Sunday, August 09, 2020

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After reading “The Humiliation of Applying for Yeshiva Tuition Assistance,” by Dvorah Vaynman (July 16, 2020), I felt compelled to write and share a different viewpoint.

I agree with Ms. Vaynman that the application process for yeshiva tuition assistance can be invasive, intrusive and potentially compromise one’s personal information. That said, please consider the following. I am now, B”H, finished with tuition for yeshivas and colleges. But sending three children to yeshiva and to college was the financial challenge of my life. Our income varied over the years, and there was no question that the choice my wife and I made to send our children to yeshiva instead of public school presented a financial obligation that far exceeded owning a home, owning cars, or any other obligations. But it was our choice to do so, fully understanding that doing this meant buying a modest home, postponing any home improvements, forgoing luxurious vacations, driving older used cars, and in general adjusting our lifestyle to the massive financial expense of yeshiva educations for our children. I used to joke as my co-workers purchased one high-performance luxury import car after another that I send my BMW off to school each morning. And there was a lot of truth in that remark.


I was faced, two times, with year-long stretches of unemployment. I thought about asking for assistance, both from the yeshiva and from my parents and in-laws. But I have weird, old-fashioned values called pride and self-reliance. Also, I noticed that other parents who lived near the yeshiva like we do, who did receive assistance, were virtual slaves of the yeshiva, which would demand (not request) all sorts of things from the parents, like going to the yeshiva late on a Motzei Shabbat to clean up after some function. And then there was the rather obnoxious attitude of some of the generous supporters of the yeshiva who made the tuition assistance possible, and wanted to be honored as royalty by the recipients of the assistance. None of this was for me. So, I threw myself on the mercy of the administration and asked, not for money, but for time. I knew I would eventually find work, and I promised to pay every cent of full tuition for my children as soon as possible. The person I expressed this to at the yeshiva was taken aback, replying that he thought I was going to ask for a break on tuition. But I had paid full tuition for over five years at that point, and was determined to continue to do so, if a bit late. I took a job driving a taxi cab, with crazy hours and for little money, while I searched for a new job. My wife, who only worked part-time, supported my desire to pay in full when we could. I eventually got a real job, but kept the taxi job as well, with a grueling schedule, as I paid for both the current and the previous years’ tuition at the same time. At the end of a year, I was exhausted, but the yeshiva got every penny I owed them, full tuition was paid. I don’t regret any of this, and would do it again in a heartbeat. It was my choice to send my children to yeshiva, and it was an investment that paid off better than any winning lottery ticket, not in terms of money, but in terms of my children’s commitment to Torah-based lives.

A few years later, I was chatting with a friend who sent his children to the same yeshiva. He told me that if it weren’t for the tuition assistance he received from the yeshiva, he would have nothing in his children’s college tuition fund. I held my tongue, but I was furious! I had almost nothing saved for my children for college because unlike him, I had paid full tuition all along. I had no idea at that time how I would pay for college for my children. B”H, everything worked out, but I thought it was quite a chutzpah that I paid full tuition, and others in similar circumstances were getting a break. Did they lack personal pride? Or, perhaps, I was just a sucker who refused to take tzedakah even though I could manage without it. And what about the really needy families who needed assistance? Did they suffer because people who really didn’t need assistance were getting it?

And that brings me back to Ms.Vaynman’s article. I understand there is a level of humiliation in applying for tuition assistance. However, it is no different than anyone who requests charity. Those who manage the tuition assistance budget have an obligation to those who support the yeshiva to be certain that families really need the help, and are not simply taking advantage of tuition assistance in order to live a better lifestyle. Considering that tuition assistance budgets are limited, and that good Jewish parents all want their children to benefit from a yeshiva education, a little humiliation for applicants is acceptable and unavoidable. I suppose if nobody ever took advantage of tuition assistance programs, the process could be less humiliating, but, sadly, I don’t believe every family that applies for assistance has already made the choices necessary to attempt to fund their children’s yeshiva education on their own by properly adjusting their lifestyle. And so, the invasive questions persist of a necessity.

Phil Slepian