What A Wonderful World!*


by Robert Lebovits

In my professional world perception is reality. What individuals believe to be true forms the basis of their worldview and directs the choices they make. Consequently inaccurate perceptions can have profound effects on the course of one’s life and in some circumstances on the future of a community. The dialogue initiated by Rabbi Adlerstein and the response from Dr. Schick have generated an unprecedented outpouring of reactions from readers of all backgrounds. As Rabbi Adlerstein has noted, he has simply articulated the thoughts and feelings of many observant Jews struggling with the demands and economic pressures that living a frum lifestyle entails. The cost of providing for a child’s Jewish education is the focal point of this torrent of frustration but not its real source. I believe that to be something far more central and deeply-rooted in the competing hashkofos of our Torah values.

In order to examine the real issues underlying the resentments and developing rifts between the various groups in Orthodox society, we must first resolve the misdirection present in the discussion regarding tuition costs and the burden baalei batim experience resulting from the perk of “free” education given to the children of klei kodesh. To put it succinctly, there is no truth to this assertion.
How much does it really cost a school to grant tuition waivers to klei kodesh? The prevailing notion is that since the tuition at Yeshiva A for a given child is “X” dollars, therefore every child from a klei kodesh family attending that school generates a benefit worth “X” dollars to the household. This reasoning is flawed on multiple levels. First, it is predicated on the principle that the first unit of service (i.e., educating a child) costs the same as the last unit of service, like paying for hours of a professional’s time: 5 hours of consultation at $300/hr. will cost me $1500 while 3 hours will only cost me $900. That conceptualization ignores the economic realities of fixed costs and variable costs. A more accurate analogy would be that of setting up a business. The expenses of rent, utilities, manpower, etc. are going to be incurred at a basic level no matter how many clients walk through the door. As more and more hours of service are provided, the per unit cost declines. If the business is increasingly successful and grows, expenses will rise but so will the revenue opportunities leading to even lower per unit costs. An elementary school K-8 of 200 children will not cost much less to operate than the same school with an enrollment of 300 children as shall be seen.

A more accurate way to assess the cost to a school of children who generate no tuition revenue is to ask the question: What would happen if we had no children of klei kodesh? Imagine a world in which all of klei kodesh belong to a self-contained, self-sustaining guild where all the needs of its members – including the educating of the children – are met internally, without any interface with the community at large. They provide for the education, spiritual guidance, kosher supervision, and ritual activity of the klal and are paid accordingly, but in dollars not perks. What would be the operating costs of a school without these children compared to one with them?

A number of factors come into play in arriving at this calculation. How large is the school? What percentage of the student body are of klei kodesh families? How many of the rebbeim have children in the school and what percentage do they comprise?

In a K-8 elementary school where boys and girls are in separate classes, it will be necessary to create at least 18 classes to serve the community. The class size before a second class will be formed is approximately 25 – 30. Assuming equal class size per grade – which is frequently not the case but is presented for illustration purposes – a school with an enrollment from 1 to 450 – 540 students will require a full complement of staff and have a physical plant adequate to provide the necessary classrooms and adjunct facilities. The fixed costs will typically be in the 90 – 95% range of the budget owing to the fact that staff salaries comprise 70 – 80% of operational expenses and plant maintenance including utilities run in the 10 – 15% span. The variable costs that are dependent on level of enrollment thus amount to at most 10% of the entire budget (if you wish to verify these figures please consult your local school’s administrator; my informal survey has borne out these proportions).

Assuming the children of klei kodesh make up 40% of the student body – an inflated estimate by my research for virtually all locales outside of Lakewood and certain Brooklyn communities – their presence in a school no larger than the range noted above will increase costs by approximately 4% (40% of the 10% that is discretionary based on enrollment). In a larger school where the children of klei kodesh tilt the school size to needing more than one class per grade the costs may be significantly higher – or not. As one administrator explained to me, teachers will not accept a position if there aren’t enough teaching periods offered and having a second class in a grade may simply fill the work time the teacher expects.
In truth, the absence of klei kodesh children will actually cost the school more money. Remember that world where klei kodesh looked after their own kids and thus had no tuition perk? You can be sure they would demand significantly higher salaries, perhaps as much as 20% more. With salaries accounting for 70 – 80% of the budget, an additional 20% would mean an operating increase 14 – 16%! And since their children are not going to be attending the school, the increase in salaries will not be coming back as tuition revenue.
Further, in communities where additional funding is provided by state income tax credits or grant allocations from local Jewish federations, numbers count: The larger the enrollment, the larger the funding. Losing the children of klei kodesh would actually decrease the revenues not accounted for by tuition, putting the school in an even deeper financial hole.

