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.