When Homer Nodded

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Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is widely admired and for many good reasons. I am a member of the chorus and almost always sings his praise. If this piece had been written two days earlier, the qualifying “almost” would not have appeared. Alas, Homer has nodded meaning that a truly wise man has slipped up with his submission, “A New, Ugly Wrinkle in the Tuition Crisis.” We are presented with a scenario of class warfare, the combatants being middle class religious Jews who send their kids to yeshivas and day schools on one side and rabbis, teachers, kollel members and who knows who else on the other side. For sure, there is a tuition crisis and for sure there are people who are angry. But there is no class warfare. There are serious issues that do not have ready solutions and the proof of the pudding is that they have gotten more serious with the passage of time. Here are some thoughts:

  1. There are parents who believe that while they are paying the full tariff there are other parents who are getting off easy. Overwhelmingly, the complaints are directed at individuals who aren’t rabbis or teachers or kollel members but rather at persons who are believed to have significant incomes but yet are able to pull the wool over the eyes of tuition committees and others who make tuition decisions.
  2. I imagine that there are some people who are upset with the klei kodesh who pay little tuition. However, statistics of day school enrollment show that overwhelmingly Orthodox enrollment today is in charedi institutions and in these circles there is great respect for klei kodesh.
  3. This does not mean that there aren’t places where individuals get exercised over klei kodesh. Rabbi Adlerstein is in Los Angeles, at least I think he still is. Just about twenty-five years ago, there was an extraordinary occurrence in that sacred city. The lay people of a major chinuch institution, not MO in orientation, decided that they too were fed up over the tuition breaks being given to kollel families and other have-nots and so they instituted — or at least tried to institute — the following arrangement: Families receiving scholarship assistance would have to acknowledge that they owed the institution every last buck of assistance they had received. This acknowledgement had to be legally binding, so that if a kollel family or rebbe owned a home, the amount of scholarship assistance would have to become a second mortgage which the institution held on the recipient’s home, with the amount of the second mortgage going up each year as additional scholarship assistance was provided.
    I objected at the time to this arrangement, saying that it was both cruel and unworkable. My view was unheeded, which wasn’t surprising, but the arrangement was cruel and it proved to be unworkable.
  4. Rabbi Adlerstein focuses on the impact on tuition of Orthodox fertility. Here, too, the issue is not as clear as he indicates it to be. Over the years, the number of children per family has increased significantly in yeshiva world schools, so that the fertility rate among these parents has come fairly close to the fertility in chassidic homes, strongly suggesting that tuition is not a factor in determining the fertility rate. As for the Modern Orthodox, my 1998 census of day schools showed a substantially lower fertility rate for MO families, a circumstance that certainly then did not arise out of any tuition crisis. It is not certain that the number of children being born in MO families has declined over the past 5-10 years.
  5. Rabbi Adlerstein suggests that a greater proportion of tzedakah funds be given to local chinuch institutions. This is a good approach and if adhered to would be of benefit in a handful of communities. The problem is that to an extraordinary extent yeshiva and day school enrollment is concentrated in New York and New Jersey and no communal arrangement can sufficiently address either the tuition crisis or the shortfall faced by many Torah institutions in these states. Between 1998 and 2008, U.S. day school enrollment grew by 43,000, with New York and New Jersey accounting for nearly 40,000 of this growth. There is evidence that each year the concentration of yeshivas and day schools in these two states grows and that there is a correspondent decline in most other communities.
  6. There is no question that a great number of Orthodox families are struggling to meet tuition obligations and that there is pain in many households. There is, unfortunately, another side to the picture, which is that parallel to the pain there is a track of self-indulgence and while there are families that do not indulge at all, a significant number do. What happens on Pesach is not a peripheral aberration – and there are other examples.
  7. The further truth is that among affluent families, the amount of giving – and not only to chinuch institutions but to all communal causes – is below what the halachos of tzedakah require. This was a theme harped on constantly by Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, at Agudah conventions and elsewhere, including in a noted tshuva included in his Igros.
  8. To make matters more difficult for Torah institutions and many in the parent body, too many schools are poorly led. MO institutions, the primary focal point for the tuition crisis, often have a rule limiting the president to a 2-year or 3-year term, an arrangement that surely guarantees that long-term issues are not likely to be adequately addressed. This is one reason why too few schools have had the vision to establish and nurture endowments which can throw off funds that could help reduce tuition.
  9. At the end of the day, the primary factor accounting for the financial straits that our schools are in and therefore accounting, as well, for the tuition crisis is the inability to secure meaningful government funding. Orthodox schools have a dual curriculum and this is either very expensive or fairly costly. It is extraordinary that they can get by as they do. There is no ready solution to the issue of government aid but it is something that is being worked on now and perhaps one day there will be a meaningful payoff.

