I read Dvorah Vaynman’s heart-wrenching op-ed ("The Humiliation of Applying for Yeshiva Tuition Assistance," July 16, 2020) two weeks ago with great pain. She speaks on behalf of scores if not hundreds of families in our community who are tortured by the current yeshiva day school financial model. I don’t know her but I did exchange emails with her in the subsequent days to express my empathy and share with her my perspective as someone who has been on scholarship committees at multiple schools for well over a decade. I also prepared her for what I knew would be many responses to her piece, as she was mistaken about certain details of the scholarship process.
There were indeed numerous replies to Dvorah’s op-ed in last week’s paper. While some were respectful and related appropriately to the struggles of a family having to request tuition assistance, I was disappointed by how others seemed to so callously dismiss the pain the writer expressed notwithstanding any factual errors she made.
But I’d like to focus on a very different assumption that underlies this entire discussion that I believe to be incorrect. It’s an error that I myself have made as recently as two months ago when I wrote my previous Op-Ed in this paper. We all assume that scholarship aid for children to attend yeshiva day schools qualifies as tzedakah, when in reality it appears that it does not meet the definition of “charity” by either a secular or Torah definition.
When societies think of charity, we think about providing for the basic needs of an individual or family who unfortunately, through no fault of their own, are unable to provide those basic needs for themselves. For example, in the United states, we have food stamps for those in need. About 12% of American families are on food stamps. In the Bergen County Jewish community, we have Tomchei Shabbos. I have no idea what percent of families receive assistance from them, but my impression is that the number is pretty low as well.
Let’s contrast that to financial aid to yeshivas. One high school many of our families patronize recently stated in their fundraising campaign that 60% of their families are on scholarship. Is that charity? That’s not even a subsidy. That sounds more like a “feature” of the system! Other high schools are between 30-50%. Elementary day schools are mostly 25-40%.
Secondly, many of the families receiving this aid aren’t the same families that can’t put food on the table. They are by societal standards quite well off. As I discussed in depth in “A viral Opportunity,” many are in the top 2-5% of household incomes in this country making upward of $200k annually. Is subsidizing a private school education for these families really considered tzedakah?
I can hear all the voices of the communal leadership saying how a yeshiva education is just as important as bread and water and has to be treated as such. However, when Chazal suggested/mandated giving 10% of one’s earnings to tzedakah, it seems mathematically impossible that they could have meant that 30-60% would be recipients. That number is only going to keep rising as fewer and fewer families will be able to afford the ever-increasing tuitions as time goes on. Not to mention that for most families, tuition assistance is not temporary. Sometimes there is short-lived unemployment that ultimately rights itself. But the majority of families needing assistance will require it permanently, as simple math dictates that not all families can be in the top 2% of income earners.
It seems that all of the arguments made about allocating communal dollars based on the principles of tzedakah are based on a false premise. There is nothing inherently noble about schools allocating scholarship money. It is simply a way to keep a flawed and failed financial model going for as long as possible, and postpone the day of reckoning to a later date instead of engaging in a restructuring of the entire system that is so desperately needed in the here and now.
One of the writers last week expressed: “Her call to action is to burn down the system and start anew... She exclaims: ‘We deserve more. We deserve better.’ … I hope the readership isn’t buying what she is selling.” I am buying what she is selling and she and countless other families most certainly do deserve better. She is 100% correct. The system is completely broken. It doesn’t need tweaks. It needs to be torn down and started anew.
Now I will quote from what I wrote in this paper two months ago: “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 admire Dvorah. She’s extremely brave for publicly expressing the feelings I have heard countless times over the past few years from families in pain. And as much as the leadership of our schools claim to understand that pain, it clearly doesn’t register enough with them to bring them to a state of mind where they are actually willing to do something to alleviate that pain.
Real solutions do exist—both on the cost and revenue sides. Some have been tried and proven. Others have yet to be explored. There is no shortage of good ideas. One was published in this very paper just last week. There is no lack of intelligent and talented people in our community who could roll up their sleeves and effect change.
The overarching question is why hasn’t this opportunity been seized? Why the apathy? Why are our leaders so paralyzed? Are they oblivious to the suffering of so many? Do they not know that there are literally hundreds of Dvorahs out there? Do they not care?
I think the answer is simple. All of the people who are in a position to make a difference most certainly know of the problem. They know of the pain and the suffering. But there is something else that prevents them from rolling up their sleeves and tackling it. And it’s a different reason for each group.
Let’s start with the lay leadership of schools. Very honorable people who dedicate so much of their free time to communal service. Often very busy people. But predominantly people of financial means who have never come close to having been in Dvorah’s situation. This might seem like I’m laying blame, but in a sense this is just a human condition. Until you are in another person’s shoes, you just can’t really empathize properly. As a result, lay leaders of schools will not be leading the charge here.
How about the professional leadership of the schools? No doubt they are extremely dedicated to our children. But they are the classic “noge’ah b’davar.” Besides often getting breaks for their own children, they just don’t have the right incentives to do anything but make incremental change. Certainly not to stand up to their lay leadership who are perfectly fine with the status quo. They too will not lead meaningful change.
Many think that our communal rabbis should be leading the charge. Let’s think about that for a moment. Our rabbinic leadership is incredible! They are kind-hearted, overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, selfless, and are true role models for us all. They are busy day and night taking care of our immediate needs, big and small. Most don’t get nearly enough sleep. It’s unrealistic to expect them to take the lead on such a large undertaking.
So what can be done? The answer is that if people are relying on those in power to make meaningful change, it just isn’t going to happen. The above players aren’t going to do it on their own. Me (or anyone else) writing and proposing solutions isn’t going to do it either.
It’s time for the hamon am to help themselves. The only way to really see change in society is for the people hurting to speak out and demand change. I know that if I couldn’t afford yeshiva tuition, I’d sooner send my child to public school than have to beg for assistance. I just don’t believe that God wants us to live this way. It’s unfathomable. Last I checked, it’s not one of the 613 mitzvot to sacrifice your mental, financial and sometimes even your physical health to send your kids to institutions that didn’t even exist 60 years ago. Poverty is not a Jewish virtue. Wrong religion. I’d be organizing families in my situation to band together and explore other options. Don’t let naysayers tell you that what you’re doing is wrong. You are entitled to pursue solutions that will put your family on a more sustainable path.
A simpleton only looks at one side of the coin. It’s easy to see the positives that come out of our yeshiva day schools. But the wise one evaluates the entire picture. An honest look at the complete mosaic leads to the obvious conclusion that the current yeshiva day school system is doing more harm than good. By continuing to bury our collective heads in the sand, we are not only dooming the next generation to having to deal with a collapsed system, we are causing so much harm and pain to countless families in our community today. Every day, month and year that goes by without addressing the core problem is sacrificing the health and wellbeing of our community. Fewer children being born, young adults being pressured into sub-optimal career choices, escalating shalom bayis problems, and many other societal ills surround us.
I simply cannot fathom that Hashem wants us to set up our educational system in a manner that causes so much pain. It’s inconsistent with the Torah values I learned in the yeshiva day schools I myself attended in this community. Derech eretz kadma l’Torah. It is unconscionable to continue to educate our children in a system that causes the great suffering of so many.
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.