Last week, I was disappointed to read a deeply flawed article titled “The Humiliation of Applying For Yeshiva Tuition," by Dvorah Vaynman (July 16, 2020).
When I think of yeridat hadorot (generational decline), I consider the self-sacrifice of our grandparents’ and parents’ generation. The “greatest generation” didn’t take vacations before paying the yeshiva, they didn’t build additions to homes they would not be able to afford. They weren’t leasing the newest luxury car every 27-39 months, and none of them had personal trainers. They worked incredibly hard. They were incredibly proud. They sacrificed endlessly to ensure their children had a yeshiva education. We are the beneficiaries of their sweat equity. Let’s remember that lest we become soft, spoiled and entitled.
As a financial planner, I represent families who give toward scholarship campaigns as well as those on the receiving end. I am familiar with the application process at several yeshivot in Bergen County and believe that while they are not identical, each is honorable and discreet. I have served as a liaison between applicants and committees, who based on principles of tzniut do not disclose their identities. They dedicate their hearts and souls to ensure that those in need receive financial support. It is an anonymous and thankless task; no public accolades, just quiet baalei chesed working tirelessly on behalf of the tzibur.
Our community is built on a critical social contract. Those with surplus help those with deficits. Thankfully, families receiving aid are not left behind. Our community is incredibly generous. The scholarship process, while not perfect, is confidential. Committee members recuse themselves from cases where they have a personal relationship with the applicant. Good faith applicants should apply with dignity and hold their heads high. Nobody is deserving of shame or humiliation. Scholarship recipients include community leaders and service members. They are our friends and neighbors.
For a doctor to diagnose a complex medical matter, she starts with an in-depth personal history. She asks probing questions, inquires not just about the area that hurts but treats the patient as a holistic organism. She takes a thorough health and lifestyle history. From there, she can begin to try to help. She can prescribe the right medicine, make suggestions and give advice to the patient to increase the odds of a favorable engagement. A less professional, less comprehensive approach will yield a suboptimal outcome. Stated differently, the alternative results in “GIGO”—Garbage In Garbage Out. The analogy has its limits and by no means am I suggesting any scholarship applicant is, chas v’shalom, ill, but many benefit from professional “issue spotting” from committee members. These committees consist of attorneys, accountants, social workers, financial advisors, professional counselors and problem solvers. They are in the best position to assist in the allocation of scarce communal resources.
Our schools are large, our parent bodies are stretched, but no time or energy is spared when it comes to this process. The 13 schools that use the YeshivahAid common app don’t approach this in a casual or heimishe way. There is a thorough vetting, standards of conduct and expectations for all families in each yeshiva. While there is a common application, each school has its own set of guidelines that can be provided on request.
I’d like to try to correct some basic misinformation from last week’s article. The article wasn’t a mere grenade; it was a carpet bombing of Bergen County. There is a portal shared by 13 schools across three counties that serves as a universal aid application—like the FAFSA for college.
The author writes: “It is unclear how your extremely personal and highly sensitive information is kept confidential and inaccessible to the many other schools on the list.”
The fact: Each school has its own username and password. A small scholarship committee for each school is given limited access to the applications for their own school. The single uniform application helps reduce the time, stress and complexity for applicants who have children in multiple schools and carries over information and attachments from year to year.
Years ago, several yeshivot got together and commissioned standardized application software in order to ease the process of applying for and allocating the tens of millions of scholarship dollars and to channel the funds to those with the greatest need. The YeshivahAid application is the result of that collaboration. It helps ensure thousands of children receive a Torah education irrespective of a family’s ability to pay.
The author proclaims: “Let me be absolutely clear about one thing: I promise you: No one wants to be on the asking end.”
Regrettably, she is incorrect. Occasionally, there is fraud and a small population would, in fact, prefer to get rather than to give. Thankfully, most of these types of applications are declined. While I would guess that more than 95% of applications are submitted in good faith, let’s not be Pollyannaish about the remainder. There always has been and will be a handful of people who attempt to “game the system.” Because of the thorough underwriting process, most cheaters are caught. The result is:
1) More funds for those in need.
2) A satisfied donor community, more confident that their tzedakah dollars are put to best use.
3) Faculty and staff paid, in full and on time (not a given in all communities).
4) More resources to help offset future tuition increases.
The author continues: “Let’s hold our institutions accountable…demand basic decency… If they can’t, I’m sure you and I can” and “We need the people designing these processes and institutions to reflect the basic values of the Jewish people.”
These comments are misguided and disrespectful. There is no “them and us.” The very people she is attacking are her neighbors, friends and rabbanim. We are all in this together.
The author describes the requested personal financial information as a series of “humiliating questions” in a process dubbed “deplorable.”
The questions she referenced break down into five categories: Income, Assets, Liabilities, Fixed Expenses and Discretionary Expenses. It is fittingly comprehensive. Any item considered in isolation would not give the full story but when taken together, this 25-piece puzzle creates a window into the financial life of the applicant. This enables the yeshiva to better understand each individual’s financial situation.
Furthermore, there is an “additional information” section where the applicant is encouraged to provide commentary that she believes should be incorporated into any decision. Recent layoff? Fighting illness? Undergoing costly therapy? The applicant can ensure that her story is heard and that she is not treated, as the author contends, as “just a number.” After all that, upon receiving feedback, each applicant retains the right to appeal a decision.
Allocation of scholarship dollars is a gut-wrenching and virtually Solomonic task. Committees meet late at night, weekly, for months on end, seeking counsel from poskim while poring through each and every application, sometimes in tears, to try to ensure that each applicant receives the scholarship that she needs to keep afloat.
The author expresses scorn for the system. Her conclusion, “The chokehold of the financial aid system on our struggling community needs to come to an end,” sounds almost as promising a strategy as defunding the police.
Her call to action is to burn down the system and start anew. Throw out the donors, the volunteers, the professional and lay leaders, the rabbanim who provide counsel and guidance. She exclaims: “We deserve more. We deserve better.” She believes that a handful of personal financial questions are the source of her problems. I hope the readership isn’t buying what she is selling. Nobody in need of tuition assistance should be discouraged from applying based on last week’s article.
Elie Borger is a financial planner living in Teaneck. He is willing to help scholarship candidates complete the YeshivahAid application and can be reached at [email protected]