Marvin Schick is one of the leading experts in the Jewish Day School movement in the United States, beginning with his unpaid position as President of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, which he has held for nearly 35 years. As an educational consultant for the Avi Chai Foundation, he has twice performed a census of the Day School Movement (in 2000 and 2009) among other projects for better understanding and support of Jewish education. For decades, his (sponsored) inserts into the NY Jewish Week have combated the bias against the Orthodox community present in that journal.

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20 Responses

  1. L. Oberstein says:

    Marvin Schick is right that the way to solve the problem is to find someone else to pay the bills. I am 100% in favor of government aid to private schools. What is the realistic chance in today’s economy of that happening? Slim to none.
    Mr. Adelson can give 10 million dollar donations at a time to whomever he wants and he also gives 100 million at a time to important Jewish causes like Birthright. How do we reach the many Jewish billionaires in this country and win their support for Jewish education e.g. Mayor Bloomberg, to name just one well known billionaire. Unfortuantely, most of the Jewish philatropists do not prioritize Torah education and many are far removed from observance and understanding of these issues.
    The money is there all right, it is just in someone else’s pocket.

  2. David Willig says:

    Dr. Schick,
    ultimately the Yeshivot and Catholic Schools will have to close and reopen as after school programs. Tell the State that secular education is their concern, and unless they give the parochial schools $5,000 per child, they can handle the expense of secular education.
    You know Jews are highly litigious so we can come up with dozens of excuses to sue. I am thinking of the ransom of Red Chief by O. Henry. The State should be thrilled to pay us to go to Yeshivot and out of their system.

  3. S. says:

    Nero, fiddle, Rome.

  4. squeezed professional says:

    Dr. Shick,

    Notwithstanding the hyperbolic platitudes and references to epic Greek poets, the condensending and ostrichian nature of your response along with your entrenched position with the “establishment” that allows the tuition problems to flourish, undermine any valid points which are contained in your response. Is there “class warfare” between the middle class and the users and abusers of the System in the usual sense of the term? Of course not. But when I am standing on line in the grocery store, having checked and double checked my cart to make sure that we REALLY need the food in there, and I see a kollel wife in front of me paying a triple digit grocery bill with WIC and food stamps, I am very resentful. When I see “klei kodesh” remodeling their homes, going on vacations during bein hazemanim, and driving new cars (because their parents foot the bill) while paying minimal tuition, when I have to struggle to pay full tuition (after taxes), I am very resentful. And when my old friends from Yeshiva who are klei kodesh ask me how many kids I have and I answer 2, it does hurt. That’s right. We HAVE limited our family size because of the ever increasing burden of tuition, and many of our friends have as well. So it’s very disingenuous to ignore the reality of the problem, and it is quite insulting to hear, from a purportedly well respected “askan”, that the issues we face every day don’t exist. They do. And it would do well to abandon the ivory tower filled with studies and reports and actually mingle with the proletariat before one makes policy decisions or opines as to what is really going on.

  5. Ben says:

    The problem is that those who have the power to make changes are the one’s that are going to be most impacted by those changes so they are never going to happen. Their biases, due to this, will deny them the reality of the situation and they will make rationals up to change what is true. Pretty much like Marvin Schick has done.

  6. RMA says:

    Dr. Schick,

    Despite your years of first hand experience with the day school system, you are remarkably naive about the genuine frustration and pain of the frum middle class. I strongly disagree with your assertion that Rabbi Adlerstein “slipped up.” In truth, Rabbi Adlerstein’s article resonated strongly with me with my peers and clearly with the thousands of people who “liked” it on Facebook. We felt that at long last, someone was brave enough to expose the truth about our predicament, and now you attempt in a somewhat condescending manner to undo this reality with questionable statistics. Though it may be convenient to imagine that my peers and I who by secular standards would be considered wealthy are “self-indulgent,” the idea to us is laughable. The truth is that many of us don’t even aspire to extravagant life styles, or vacations abroad. Our aspirations are simpler; we dream of someday emerging from the mountain of debt that seems to escalate daily because exorbitant tuition requirements leave no money to pay down our debt, much less create a small nest egg, or retirement fund.

  7. mycroft says:

    “However, statistics of day school enrollment show that overwhelmingly Orthodox enrollment today is in charedi institutions and in these circles there is great respect for klei kodesh.”

    That may be true but for better or worse the vast majority of bloggers are not from the chareidi community. The vast majority of comments seem to be describing the MO day school community. I do believe if I recall figures that I’ve read in the past the MO and Centrist day school population has essentially not increased in decades. It is this subset which is crucial-the vast majority of Chareidim will stay frum if there were no such things as day schools.

