The recent Nishma survey confirmed that the high cost of Orthodox living, and particularly yeshiva tuition, ranks very high among people’s concerns. Recently, we looked at the issue of yeshiva tuition from the perspective of faith, bitachon. We suggested that people for whom top-tier private schools are within their reach must have bitachon regarding tuition. However, people in lower income ranges cannot expect God to provide for their outsized tuition expenses. They should be spending within their price range, not beyond their means. Often, this seemingly logical choice isn’t an option in our communities. That lack of reasonable choices has to change. Not only that, even with Divine help, people with high incomes have good reasons to hesitate before paying very high tuitions within their price range.
The Cost of Tuition
Very often, families can only afford yeshiva tuition when both parents work. Some parents want that anyway. Others, mostly women, feel forced to work against their parental instincts in order to pay for tuition and other costs of Jewish living. People make career decisions based on tuition. They work at jobs they don’t want for longer hours than normal in order to pay for tuition. Some people even take jobs below their training level at schools in order to afford tuition.
Even with all that, parents who both work hard still cannot meet the earnings required to pay for this level of tuition and other expenses—or worse, they earn a little too much and fail to qualify for scholarships but still feel a financial squeeze. Financial stress leads to marital stress, especially when a wife feels forced to work against her maternal instincts and still cannot make ends meet. Often, men feel like they are failing to provide for their families, particularly when they have to appear in front of a tuition committee to request a discount. Children rarely see their hard-working, depressed parents. Sadly, these families struggle not only with the unrealistic financial requirements of the Orthodox community but also the resulting self-esteem and shalom bayit problems. This can lead to medical expenses for dealing with the stress, which in conjunction with other, unrelated medical expenses that occasionally arise can permanently break the bank and the marriage. The Temple’s altar sheds tears over high tuition.
The Talmud (Shabbat 102b) says that in the Temple in Jerusalem, only first-rate materials were used: “There is no poverty in the place of wealth.” However, elsewhere, the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 27a) says that the shofarot used for fast days were silver plated rather than gold plated because “the Torah spared the money of the Jewish people.” Why in one case do we insist on the best while in another case worry about the expense? Rav Yechezkel Landau (Noda Bi-Yehudah, vol. 2 kuntres acharon no. 7) explains that silver may not be the best material but it certainly doesn’t represent poverty. Even in the Temple, we only use gold when we must. Otherwise we use silver to minimize the communal expense. Even for a mitzvah, we need not—we should not—demand extremely expensive products when reasonable alternatives exist.
Half the Price
Imagine what the community would look like if all yeshiva high school tuition was capped at $15,000 per year and elementary school at $10,0000. Keep in mind that this represents a cut of half or more from some schools’ current tuitions. Families with four children would still have to pay up to $60,000 per year in tuition, $90,000 pre-tax. That is currently the state in the Yeshivish community. It means that families have to earn close to $200,000 to pay full tuition and also put a roof over their heads and pay for other expenses—food, clothes, insurance, etc. Depending on their precise income and expenses, these families might be able to save for retirement or a rainy day.
I grew up in Teaneck and attended local co-ed day schools, whose tuitions at the time were considered expensive but have since grown substantially. After marrying, I moved to Brooklyn where my wife grew up and we send our children to single gender schools, which are at least slightly Yeshivish in line with my wife’s upbringing. With three high school graduates and a fourth in elementary school, I have always paid significantly less than $15,000 for high school (full tuition, including fees, etc.) and significantly less than $10,000 for elementary school. Even at its height, my yeshiva tuition bill for four children at full tuition was always less than $45,000.
The schools are cheaper because they are no-frills, which is less than ideal on many levels. They do not offer the variety of opportunities for students to express themselves. Art is only taught by a substitute when a teacher is absent. Classes are larger; extracurriculars are all but non-existent; resource rooms are pretty basic. The schools have fewer administrators, guidance staff and teachers, all of whom are paid less and sometimes late and most of whom have fewer graduate degrees. Parents have complaints about particular teachers, school decisions and a variety of other issues that arise. With fewer administrators and greater financial constraints, the school responds slower, if at all, and makes frustrating mistakes. While the quality of education allows students to excel at standardized tests, inevitably it is lower on some levels. Quality comes at a cost that includes much more than tuition dollars. Isn’t every dollar we spend on our children’s education an investment in their future? Can anything be more important than that? Yes, the families in which our children are raised are more important to their future than their schools. Children need robust resource rooms but they also need thriving, happy families.
The no-frills schools are more inclusive to families with different careers. You don’t have to work in finance or as a lawyer or doctor. Sometimes, women have the option of staying home with their young children. There is still financial stress due to tuition but it is of a different magnitude than communities where tuition is literally double. With lower tuitions there is less stress, therefore more shalom bayit. Children benefit when families experience greater peace.
What You Pay For
These no-frills schools are not upper-class preparatory schools. They do not compete with the college prep, Ivy League feeder schools in terms of facilities, course offerings or extracurricular activities. But they are excellent schools within the price range of the upper middle class. More than being no-frills schools, these are shalom bayit schools, because, for many in the community, they relieve some of the financial stress that often translates into marital stress and medical problems. Parents have more opportunities to follow careers they desire. Mothers have options to stay home with young children. The community has more room for people outside the upper class. In communities where shalom bayit schools do not exist, the tuitions often are double what we described, and the financial pressure and its attendant family stress even greater.
Upper-class schools do not guarantee that graduates will remain observant Jews. I would be interested in seeing statistics, but my gut tells me that graduates of these schools have a lower religious retention rate than graduates of shalom bayit schools (although we have to be mindful of the difference between causation and correlation). Parents struggle for decades, sacrificing greatly to pay for a yeshiva education that has a significant chance of failure. We can sacrifice less for a higher chance of success, while benefiting other families and the community as a whole.
Call to Action
Bergen County has some schools that can be called shalom bayit schools. All communities need more of these lower-cost educational systems, to give parents more choice. It should be the standard practice in the Orthodox community to send your children to these schools, even if you are very wealthy, and more such schools must be founded. If you are currently looking at options for elementary or high schools, prioritize these shalom bayit schools to save your family and many others around you. Sending your children to shalom bayit schools means that you care about the community, about healthy families, about the overall welfare of children in the schools. On some level, every dollar more of tuition that you pay is another dollar someone else will have to pay for antidepressants, marital counseling and divorce lawyers.
Schools respond to parents’ demands. Parents have to scale back their expectations to avoid raising school costs. Do not demand more technology in the classroom, more guidance staff, more course options and more extracurricular activities. Recognize the limitations of teachers and administrators who are dedicated but underpaid and operating with few resources. Every dollar of expense adds to the tuition burden and deepens shalom bayit problems. To save the community, you are forgoing an upper-class education.
But the community still must face the fact that these shalom bayit schools only solve some of the problem. The $60,000 after-tax tuition bill remains out of reach of many in the community. We cannot realistically expect everyone in the Orthodox community to earn upper middle class incomes. Extreme financial pressure remains on the many people who cannot afford these schools. To solve this, we must continue looking for alternative funding sources to further reduce tuitions. However, even if we cannot reduce tuitions to solve all our problems, we should immediately strive to cut those tuitions in half. For the sake of our struggling families, for the marriages that are ruined by financial pressure, for the children affected by the marital difficulties, for the people suffering from medical conditions brought on by the stress, we must opt for shalom bayit schools.
By Rabbi Gil Student
Rabbi Gil Student is editor of TorahMusings.com.