If it is true that providing a tuition-waived education for klei kodesh in fact does not raise the costs for everyone else and the arrangement may be more akin to Zeh N’Henneh V’Zeh Lo Chosser, then what is the source of people’s frustrations and resentments toward their fellow Jew? Consider a parallel phenomenon going on in Israel today.

The Tal Law granting broad exemptions from universal military service to those asserting to be learning Torah was overturned by the High Court of Justice about a year ago. Since then the Plessner committee was formed to find a replacement arrangement that would be satisfactory to all segments of Israeli society – a fool’s errand if ever there was one. The clamoring to have virtually all chareidim with very limited exceptions do “their fair share” and not live comfortably on the backs of everyone else called to serve has been huge. In fact, the latest iteration of the Netanyahu coalition was formed with the express purpose of correcting what many in Israel see as a grave societal injustice.

About a week ago Likud MK Moshe Feiglin wrote an opinion piece in Arutz Sheva entitled, “Does Israel Need A Compulsory Draft?” In the essay he reports on the 2006 Ben Basat Commission formed by the IDF to investigate manpower utilization and future needs. The numbers are striking. Only 59% of eligible conscripts actually enter the military and with ten different ways the IDF offers to shorten one’s duty call, much less than half of those called up actually complete a full 36-month tour. In reserves the numbers are even worse: Excluding elite combat units, less than 2% of the pool of discharged soldiers show up for reserve duty. Feiglin essentially argues that the notion of the IDF as a People’s Army is a myth and the country would be much better served by moving to an all-volunteer force, where those who want to serve do so professionally and those who do not continue on with their lives.

Again, the question presents itself: If the facts indicate that in regard to military service the chareidi olam is behaving more like the majority of Israelis than the minority, why such resentment and rancor? A few thoughts:

As much as we try to ignore it, it is incontrovertible that a chasm of beliefs and behaviors exist between the Right side of the Orthodox community and the Center and the Left. It is so definitive that each bloc perceives its counterpart as The Other – that similar yet oh-so different entity we struggle mightily within ourselves to accept or even tolerate. The divergence we see from our norms and mores arouse a degree of confusion and irritation that makes all their actions suspect. “Why can’t they just be like us?” is the thought that reflexively comes to mind.

Living in the non-Jewish world involves being exposed to alien values. One of the great social scourges of the last generations has been the ascendance of the entitlement mentality and the perception that another’s elevation comes at the price of one’s own decline. From the comments to the articles from Rabbi Adlerstein and Dr.Schick it is clear that many people feel their life choices were limited due to the inconsiderate actions of others. I’m sure we aren’t the first generation to be looking into someone else’s basket and not just our own but it certainly seems to have amplified greatly in the recent past. Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh L’Zeh does not mean I must make my choices based on how it will affect you. That is co-dependency, an extremely unhealthy sort of interpersonal relationship.

Many commenters have offered creative solutions to the immediate dilemma of the high cost of Jewish education. It strikes me that all of them would require communal cooperation and respect for all the various forms of living a Torah life. This time of the year historically has been a period of divisiveness and ruin for our Nation. We can change that trajectory now and for the future.

*(Thank you, Satchmo)

Dr. Lebovits learned in Beis Hatalmud in Israel. He received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Case Western Reserve University, and maintains a full-time private practice. He served as president of the Pittsburgh Kollel for eight years and as a member of the Board of Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh for the last six.

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61 Responses

  1. Benshaul says:

    you are correct. I hate to repeat myself, but again i will do so- if schools are fair in ONLY charging actual cost tuition , then those paying full tuition arent subsidizing anyone. if the school wants to assume the burden of scholarship children, and has a donor base to support it then those DONATIONS are made fairly. That seems to be the first way to deal with it. In those out of town communities where the city and lay-leaders feel there is a value added by having a kollel, then it is their choice to make in supporting it.