    “Overwhelmingly, the complaints are directed at individuals who aren’t rabbis or teachers or kollel members but rather at persons who are believed to have significant incomes”

    I have heard complaints from those who are barely middle class when askingfor assistance and being turned down and then challenging the schools policy of giving such breaks for klei kodesh being told openly if you had this income as aklei kodesh we’d give you a tuition break. The issue is different treatment of different sources of income.

    “As for the Modern Orthodox, my 1998 census of day schools showed a substantially lower fertility rate for MO families, a circumstance that certainly then did not arise out of any tuition crisis.”

    If there were blogs then the same issue would have been discussed back then-yeshiva tuition was referred to back then as the biggest birth control for Orthodox Jews-certainly the MO community which I am part of. It was considered as such for decades before 1998. There is no doubt that Yeshiva tuition has kept down the size of MO families by people who were deciding on size of families way before 1998.

    “The problem is that to an extraordinary extent yeshiva and day school enrollment is concentrated in New York and New Jersey and no communal arrangement can sufficiently address either the tuition crisis or the shortfall faced by many Torah institutions in these states. Between 1998 and 2008, U.S. day school enrollment grew by 43,000, with New York and New Jersey accounting for nearly 40,000 of this growth.”

    Probably essentially similar to growth in day schools being limited to chareid schools in the past decades-note that the Jewish community has spread outside of Metro NY area in the past couple of decades.

    “What happens on Pesach is not a peripheral aberration”

    By those who have money. Most Jews don’t go to hotels for Pesach.

  8. Educator says:

    Thank you Mr. Schick for bringing data to the discussion. A growth of 48,000 in any school system in 10 years is enough to cripple any school system especially if that is during the largest economic downturn since the depression. I think Mr. Rich has had the best quote of the discussion “the primary factor is, that as a group, the orthodox community wants to provide a level of education for all its children that goes beyond the level of resources that the community as a whole wishes to allocate to education”

    Thank you also for recounting what happened last generation in Los Angeles. It certainly gives a context for the culture in which Rabbi Adlerstein is hearing his complaints.. Perhaps, rather than this being a new problem, it is next generation of Los Angeles Jewry refighting a battle that was already lost. Wouldn’t it be tragic if the whole United States got pulled in that kind of class warfare thinking rather than just limiting its damage to one city. There may be people who are bitter and resentful in every city. But that bitterness and resentment shouldn’t cause us to make whole scale changes while ignoring what the data is telling us is the problem.

    The fact that money is tight and we have a challenge can be overcome. The fact that our community is now operating with such open expressions of anger and hostility is what is truly frightening. Perhaps, it will be helpful because now bridges can be rebuilt as we understand what others are experiencing and come to a consensus of what needs to change

  9. Ira says:

    I think that Shmuel put it perfectly.

    “There is simply no feeling that the Rabbis, lay leaders, educational consultants or others involved really care enough to treat this issue seriously.”

    When you read Mr. Schick’s article its almost turn back the clock to the time before anyone acknowledged that their was a tuition problem, rather than just have everyone cheer for vouchers. Anyone that struggles to pay tuition read his article with a gasp, because it basically swept the problem under the rug, and looked for people to blame and take swipes at, rather than try to solve the problem or make creative solutions.

  10. Shmuel says:

    I can’t say anything about how prevalent the “class warfare” mentality is, but I can tell you that after reading Rabbi Adlerstein’s article, I thought that he must have found some way inside my mind, because he almost perfectly described how I and many in my social circle feel. You may well be right that it is a minority, but this knee jerk reaction to dismiss all of his claims without actually going our there and talking to many people, or surveying the public, is typical of the mentality that day school administrators have, and is exactly part of the great frustration of being in this situation.

    There is simply no feeling that the Rabbis, lay leaders, educational consultants or others involved really care enough to treat this issue seriously.

  11. Eli says:

    The only way to secure government funding is to move out of the NY/NJ area. Both have entrenched public school unions, which would never allow for a voucher system. In addition, NY has the Blaine amandment, so even if there are vouchers, the children can not use them for Jewish schools.

    With all due respect, tuition has been going up over the past few years, mostly due to the recession and fewer donors/full payers. Yeshivos need to get money where they can (meaning higher tuition), and eventually some parents will say enough and send to public school (which we already seeing in some locales). The question is how to avoid that outcome, which at this point seems inevitable.

    Something has to be cut, or added. Either cut services, or raise money from those who aren’t giving it now (such as Klei Kodesh, via a minimum tuition, as is done in Lakewood). Another idea bounced around is to bifurcate the school, giving preferential treatment (and smaller class sizes) to those who pay full tuition (which has the added bonus of giving impetus to pay in full, which doesn’t exist today).

    It is better to plan for the outcome than have a bad option forced on you.

