship process is revamped. I fully agree that the scholarship process needs to be centrally coordinated. Having one centralized body that reviews every application and makes uniform decisions has a lot of benefits. Will that decrease the amount of scholarship given? I assume not. However, it will help streamline the process.
In doing a lot of fundraising for many organizations for both annual campaigns, major capital expansions, and day-to-day support of those in need, there is a common theme that consistently strikes a cord. The number one documented reason why people give to any charity is not because of their love for the organization and not because of their desire to feel good when giving. The reason people give is because they are asked one-on-one to make a donation. They are solicited by lay and professional leaders and asked to reallocate that which they have been blessed with by Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
We will never understand why some have been blessed with more than others. Our role is to make sure that we encourage everyone to understand what their true ability to give is and to get comfortable giving what is a meaningful gift for their family. How does your giving compare with your earnings and other discretionary spending? Are you being intellectually honest with yourself about what your giving levels should be? The giving mindset needs to be an inherent part of the way we use the resources provided to us to help those who are in need. Many nonprofit organizations that provide a service do not charge the full amount to cover their services. Our schools provide a service and run a shortfall that needs to be covered. The other option is raising tuition even further and limiting the tax deductibility of the money given to the school.
Given the current environment, we know that there will be a significant increase in scholarship applications. Some will be short-term requests from people who historically have not needed scholarships before. Some will be additional needs for families already receiving assistance. I would urge everyone to once again look at themselves from a longer term perspective. If scholarship is a short-term need and perhaps once the economy recovers you will no longer need it, consider repaying those amounts when you can. If you received scholarship in the past and now, Baruch Hashem, are in a much better position, put yourself in the shoes of another and increase your historical gift. There will be those of us who will still have the ability to give and I would urge everyone to double down during this time and increase giving to the best of your ability. As Chazal tell us, “Tzedaka Tzazil Memaves.” Invest in yourself and your community by helping support the yeshivot that have been so successful to date at producing well-rounded bnai/bnot Torah who are able to carry on the mesorah to the next generation.
Dov Adler lives in Teaneck and works as a partner at PwC. He is a former president of Yeshivat Noam and has served as a lay leader in various capacities for Congregation Beth Abraham, Ma’ayanot, TABC and UJA Federation. The views cited are his own and not necessarily shared by any organization with which he is affiliated. He can be reached at [email protected]