  2. Z says:

    Again, I am trying not to make any value judgements. You are absolutely correct that parents (and people in general) are free to spend their money as they wish. You are also correct that money spent on non-Yeshiva education is by no means guaranteed to be well spent.

    My point is that there are actual costs and opportunity costs related to 4-6 years of kollel. Individuals and/or communities may feel that the benefits justify the cost and that is fine. However, as with dayschool education, I feel it is important that the costs be noted and considered and not ignored in decision making processes.

  3. Benshaul says:

    Many have commented on the “cost” of supporting a kollel life style -even if only for 5 years. I find it somewhat ironic, as I know quite a few families who are supporting their children to the tune of 80 to 90K ANNUALLY, and doing it for more than 5 years, not to mention buying the nice house for the kids. Oh, i forgot to mention, its for the cost of college, medical school, and internship; and we dare not let them live in anything less than the lifestyle they have grown accustomed to. With the cost of tuition at YU & Stern at 52K a year, i have a hard time seeing the need to justify those kollel guys, who if they are from the lucky ones -will get support in the 15k annuall range. I know I am being a touch cynical, and it is anyones choice to give as much money to their children as they want. But please dont tell me about the loss of tzedaka funds for those years of being in kollel. And we havent even begun to discuss the debt that many a professional has from loans they took for their schooling, so they START earning an income in the mid-30s, encumbered with debt, 3 kids, tuition- and the life style of the successful upper middle class.

  4. Robert Lebovits says:

    Would your Robert Lebovits send me an email address that I may be able to contact him on.

  5. Z says:

    Robert Lebovits:
    “…consequently lowering the overall number of students would likely NOT lead to a reduction in the number of schools, only their size…”

    Fewer schools of same size or fewer classrooms over the same number of schools – doesn’t really matter (studies have shown that large schools are not really cheaper per-student than smaller schools). I think it would be a combination of both as the smallest constituencies would have to compromise somewhat since they would not have sufficient numbers for their own schools.

    “Thus being “in kollel” does not inflict a cost on the community”

    Other than: (a) forgone tzedaka related to 4-6 years of lost income and a 4-6 year career setback; (b) forgone portion of income that would have gone towards tuition that must now be granted as a scholarship both during non-income years and as a result of a 4-6 year career setback; (c) parental funds spend on kollel support not available to fund future grandchild tuition and/or other community causes. Not a value judgement, but money (and time) are fungible and resources deployed to support adult Torah learning are coming from elsewhere.

    “Do we have to live in the NY/NJ area or the West Coast, with some of the highest living costs in the country?

    Are the people complaining about tuition willing to move to a small (Canadian) community with no eruv, kosher butcher, or pizza shop, but with $4,000 after-tax tuition due to government subsidies and tax deductibility?

