Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Whither the North American Day School

One of the most frequent complaints one hears from religious parents (and a non-insignificant number of non-religious ones) is about the high cost of tuition for Jewish day schools.

Admittedly, Jewish day schools are, like non-Jewish ones, expensive. But the difference is that in the non-Jewish population it is usually only the upper levels with the income to support it that use the private school system. Within the Jewish community, the desire for a Jewish day school education is not affected by one's place in the economic strata. As a result, the financial burden on many Jewish families is incredible, especially the ones with many children in the system all at the same time.

Is it any wonder, then, that people are talking about how the system is starting to collapse? This article from The Jewish Week openly questions whether the current model is sustainable:

It’s time to recognize that, with the collapse of the economy, the American Jewish day school model is breaking, if not already broken.
We have to deal with a new reality, and that calls for revisiting and reassessing the sacred cows surrounding how we approach the education of our children — from pedagogical, social and financial points of view.
In future columns, I hope to deal with the range of efforts being undertaken in our community to deal with this crisis. For now, let’s focus on a few central facts:
- An American Jewish community obsessed with its survival has determined through numerous studies that the most successful means of maintaining Jewish identity and affiliation among young people is through a sustained Jewish day school education.
- The increasingly prohibitive costs of such an education, the lingering perception that day schools are primarily for the Orthodox, and the strongly held belief that the separation of church and state would be harmed if government provided tuition relief for parochial school families, has kept the issue from becoming a priority on our national agenda.
- In the traditional community, the belief that public schools and Hebrew schools are to be avoided at all costs has kept us from using our imagination and inventiveness in responding to a new, perhaps permanent, landscape of limited financial resources.
We need to think on a communal level which values and lifestyles we are willing to sacrifice and which are most important to keep.
Loyal day school families, long faced with financial hardships in meeting rising tuition costs, cannot assume that God, the schools or grandparents will provide somehow.

While I agree with most of Mr. Rosenblatt's points, I do not agree that the current model is unaffordable. First of all, the economic collapse is not expected to be prolonged. Many major economists are now predicting that the recessesion ended 2 months ago. Anyone who started investing in the stock market in March is now 30% richer. Industry is starting to recover and banks are lending again. Within a couple of years, people will be talking about the big, bad recession of 2008/9 even as they praise the good times that will "never end". Therefore, any desire to reshape the day school system based on the current economic situation is not reasonable.

But more importantly, even if this collapse were to have been prolonged, I can cynically note that I don't think it has to affect the Jewish school system in a critical way. The money is there, only it's being spent in the wrong places.

Don't believe me? How many $100 000 weddings took place in large, affluent Jewish communities last year? How many $50 000 bar mitzvos? How many "monster homes" are being built? How many fancy cars get parked in the shul parking lot on Friday afternoon? How many $2000 sheitls get sold each year?

Someone is paying out all this money. The question is: Why are they buying materialistic goods they don't actually need and not dedicating it to saving the Jewish educational system? After all, for Jews education is the number one priority when it comes to guaranteeing our future.

Perhaps what is needed isn't so much a rethink of the system but a rethink of where we place our disposable dollers.


David said...


First of all, the people who shell out big bucks for weddings are probably already shelling out big bucks for Jewish education. There comes a point, however, when you've just got to stop running back to the same well and telling them that they're not doing enough, or that they're not entitled to spend their money on themselves.

Most of us don't have $100k weddings or $50k bar mitzvas, and most of us find the rising level of day school tuition pretty alarming (especially in light of the piss-poor education one gets at these institutions).

My children are still young-- I can only hope that the whole thing collapses before the holier-than-thou rabbis who are convinced that I should shell out more than I can afford to provide an indoctrination for my 2 kids (and their 9) manage to put me in the poor house for good.

Garnel Ironheart said...

David, once again I agree with you. I'm in the same boat as you described and my day school doesn't even charge as much as the ones in the larger Jewish community next door.

But I still stand by my point: Jewish education is a priority. Overly fancy weddings are not. Can the money not be diverted? I mean, yes they're probably giving a lot but they also clearly have a lot more discretionary cash available.

David said...


Quit being a Judaeo-socialist. I could probably donate more money than I currently do to Jewish education. I could stop donating to various secular institutions (about which I care deeply), I could buy cheaper Scotch, eat cheaper food, wear cheaper clothes, etc. Why not get a whole bunch of rabbi/accountants to come audit me and determine exactly how much of my money (after taxes) I'm going to be allowed to keep?
Your idea is not only dreadful, it's completely unworkable. We're supposed to spend 10% on tzedakah, and chinuch is included. Lots of families are a great deal closer to 20 or 30% due to tuition, and it's just not your business (or anyone else's) to tell a guy who can afford a big wedding that you need to review his books to determine how much he'll have to cut back on his personal expenses in order to pick up the slack for the rest of us.