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Sunday, August 09, 2020
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Part II (Read Part I here.) 

I was raised in a home where anyone who came knocking on the door requesting tzedakah was met with a cold glass of water or a cup of coffee and a comfortable armchair in which to sit for a few minutes. There was often a platter of cookies or a slice of pie on the table. I was not privy to the details of how much they received, but that wasn’t important. What was important is that whoever it was, subjecting themselves to the pain of knocking on doors in the scorching heat or pouring rain was always met with kindness and warmth. They were always met with dignity.

When I think of all the empathetic responses that I received this week, from fellow parents who have suffered so much pain in applying for Yeshiva tuition assistance, from extraordinary committee members earnestly calling to openly discuss the process with a young “Pollyannaish” nobody like me, I remember these childhood snippets. And I remember that no matter how painful or difficult a situation is, we as people, as a community, can often step in to take away the biting edge of the inherent humiliation. Those who responded to my first article with cruelty and resentment are aggravating the hurt and more importantly, missing the point. Friends, don’t sell yourselves short. Don’t sell our community short. We can do better.

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After much reflection and open discussion, I’d like to share some thoughts with you about the application process, in the hopes that we can continue to think creatively about how to restore a little more dignity to people who are already hurting enough. 

1. Words matter. A lot. I’ve been told that parents who are in a difficult financial situation will be pained by the process no matter how you word it. But, as someone on the receiving end, I respectfully and completely disagree. “Bare minimum” has a different ring to it than “modest and reasonable”. “Paying it forward” has less of a sting than “responsibility to repay”. 

The way we speak to each other matters, too. We need to stop shaming people who receive assistance. If you are blessed to be in a position to pay list price, stop “resenting people like me” (I quote from a letter I received…) and refocus your energies on your own family and your own life. Let’s try to remember that we never have the whole story, and that G-d didn’t put us on this earth to judge each other, but to help each other. When did money become more important than our fellow Jews’ wellbeing? Than the education and success of the next generation of Jewish children?

2. The human element matters. The discussions I had with other parents and committee members after publishing my piece gave me an unexpected dose of menuchat hanefesh. Part of the humiliating part of the process is having to fill in dozens of numbers, without really knowing who is getting it, without ever hearing a human voice. Many people respond to this by saying “it’s anonymous to protect the dignity of the applicant: what if the committee member is a friend of acquaintance?”. But I believe that by creating this level of anonymity, to the point that you don’t have a clue who is on the receiving end of your highly personal information, we are actually perpetuating the idea that this process is one to be ashamed of.

Friends, if you are working hard and living an honest life, it is OK to need and ask for help sometimes. It doesn’t make you weak. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. 

Perhaps committees should consider having a “face”, a representative who provides the human element. Applicants would be asked to speak to this representative prior to filling out the forms. This would be an opportunity to ask about qualifications or technicalities, to tell your story… Just a chance to feel heard and guided before beginning the brutal process. And yes – people would volunteer to do this. I certainly would.

I truly believe that this human touch would reframe the entire application process for struggling parents. Which brings me to this:

3. Let us tell our story. On the Yeshivah Aid website, there is a small “additional information” box at the very end of the application. But there’s no space for parents to actually tell their story. Part of the pain of the process is watching the numbers fill your screen as they tell an incomplete story. And it feels humiliating. You wish you could footnote every line.

The very first page of any such application should be a personal statement, one that asks applicants: “tell us your story.” 

4. Let’s think about who we put on the scholarship committees. Of all the committee members with whom I’ve spoken, not a single one has had someone on the committee who has been on the receiving end of a scholarship. Not one. Perhaps if we truly want to engender sympathy, if we want to create a system that at its core is less painful, it would help to have someone on the inside who has walked a mile in my shoes. Sometimes, it’s not enough to be understanding: if you have not experienced the pang of applying for tuition assistance, if you have not had to lay your life bare for an anonymous stranger to scrutinize, you can never fully appreciate this pain. I urge the committees to consider including just one person who has previously been through this process himself. It may give you an added and very valuable perspective.

5. Look at the data. We tend to base our behaviors and predictions on heuristics, on the big flashy stories we remember, instead of grounding them in data. I personally do not know how exactly the scholarship committees make their calculations, but I would urge them to plot the data from previous scholarship applications and look for correlations. Maybe even on the aggregate level in the entire Bergen County (though not to the exclusion of individual institutions). What is the data telling us? Have scholarships in the past been correlated with income? With wealth? With savings? 

Variance in data (in this case, the amount received in scholarship awards) can usually be explained by very few variables: we need to identify those variables and focus on them in the application questions. All the other questions – the ones about every asset and every liability and every expense, the ones that hurt so much because they make parents feel exposed and vulnerable and humiliated – those are noise. Those may, statistically speaking, be irrelevant. What we’ve essentially done is design a system to deal with the outliers, the people who hide enormous assets or cheat or misrepresent their financial picture, instead of creating a system geared towards the average parent who struggles financially. 

It may be more convenient for committee members to receive this enormous amount of information upfront, but it comes at way too high a cost to the average parent. If after reviewing the big-ticket items and speaking with the parents on the phone the committee feels like more information is warranted, then they can request further documentation or can create an audit system. But there’s no reason to require this level of scrutiny from every applicant from the get-go. It’s overwhelming and presumes dishonesty. 

Before we fix the system, we really need to understand it better.

6. Look around us. Some schools, including Westchester Day School, Maimonidies and Bruriah, have found ways around the invasive application process by basing tuition assistance on income, and capping payments at a certain percentage of AGI (adjusted gross income). Most of their applicants can fill out one simple form in order to get assistance. And in cases where more information is needed, it is requested. I’d encourage you to research these programs; they are fascinating, data-based approaches to easing some of the pain. 

Maybe we just haven’t been thinking creatively enough. We need to take a long hard look at what the data tells us and think about how we can use that information to cut out the unnecessary questions and refocus on the essence of the matter. We need to look around us and find inspiration in people or places that do things differently. 

I imagine that there will be arguments made against each of these points. But I think (gosh, I hope) that we can agree on one thing: all people deserve to be treated with dignity. My heart shattered when I heard some of the stories that fellow parents shared with me privately after reading my article. Parents who finally felt heard and validated. Parents who still feel too humiliated to send letters to the editor.

For heaven’s sake, money is not everything. 

I’m not sure how our community got so deeply lost inside this world in which worth is measured in dollar bills. In which the “haves” think it’s ok to talk to, and about, the “have nots” or “have less’s” or “have different’s” as though we are smaller – privately and publicly. Let’s stop thinking of this problem in a divisive way, as though there are “people like me” and “people like you”. Because in reality, we are a social unit trying to educate and raise a future generation of kind, learned, successful children.

I implore you, my community. Let’s do right by the families that are suffering in silence. Let’s do right by our own neighbors who feel so alone and helpless and ashamed. We can do better. It may take some creativity and effort and time. And change is never easy. But we are an extraordinary community of people with all different kinds of perspectives and skills and experiences – let’s finally use that rich collection and build something better. 


Dvorah Vaynman is a Passaic resident, PhD student, and proud mother of two beautiful children. She can be reached at [email protected]

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