This article is a short version of an article I wrote in 1994 and have revised several times since then. At the time I was struggling to finance my daughters’ Jewish education in various Bergen County and Livingston yeshivas. I developed a different approach than most of the opinions you’ve read here and elsewhere.
What I sought to do was to attack several issues that mar the attempt to have a sustainable and stable system. The current (and 26 years ago) system seems to live hand to mouth without too much forward planning. You find some donors who give generously to a particular school and/or to its scholarship budget and that’s it. What would happen if, God forbid, these donors would have to declare bankruptcy? Well, Hashem Yishmor, and they would be successful because of their zechuyot… or something like that.
The other main issue is lack of government funding. The First Amendment had been corrupted to read something that is not there: the infamous wall between state and church. A wall that forbids financing even the secular part of religious education but still allows, according to some, imposing on religious organizations the burden of financing activities that are against that religion. According to that current reading of the Constitution, not only may we not get any funding for our schools, but we still have to finance the public schools through our taxes, a fact that amounts to cruel double taxing.
And there is an inherent issue that makes Jewish education expensive: the double curriculum and the thrive for excellence in both.
While obviously I do not want to abandon the double curriculum and thriving for excellence, I want to address the other two issues, the short-term system of donation and the lack of government financing!
What I see is a church-like organization that by its charter is focused on one and only one subject: Jewish education. That organization should amass money-generating properties to the point that it could totally, or close to totally, finance the Jewish schools on its own. By doing so, such an organization would divert monies that are tax free (by being a church-like organization) toward a stable stream of finance for Jewish education. Please notice that my approach does not rely on donations and is much less interested in that side of the story.
Well, obviously there are many questions: How do you amass such properties to begin with? How do you defend from the IRS attempts to declare such an organization a money-laundering operation? How do you guarantee that these properties would not evaporate with the donors in bad times? How do you prevent corruption in the organization itself? How do you divvy up the monies? How do you prevent fraud on the community level, school level, and family level? How do you guarantee lower tuition? And so on. While I cannot anticipate all issues, my model (as appears in the original paper) tries to answer all these questions and I will give you a short version here:
Initial financing of the organization would be by wealthy Jewish donors who would agree to donate, not cash, but interest in their businesses. The organization would agree not to do anything that would be detrimental to the owner’s interests such as selling to a third party, voting against the donor, etc., for at least a set period. The incentive to the donors would be the inherent tax deduction and material support for Jewish education.
Any profits plus any cash donations aside from the budgeted school financing should be invested prudently. It should be in the charter that all investments must be in real businesses like real estate, manufacturing, clinics, banks, etc. No hedge funds, venture capital, derivatives or other such luft gescheften should be permitted.
Members of the organization would be schools, synagogues and individual families who choose to join the organization and abide by its stated rules. Any school and shul that would join would require its parent body or members to become individual members by charging a set sum as part of membership or tuition.
The intent is to create a single umbrella organization that will support all schools and communities that are committed to Jewish education. I realize that this is a touchy subject, but I believe that if an organization is created that would offer significant relief in tuition, most communities will be able to put aside their narrow prejudices and agree to participate in the organization.
On the other hand, it is important that the organization support only those schools that are committed to provide a Jewish education. Those who are truly committed to Jewish education would certainly not wish to assist institutions that do not support the concept of Jewish education. Although I do not wish to define the term “Jewish education” too narrowly, we also must be careful not to broaden the term too far. The organization must not support non-Jewish causes or questionable institutions.
The organization should support Jewish educational institutions from elementary school (perhaps including kindergarten) through high school. It would not support post-secondary institutions, such as kollels and colleges.
Affiliation of the organization: The two leading umbrella groups that presently serve the American Orthodox Jewish community are the Orthodox Union (OU) and Agudath Israel of America (Agudah). The organization must be either totally
independent or (more realistically) affiliated with any or both of these umbrella groups if possible. Preferably, it could also be affiliated with some of the important hasidic and yeshivish groups. In an ideal world, all these would appoint some rabbis to sit on the rabbinical board of the organization on an equal basis. If that is not possible, then the RCA should appoint such a rabbinical board.
Charter, constitution, structure and bylaws: The donors, member schools, member shuls and the member families are entitled to have a voice in the organization. However, the organization must have the authority to weed out unwanted elements, and the charter, bylaws and constitution of the organization should contain provisions that make this possible. Input from other organizations may be obtained to create a proper constitution.
The charter must contain unchangeable provisions that the organization is committed to the basic principles of God, Torah and Halacha. It must also provide that changes may be made to the constitution only with the consent of a supermajority (say, 80%) of the member families, member schools, member shuls, donors and affiliated groups. This should prevent frivolous or inappropriate changes to the basic structure and purpose of the organization.
Tuition: A nationwide survey should be conducted of parents (not schools) inquiring as to the tuition that they are charged. Based on the results of the survey, a range of acceptable tuition/fees would be developed for each area. The organization would provide that no member school may charge more than the amount deemed acceptable (based on the survey), less the per-student contribution provided by the organization. This provision may be controversial, but it must be insisted upon in order to achieve the goal of an “affordable Jewish education for all who require it.” The table of acceptable fees will be adjusted annually to take into account of cost of living index or new teachers’ contracts (if such contracts are negotiated by the organization or with its involvement). Other changes may be made only with the consent of the majority of the member families. In establishing acceptable fees, it is also appropriate to examine the public schools’ cost per student in the respective area.
Membership fees: Since the purpose of these fees is to signify the commitment of each family to the organization, the fees should be nominal. Moreover, the schools should receive additional funding—beyond that which they receive on a per-student basis—based on the number of member families in the organization who are affiliated with the school.
Tuition and building funds: While the organization will be providing significant support for all schools that provide a Jewish education, tuition and building fund payments by parents will continue—although at a reduced level. It is important that the organization not be the sole source of support of any school. Parents and the entire local community must still commit resources to their schools to ensure that the schools (1) remain central to the local community; and (2) remain independent and retain the ability to build and expand on their own. My proposal envisions the central organization helping to support the various schools, but I do not want to create a situation where the local schools and communities will become dependent on and subordinate to the central organization.
The original article dealt with many other topics, mainly, but not only, about fraud prevention, fiduciary and other such subjects. However, I have to keep this short, so if my main idea would be implemented, I promise to share any other ideas with the public.
Ze'ev Atlas is a longtime resident of Teaneck.