A recent op-ed has brought to light the pain of the process of applying for tuition assistance in our schools. To be sure, funds are limited and it is necessary to distribute the money to those with the greatest need, and this necessitates requesting financial documents and answering uncomfortable questions. However, after having gone through the process myself and speaking to others about it, I couldn’t help but feel that the perception of all those involved in the process is that this is essentially an application for a form of charity.
This mindset explains the austerity measures the committee asks applicants to commit to, the particular phraseology used to communicate this, and is the undertone of those that are annoyed with others complaining about the process. However, this assumption is dubious, and it is necessary to correct this mistake in our effort to give more dignity to those applicants in need. Not that we are allowed to humiliate those that ask for tzedakah either, but some people may find it easier to be more respectful if they reframe how they think of tuition assistance.
Even before the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash there was great educational reform enacted by the Kohen Gadol Yehoshua ben Gamla that required Jewish communities to create schools paid for by the community to ensure even orphans would receive a Jewish education. (Bava Batra 21a) Interestingly, this requirement to create community schools was understood by the poskim to not just be for orphans that have no father to teach them Torah but for all the community children, wealthy and poor, to ensure that they all receive a quality education. (Rema Choshen Mishpat 163:3; based on Rama B.B. ad loc; Shulchan Aruch HaRav Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:3) As a community responsibility, the financial expense of operating these schools is collectively borne by the community as a whole, which means that the amount each resident paid was dependent on the level of their own personal wealth. Rich people paid more than middle income people and poor people paid even less.
This may be hard for some people to swallow, so perhaps it is best to quote the Halacha as codified by the Shulchan Aruch HaRav:
…the teachers of young children should be paid by communal funds, for all the children in the town alike, whether rich or poor. At present, in these countries, it is customary for every individual to pay [tuition] for his own child if he can afford to do so. If a person lacks that capacity, the community is required to pay on his behalf because of the Sages’ ordinance. The poor may compel the rich to pay for [the tuition of] the children of the poor from communal funds. Moreover, even the rich may compel each other to pay the wages of the teachers of their children from communal funds to which even [the townsmen] who do not have children contribute.
For this was the essential point of our Sages’ ordinance—to place teachers of young children in every single town, whether large or small, and to place the financial responsibility for the teachers of all the children of the town whether rich or poor on all the townsmen, each according to his financial capacity, even on those who do not have children, as is the rule with regard to other communal levies that are assessed according to each townsman’s financial capacity. … In places where [the above universal levy] is not applied, the rationale is that the rich and even the people of intermediate means waive their respective rights.
However, they are not entitled to waive the portion due for [the tuition fees of] the children of the poor…(Translation from Kehot bilingual edition.)
In recent years there has been some discussion of returning to the communal tax model of tuition. This type of community tax would be difficult to implement in a large community such as ours due to the lack of centralized communal/rabbinic leadership and complexity of distributing funds to the many different schools and their varying budgets. On a purely halachic level too, the takanat chachamim would not require that the community share in all of the services provided by our schools. While it may not be possible to practically implement this way of distributing the financial responsibility within our community, the lesson to learn from this halacha still holds true: the responsibility to create Jewish schools for our children is a collective responsibility that the community as a whole must undertake, each individual participating according to his ability.
But, how is it fair that the rich need to pay more than the poor for the same education? A communal responsibility means everybody is equally responsible but the way we each fulfill that responsibility differs depending on one’s circumstances. The amount levied by the heads of the community on the poor and rich is proportionate to their wealth. (Rema, ibid) According to the Halachic system everybody pays an equal rate of their wealth (minus any dispensations for living expenses, etc.).
To better understand this, it may be useful to think in terms other than money. As members of a community we are all collectively responsible for the community’s needs. This responsibility extends beyond money and requires us to give our time and exert efforts for the community. One such example is the guarding of the city by its own residents: should the community decide that this is needed, that every member, rich or poor, needs to commit an equal amount of time to stand guard. (Mordechai Bava Batra 475) When we understand that our commitment to our community can be measured in terms of our efforts to support it we can understand why poor people have to pay less despite receiving the same benefits as everyone else. As Chazon Ish writes, “for every penny that we take from a poor person we are taking from him part of his life, and the greater his destitution [the greater] his donation that we take from him is precious and exceedingly important for his status.” (Chazon Ish Bava Batra 4:19)
This perspective on communal obligation and responsibility is important because it can really change who we view as actually paying their dues to the community. While somebody may be exceedingly poor and take tens of thousands of dollars a year in scholarships, they may also be very generous in compensating the community through other means that benefit the community. Perhaps this person is a community organizer, or runs a gemach, or leads the prayers in shul or gives shiurim. Let us not forget that we are indebted as a community to many others who work locally in the community, such as those working in the kosher supermarket or bakery or the teachers in our schools. Yes, they receive financial compensation. But without these people our community would not be possible, or their absences would be sorely missed.
It is not our place to judge who does more for the community. We value the contributions all people make with their time and money. Moreover, it is impossible to know how much time, money and effort any one person contributes. There is a place in our community for all types of people. For some, all that they may give is their checkbook, but this may be the best type of contribution they can make, for with the money we can buy the time and efforts of others. And there are others in our community who unfortunately have hardships that preclude them from contributing both from their money and time, but they too serve an important communal function, perhaps in ways that only God understands.
With this in mind, let us return to the discussion about the way we treat scholarship applicants. Somebody receiving a discount on normal tuition is still fulfilling their full communal obligation. No one should be upset about having to pay more than them; we each pay our part. If we were to resort to the Halachic standard, rich people should be paying much more tuition than they currently do. If you are upset because you are middle class and feel deprived by paying full tuition, well maybe the ones you should be upset about are the very rich people who don’t pay enough. According to the Shulchan Aruch HaRav quoted above, those of intermediate means are assumed to have waived their rights to have tuition distributed from the community funds. If you are not waiving your rights, by all means let your voice be heard and demand tuition reform.
Should applicants be subject to austerity measures? If this were tzedakah this would be a totally reasonable request, as Rabbi Akiva said, “[rather] make your Shabbat profane and do not be reliant on others.” (Pesachim 112a, see also ShuA Yorah De’ah 255:1) But participating in a communal program to share the immense burden of school tuition is not the same as tzedakah. According to the codified Halacha, one may demand that the community provide a Jewish education for their son. Should we be embarrassed because we cannot afford the unbelievable tuition costs of Jewish schools on a middle income salary?
I do believe it is necessary to prioritize funds first to those who will commit to forgoing unnecessary luxuries. But scholarships are not tzedakah. We need to stop treating people that take them like they are requesting charity. No one should be disrespectful to people receiving a scholarship, and every effort should be made to create the least painful and embarrassing process possible. Who knows, maybe those on scholarships are bringing more benefit to the community than the ones funding them.
Saadia Kluger is an IT professional who resides in Bergen County with his wife and 3 children.