  6. Robert Lebovits says:

    Z: “If there were 40% less children in Lakewood there would be (close to) 40% less spent on education overall (fewer schools) and a significantly lower burden on the funding members of the community/more funds available for other community institutions”.
    Your assessment might be accurate if all the schools in the community were confederated, essentially identical to one another, and funded by a central source. They are none of the above. In communities with more than one educational option each school prides itself on its unique identity, quality of instruction it provides, emphasis on Limudei Kodesh or General Studies, faculty, etc. Each school has its constituent parent body that subscribes to the school’s mission statement. Consequently lowering the overall number of students would likely NOT lead to a reduction in the number of schools, only their size, which brings us back to the phenomenon of burdensome fixed costs.
    Of course that begs the question ought some schools be consolidated for the sake of conserving community resources? In addition, some commenters have also suggested “outsourcing” other services schools provide such as the General Studies program (via charter schools for example), social services, and utilizing parents to perform tasks on a volunteer basis that may reduce staff size so as to achieve economies and lower the burden on paying families.
    No matter what combination of reduced spending and increased funding is pursued, Rabbi Oberstein’s observation is undeniable:”The Orthodox Jewish middle class wants everything the rest of middle class Americans want plus expensive private school education, much higher living expenses, more expensive housing, and we are expected and want to give 10% to tzedakah. How on earth is this sustainable?”
    Is the culture of “kollel-for-everyone” a root cause of the current crisis as DF argues? I see the facts to be otherwise. First, about 85 – 90% of those entering kollel immediately after marriage leave the bais medrash within 4 – 6 years for occupational education and/or full-time empolyment. As R. Adlerstein noted, their support through that period – and often times considerably beyond – was essentially provided by parents of the couple, and I would add the working wife. Thus being “in kollel” does not inflict a cost on the community. To the extent one chooses to contribute to the maintenance of a community’s kollel owing to the enormous benefits that institution gives back to its community is a separate tzedakah decision no different from the allocation of personal tzedakah funds to other communal entities. Many of the jobs taken by post-kollel men are those that serve the klal in chinuch, rabbonus, kashrus, etc., positions that are indispensible to a thriving Orthodox community. Consequently they should not be identified as somehow less legitimate than non-klal occupations.
    Second, the need for scholarship funding in day schools goes far, far beyond klei kodesh. Even if we assume Jewish families as a group are more affluent than the norm, less than 20% of the population in this country have household incomes greater than $100,000. On average across the country, an Orthodox family with 4 children would need a net income of at least $140,000 to “pull its own weight” and not look to the community for fee reductions. Those among us who have been blessed with greater wherewithal have been giving a hand to many of our fellow Yidden for quite some time now. The disparity between expenses and income has been around much longer than the relatively recent kollel surge.
    Changess are inevitably coming. On the one hand, it is predicted that the next couple decades will see the largest tranfer of wealth in our history as the pre-Baby Boomer generation passes on its asset base to its heirs, perhaps forestalling total disaster. On the other hand, we may be going back to a time when a small number of extraordinary gevirim provided communal maintenance while a modest middle class paid their way and the predominant lower middle class squeaked by.
    Let’s ask the questions what precisely should we expect from our schools and what are we willing to sacrifice, whether that may be instructional, extra-curricular, social, or even hashkafic. I am of the sliderule generation – even before the handheld calculator – though I still have kids in school. It is marvelous to see some of the innovations kids enjoy today. But can we let some go if they are too costly? Do we have to live in the NY/NJ area or the West Coast, with some of the highest living costs in the country? There are more options worth considering to alter one’s own dilemma even if fixing the “system” is in doubt.

  7. Z says:

    My issue is not with klei kodesh (and non-earners in general) or the community’s choice to support the education of their children, it is with pretending that there aren’t actual real costs associated with the education of these children that have to be carried by someone.

    Overall there clearly are costs associated with these extra students, and that burden is largely borne by the members of the community that are paying full tuition and funding other community institutions through Tzedaka. Even at a low minimum $4.5k per student, given community economics and family size, I suspect that much of schooling costs in Lakewood ultimately is paid through Tzedaka (including via shelichim sent to my way-out-of-town community) even if it passes through the parents along the way.

    If there were 40% less children in Lakewood there would be (close to) 40% less spent on education overall (fewer schools) and a significantly lower burden on the funding members of the community/more funds available for other community institutions.

    This is not a value judgement, just a statement of fact. I am not advocating a particular local or global solution just stating a problem which is certain to get bigger as (a) the non-earning proportion of the community grows; (b) the non-earners have larger families than the earners; (c) the cycle perpetuates.

    Each community must solve its own problems its own way, but the problem needs to be solved.

    Things that can’t go on forever, don’t.

  8. BenShaul says:

    You seem to insist on a paradigm that isn’t real. Yes, of course 40% more of students should add to the overall cost. But where; Lakewood, Brooklyn, or an out of town Day School that views its klei kodesh and other non-full paying customers as its responsibility? To use Lakewood -and this point has been made already, they charge everyone across the board the same base rate and with 30 kids in a class and the need for NEW schools every year they can make it on a 4.5k base rate-Excluding capitol expenditures. Other communities don’t have a large amount of scholarship kids and do well. Then there are the schools where 50% of the kids are receiving some scholarship. Each city has different needs, different demographics, and a different set of circumstances. Which is why your argument doesn’t work globally or even nationally. Even the public school system has HUGE discrepancies in the cost and rate for educating children; not just from one state to the other but even within the same county.

