Response to Dr. Schick

Dr. Schick has just demonstrated that even great thinkers make mistakes. In “When Homer Nodded,” Dr. Schick makes one major error and a number of smaller ones.

His great faux-pas is in implying that I might sometimes exhibit some wisdom. If that ever happens, it is clearly coincidental. Dr. Schick, on the other hand, has enhanced the community for decades with real wisdom, both in his astute thinking, and in his almost solitary insistence on hard data and serious study in understanding our community. In attributing any wisdom to me, he is guilty of classic projection.

Now for the minor errors.

I did not write that we are in the throes of class warfare. I reported on a groundswell of feeling of middle-class parents. You simply cannot deny feelings. They either exist or they don’t. In this case, arguably they do. If anyone had any doubts, the fact that we broke all records on comments (on a heavily moderated blog, which discourages mass participation!) demonstrates the breadth and depth of those feelings.

We have not yet arrived at class warfare, but I believe that we will, unless something is done. My great hope is that something will be done quickly, not only to ease the deep pain of many people, but because – in sharp contrast to some of the commenters who liked my piece – my goal is to see that the kollelim do not get hurt. More on this later.

Dr. Schick maintains that “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.” This is simply not what a significant number of people across the country are saying. The complaints – justified or not – are finding their way to klei kodesh. I believe that this is true in no small part because of the number of families that have had to limit family size, while they see others blessed with larger families, but placing the burden of educating their children on the doorsteps of those no longer willing to open the door and take in the foundlings.

Dr. Schick writes that “in charedi institutions … there is great respect for klei kodesh.” I hope that is the case. I would like to see things stay that way. Unfortunately, we have arrived at a situation where more and more families see a kind of entitlement offered to klei kodesh that they are denied themselves. They sense that, in part, they are paying for that entitlement against their wills, with no choice in the matter. That seems horribly unfair. The feelings are there. There is no way to deny this. We can argue about how to deal with those feelings, and I suspect that my own preferences in that regard are close to those of Dr. Schick. I regard kollelim – especially those in out-of-town communities, and especially those (almost all!) that engage in serious kiruv rechokim and upbuilding of the core community – as the crown jewels of the Torah world. I don’t want to see them hurt or devalued in the eyes of the tzibbur.

Dr. Schick points to studies showing that the fertility rate in yeshiva families approaches that of chassidish families; both are higher than in the centrist community. Maybe so. Still, I see no reason to doubt what so many of us have heard (and is confirmed by commenters) that people who are in the working, non-klei kodesh parts of the Orthodox world (both right-wing MO as well as yeshiva) are painfully deciding to have fewer children than they would like to have. They understand the importance of the mitzvah, and they love children. But they are unwilling to have them when bederech hateva they can predict no way to afford them.

Pointing to indulgent lifestyles and inadequate levels of charitable giving and government funding as Dr. Schick does is just not very helpful in the short run. These are not going to change quickly enough to avoid the unfortunate conflict that we see brewing.

What can be done to stave off class warfare? Let me reiterate and reframe some of what we have learned from out contributors.

First and foremost, the feelings of injustice have to be acknowledged and dealt with. Every community is different. Dealing with the issue will vary from place to place. In all places, most change cannot occur overnight. Families that started their lives and careers on the basis of attitudes that prevailed just a handful of years ago should not become victims to changes that no one foresaw. There will have to be significant grandfathering. Practices like instituting minimum yearly tuitions (Lakewood style) with no exceptions should be considered, but they need to be eased in.

At the same time, protecting klei kodesh cannot take place on the backs of the unwilling. Increasingly, the middle class is unwilling.

Some changes need occur right away. We need to acknowledge that it is wrong to force people to pay for something that they are unwilling to pay for. School boards need to state it openly and plainly.

Some people took issue with terming what is happening to the full-tuition payers as “theft.” I am not so sure. The Chasam Sofer writes in a teshuvah that the poor of Europe who move to Israel to receive funds from the chalukah system are guilty of theft. There was a fixed amount of charitable funds available. New alms-seekers joining the rolls were stealing from the limited funds available for those who were already there. If stealing from the poor is gezel, so is stealing from the rich – or in our case, the middle class.

For decades, full-tuition parents knew that they were paying more than the actual cost per child, in order to cover for those who could afford far less. They did not balk at this, to their credit. As long as they didn’t, such a system was acceptable. This is no longer the case. Many people are no longer willing to pay more than their share, and do so only because they have no other acceptable chinuch option for their children. If we acknowledge this, we will begin to deal with the unhappy process of finding alternatives. This may mean cutting services, increasing class size, eliminating general studies departments and replacing them with online instruction, etc. No one will be happy with these changes, but the consequences will be shouldered equally and equitably. We cannot simply place the burden on one group of people because they are an easy mark. It is not appropriate for school boards to claim that they have no choice because they have to close a shortfall. They are going to have to find other ways, no matter how painful.

To adequately own up to the present inequities, it is necessary for schools to operate with complete financial transparency. That need not wait for the future. Schools can determine what the average cost per student is only after books are opened, and there is no room for creative accounting procedures. Additionally, in many cases there can be no real consideration of ways to scrimp and save unless all expenses and income can be examined by others, including the parent body.

Other changes will come later. They will have a much better chance of succeeding if we can remove some of the jealousy and the sniping. Yehi Ratzon me-lifnei Hashem that He guide us to a way in which we can restore the chinuch of our children to its rightful pedestal while holding on to the benefits of deep Torah learning in our communities – all in an environment of peace and cooperation.

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54 Responses

  1. mycroft says:

    “To adequately own up to the present inequities, it is necessary for schools to operate with complete financial transparency.”

    Until that happens one could naturally assume the worst.
    An important issue is whether or not Yahdus is being limited to relative elites-either economic elites by the financial requirements to live an Orthodox lifestyle or intellectual above average-an average IQ person can’t succeed in a Yeshiva. Is the race to constantly raising the bar unfortunately preventing more and more from passing the bar into Yahadus. I don’t have answers but the issue has to be considered when we make our requirements to belong such as day school education.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Elijah, since a kehilla in the US has no legal standing to collect taxes for community needs, how does it do its job? How are people protected from policy makers with private agendas?

  3. Elijah says:

    Bob,
    You are correct. A method of enforcing such policies is exactly the problem. The concept of a Vaad HaKehillah needs to be re-instated, especially in the smaller towns in which many of the same policy makers for the schools are the policy makers (and the sugar-daddies) for the other Kodesh institutions.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Elijah,

    In America, how exactly does “forcing other kodesh institutions”, as you put it in your Item 5, happen? We need to use more appropriate tools to implement good policies.