Like many parents who’ve been put through the financial/emotional/physical wringer over the past few months, my husband and I found ourselves applying for financial aid from our daughter’s yeshiva day school for the first time. I am still reeling from the shock and hurt: I have never encountered a more humiliating, demeaning, invasive process in my life.
Let me be absolutely clear about one thing. I promise you: No one wants to be on the asking end. We all want to be on the giving end, especially when it comes to our children. So, the decision to apply for a need-based scholarship is not an easy one, and certainly isn’t made lightly.
Let me walk you through this application process and I’ll let the facts speak for themselves.
In Bergen County there is a centralized website called Yeshiva Aid ( www.yeshivaaid.com ) through which you apply to any school in the county. There’s a cute sentence on the last line of the home page stating that your application will be viewed only by the school’s financial aid administrator and scholarship committee. (Who is on it, you ask? I certainly don’t know.) But it is unclear how your extremely personal and highly sensitive information is kept confidential and inaccessible to the many other schools on the list.
Then you begin the application, and start answering a myriad of questions about your spending habits. First, about your income: salary, bonus, dividend/interest income, capital gains, child support, pension, disability, unemployment, etc. Then you answer questions about expenses. And I don’t just mean tuition and mortgage. I mean you are required to itemize how much you spend on housekeeping, tutoring, camp, extracurricular activities, home maintenance, pension, charity, gifts for friends and family—to name just a few.
But of course that’s not quite enough, so you then provide—in excruciating detail—your mortgage information (including the original amount of mortgage, the current value of your home, whether or not you’ve done construction in the past five years, the cost of that construction and more). And your car information, including the make and model of it, lease cost, etc.
Your life is now an open book, right? Wrong. There’s more.
List your other assets: cash in the bank, total stocks, bonds, mutual funds, market value of any real estate you own, market value of your pension, IRA, 401(k). Cash value of your life insurance. If you’ve ever borrowed against your 401(k), and if so, how much.
Detail your liabilities, mortgage and second mortgage, home equity loan, car loan, any other bank loan or liability.
List any loan or gift you’ve received from family for the past three years.
By now, you and your spouse are indulging in the luxury of a hard apple cider and praying that one day these answers will be different, wondering how everyone else makes it through life in one piece, second-guessing your life decisions. But you’re not done yet.
List any vacations you’ve taken in the past three years—where did you go and how much did you spend? Have you made any smachot? How much did you spend and who paid for it? List every summer program your kids have attended, and how much you spent on those.
You’ve finally completed the application and are asked to submit supporting documentation: W2’s for two years, tax returns for two years, mortgage statements, bank statements, investment account statements, property tax bill.
As if that’s not enough, they also require you to fill out IRS paperwork so that the committee can independently request the tax documentation directly from the IRS—you know, as if parents who can’t afford to pay for their children’s schools are spending their time forging tax documentation. I wonder, how much fraud occurred in Jewish day school scholarship funds that caused this process to be so invasive? And is it enough to excuse humiliating and demeaning thousands of other parents who truly do need this support?
You’re on the verge of an emotional breakdown. You sneak into your sweet daughter’s room to remind yourself of why you’re putting yourself through this treacherous process. And you try to file the pain away somewhere in the back of your mind, somewhere beside the shame and the self-loathing and sense of defeat.
Just when you think you can start recovering from this blow, you open your email to find a letter from the school asking you to agree to the following conditions (among others) if you accept money for financial aid:
1. Make every effort to raise tuition funds yourself, including asking parents or grandparents for money, and applying to scholarships for your college-aged students first.
2. Limit your expenses to necessities, meaning that “vacations must be limited to bare minimum” and you must limit house repairs and should not do any major house improvements or expansions.
3. Sleepaway camps are considered a luxury, and you cannot spend on that unless you have a professional or rav advising that it is necessary.
4. Family simchas and kiddushim must be made at the “bare minimum.”
5. You must prioritize the institution your child attends when distributing your masser money.
6. You must use your savings towards tuition. (Right, that’s what our rainy day account is for. Yeshiva. Not unexpected illness, car crashes or future life surprises.)
7. Limit your retirement savings to the minimum.
8. And finally, consider it your responsibility to repay the institution even after your child graduates.
As if the parents who are subjecting themselves to the inherent humiliation of asking others for financial support aren’t suffering quite deeply enough, the tuition financial aid process makes sure to lodge that already immutable despair deeper, where you can never quite recover from the scarring. Those feelings of inadequacy, of never being able to give your children quite enough, of constantly struggling because of the societal pressure to conform—this process has made sure to imprint those forever.
I know I am not alone when I say that the kind of stress and anguish that this application process has wedged into my marriage, my parenting and my general well-being is incalculable and unparalleled. But it is deplorable.
It is about time to bring this taboo topic out from behind the opaque curtain of shame and pain. It is high time to hold our institutions accountable and to demand basic decency—especially in delicate cases of parents who are already struggling. If they cannot come up with a better system, I’m sure parents like you and I can help them think a little more creatively.
Enough is enough. The chokehold of the financial aid system on our struggling community needs to come to an end. We deserve more. We deserve better. I, for one, am done subjecting myself to this humiliation. I am done allowing myself to be at the mercy of a system that treats me like I am a number on a pile of paperwork. We ask God every day not to bring us to the point where we need to ask “lidei matnat basar v’dam.” But we also need to redesign the giving hand to be one built from kindness, generosity, foresight and wisdom. We need the people designing these processes and institutions to reflect the basic, basic values of the Jewish people: We need rachmanim, bayshanim and gomlei chasadim.
In an upcoming issue, I hope to discuss some ideas that we think may help create a more fluid, less painful experience. And in the spirit of community, in the hopes of having an honest, solution-focused conversation, I invite you to share your creative thoughts about how we can redesign the current process such that those who need support are not made to feel small and shamed—without compromising the integrity of the scholarship funds. I hope you will join us in the mission of preserving the dignity of all people—even those who cannot afford yeshiva tuition.
Dvorah Vaynman is a Passaic resident, PhD student, and proud mother of two beautiful children. She can be reached at [email protected].