  9. DF says:

    R. Adlerstein – all I said was that you had opened this conversation by discussing klei kodesh. I did not say in your name that if you fix the problem of proliferating klei kodesh you fix the tuition crisis, I said that on my own. Naturally I dont mean literally the problem will vanish overnight, only that a huge step forward will have been accomplished. Right now, large amounts of community resources – that is, donations of generious patrons – are going to support people in kollelim. Many people far greater than me have noted that the growth of the kollel concept has spiralled out of control. It is well-recognized even in Agudah circles (ie, the chief proponents of the idea to begin with) that the numbers have to be drastically reduced.

    Therefore: If the community can wean itelf off promoting the kollel-for-everyone notion, a) it will free up those donations to schools, and at the same time, b) there will be less people needing tuition breaks. True, some who support adult kollelim might not support schools, and of course there will always be people in need. As I said, it wont solve the problem overnight. But if you fix the problme with kolleim, you will have largely fixed the tuition crisis as a by-product.

    [YA – So now I understand that we are speaking about two different phenomena. There is the issue of kollel families in a given community adding their children to the rolls at significant discounts. Then there is the issue of a culture in which everyone is encouraged to learn for many years, almost always supported by parents and in-laws.

    In the course of the several posts and many comments, we have learned much from each other about the first phenomenon. We have seen that absorbing some children does not always add to costs. We have heard about communities in which reductions are not guaranteed, but given only after scrutinizing available sources of income and depth of need. We have learned about the great service that these children often contribute, by bringing up the level of learning and commitment. And, yes, we have seen that there are indeed communities in which schools do incur expenses because of those children, and the costs are callously passed on to the middle class, further crushing an already overburdened group.

    The other phenomenon is indeed ironic. As my good friend Rabbi Yanky Horowitz points out, for centuries, the community was moser nefesh, overextending itself to see to it that all children received as good a Torah education as they could get. As they grew older, only the most gifted were kept on an “academic” track, and only the elite were supported for years as adults. Today, we’re doing things backwards. We demand that all our young adults stay in full-time learning, and direct our available funds in their direction. Children, meanwhile, are short-changed. We contribute less towards them, to the extent that some families are left with such financial woes that some children are not even getting a chance to be born! However important years of adult learning is (and I for one, will scream its importance from the rooftops), it seems obscenely bizarre that by perpetuating the “system,” we are denying effective Torah education from our children, and in some cases, pulling the plug on the lives of some children before they are born.]

  10. Z says:

    LifeAct: 1) Your example of a school with an enrollment of 1000 of which 400 are children of klei kodesh will still bear out my position… One school is at the early stage for expansion while the other is nearing the maximum space available per grade. The staffing required for both schools are essentially the same and the facilities operating costs may not be be very different either.

    Again, while this may true for a specific school at a specific time, it is impossible that the cost to educate the children of the North American Torah community would be the same if there were 40% less of them. The distribution of schools and entire communities would be different if there were 40% less children in order to re-align institutions to reasonably efficient economics.

    If the 40% are largely non-paying, it must be that there is an increased burden on the paying.

  11. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I continue to state, at the cost of monotony, that the solution for many, though not all, families is aliya. Everyone should go back to the drawing board, looking past assumptions and conventional wisdom, to see whether and, if so, how it would work for them. That said, if people need to stay in America from the left-wing hareidi through MO population, the schools have to be reinvented. They cannot be expected to be comparable in standards to secular private schools with sports teams and all sorts of extra-curricular activities. The school and the community will have to make painful decisions on priorities. At the same time, for the sake of Jewish survival, public school or Hebrew charter school is no option for the family who want their kids to stay Jewish. A Hebrew charter school could have Christian children who want to get close to their “Hebrew roots”, or secular kids with very different standards of behavior from what we expect. Those who think they can counter this influence with afternoon Talmud Torah are smoking something weird. The yeshivish and chassidish mosdos will have a better survival rate because they aren’t trying for the fancy private school shtick. The YU-type people are headed for Nefesh B’Nefesh.