  12. Bob Miller says:

    What in this whole discussion is based on in-depth, unbiased exploration of Torah law? Do we even use that as a reference point?

    Is there a prevailing assumption that rabbinic decisors are their own interest group not focused on objective Torah and the overall needs of the klal? That thinking would be a more serious communal problem for us than high tuition itself.

  13. Nachum says:

    “Leading private universities all have huge endowments”

    And get huge amounts of money from the government, and have students racking up huge loans.

  14. E. Fink says:

    I don’t think Mr. Schick read the same article as I did. R’ Adlerstein primarily addressed the disconnect between those receiving tuition assistance from schools who are employed in klei kodesh by other institutions. These people do not as a general rule curtail their family size and the subsidy for their children’s education is falling on people who are curtailing their family size and general spending. The flaw in this model is that the institution that hires the klei kodesh assumes that the school’s parent body is willing or able to subsidize their employee. The onus should be on the institution to raise those funds, not pay a half baked salary and know that the working class will pick up the tab.

    None of Mr. Schick’s points address this issue, the primary issue in the post from R’ Adlerstein.

  15. joel rich says:

    At the end of the day, the primary factor accounting for the financial straits that our schools are in and therefore accounting, as well, for the tuition crisis is the inability to secure meaningful government funding
    —————————————-
    This is a theme that is often raised in this discussion and I always think of the line “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

    We can certainly debate the pros and cons of government funding for private schools but it’s not like someone changed the rules in the middle of the game so I certainly wouldn’t call this “the primary factor”. IMHO the primary factor is that as a group the orthodox community wants to provide a level of education for all its children that goes beyond the level of resources that the community as a whole wishes to allocate to education. This basic fact is exacerbated by the lack of a community structure which can make or enforce tough decisions on increasing the percentage of the community’s resources allocated to education or the areas where expenses will be cut.

    The saddest part to me is people who thought they were doing what the community expected/wanted them to do and then get caught short in midlife when there is little they can do to change their family’s trajectory.
    KT

  16. Mike S. says:

    Leading private universities all have huge endowments and tuitions that are rising as fast as those of Jewish day schools. Tuition is set by what the market will bear, not by some rational calculation of what it should cost to run a school. Expenses are somewhat elastic and will grow until the school has no way to meet them. The lack of professional management does sometimes mean that schools are forced to close suddenly when they can’t meet expenses and haven’t planned ahead because they haven’t seen it coming.

    From my own experience as someone who has spent more than $600K on (full) tuition so far, a little hakarat hatov would go a long way. The one incident that still has me steamed was when a teacher was teasing my kid about being driven to school in a used taxi–hey that was what we could afford after paying tuition. I am still upset at that 15 years later.

  17. David J says:

    Mr. Marvin Schick,

    Once the next economic decline in the US occurs, the days schools (including the right wing ones) will unfortunately be in a world of hurt.

    The simple reality is that we the Orthodox communities cannot have all of the below the following without increasing income in our communities.

    1) Large families
    2) Quality dual curriculum private days school educations.
    3) Meeting of families basic needs. Many of which are met by the US Government through food stamps etc. Many people’s needs still go unmet.

  18. shaulking says:

    Mr. Marvin Shick needs to walk Central Avenue in the Five Towns and speak to the residents, he will be mighty surprised that their opinions do not match his “so-called FACTS”.

  19. meir says:

    Mr. Schick, with respect for all you have done for Torah education for decades, i think you misread R’ Adlerstein a bit. He provided an observation as to opinions and comments he had heard recently with respect to the crisis, including blame being ascribed to the lower-class (including kollel/lei-kodesh “free-loaders”) by middle-class (and i assume higher-class) families. this is factually accurate. you can ascribe blame to others, and you may have a better vantage point, but the fact is that many middle-classers (like me) are getting upset that we accept limitations on our lives/families and are bound by reason while picking up the bill for those who expect us to cover them.

    R’ Adlerstein didn’t slip up, though there may be some misinformation going around about the reasons for the crisis that causes this class warfare. but it is there, whether you like it or not, and you just aren’t as tuned into the feelings of young religious parents, though you may know a lot about jewish school administration and schooling issues.

  20. Whoa Nelly says:

    While I do not always agree with Dr. Shick’s comments, I know that they are always well intentioned and usually well thought out. In this case I believe he is very much correct. So many of the comments on the other thread were knee jerk reactions based on assumptions that were far less than factual, to put it kindly.

    The basis for many of the statistics quoted were from the Avi Chai Foundation’s report. Apparently the author of that report has just told you that many of the commenters and R Y Alderstein himself have misread that report.

    Thank you Dr. Schick for the clarifications. You certainly have spelled it out so much better than I could have.