Friday, June 13, 2008

The Price of Success

According the internet version of the Yated Ne’eman there is now a total of 120,000 students learning in Yeshivos and Kollelim in Israel. Of that number 60,000 are in full time Kollelim. And that only accounts for those that receive government funding.

One might think that is cause for celebration. And for those who value quantity over quality, it is. 60,000 Avreichim is quite an impressive number – more than quadruple of what I thought it was.

Certainly there is much to celebrate and praise here with these hugely unprecedented numbers - as noted by Roshei Yeshiva and Roshei Kollelim in the article :

...the mesirus nefesh of thousands of avreichim who overcome nisyonos from both without and within the chareidi camp and continue to devote their time to the hallowed tents of Torah.

But one cannot overlook the obvious implication of that comment either. The primary Nisyonos - impediments - they are referring to is the crushing poverty that accompanies this success. That is alluded to in subsequent paragraphs:

Meanwhile the heads of the various institutions must wage constant battles against Reform organizations, legal advisors and government ministries who seek ways to reduce their numbers by curtailing funding, which has become especially burdensome of late due to the 30-percent decline in the value of the dollar. The sharp decline in the value of the dollar means that even someone whose overseas support remains steady, has lost about a quarter of its value.

… and the yeshiva managers wage unremitting budget battles following a series of High Court petitions over budget matters, but they continue to stand firm, maintaining Torah institutions through their mesirus nefesh. Even attempts to cut funding for foreign yeshiva students, kollel students and the entire yeshiva system have failed, largely through efforts by UTJ to torpedo these moves.

What incredible Chutzpah this sense of entitlement has led to. They blame their financial woes on those who they just got though saying fund them (at least in part) with taxpayer dollars. Secular Israeli taxpayers do not understand why other social issues are left un-addressed while money is diverted to able bodied - army exempt students of a Torah which they – in their unfortunate ignorance - deem archaic at best!

Instead of urging their readership to express gratitude - Hakaras Hatov to the govenrment for what they do get, the Yated condemns the government for not giving enough. As though it’s the government’s responsibility to make up for losses incurred to Avreichim by the plunging dollar!

Is there any wonder why so many secular Israelis have evolved from a benign ‘live and let live’ tolerant group into one of deep resentment? Instead of complaining about their plight of poverty - a situation of their community’s own making – and blaming the government, they ought to be urging an expression of Hakaras Hatov at the top of their lungs!

That said the poverty is real. And it is oppressive, so much so that Yeshiva World News did the unthinkable. They had the courage to publish a letter raising the topic of family planning to alleviate some of that poverty. And this was directed to Avreichim in the United States who are somewhat better off than their Israeli counterparts.

The letter wasn’t up here very long, however. They removed it very quickly. I’m pretty sure they were pressured to do so. But what it demonstrates is that family planning is definitely on the minds of young Avreichim with growing families - where each child represents additional major expenses. Who’d a-thunk it?!

The idea of a public policy that encourages family planning is anathema to the Torah world. Yes, there are Heterim for family planning and many who ask Shailos are given a Heter - based on individual circumstances. But never before has this been brought up by a knowledgeable Charedi in a public forum before. This is a major issue now.

The tuition crisis in the Torah world is at an all time high. Additional children added to the schools by impoverished Avreichim will burden the system even more - as poor families do not pay any more than they can afford no matter how many children they have – which is usually a lot less than the tuition for a single child.

And this is taking place in America. Israeli poverty levels are much worse and family planning is on their minds too. Statistics have shown that the number of children per family in all Charedi communities like Kiryat Sefer has gone down ever since government subsidies for large families have been reduced.

So there you have it. This is the philosophy of the Charedi world, especially in Israel. Push everyone - as much as possible - into full time learning. Do not train anyone for Parnassa. As a general policy encourage having as many children as possible thus increasing the financial burden on families who already live under crushing poverty. And then complain angrily to a secular government who funds them - that they don’t give enough.

And rely as well charities that are constantly under pressure to increase their coffers because of increased demand by geometrically increasing populations. And this has led to unscrupulous methods (e.g. the ‘selling’ of Segulos) of raising funds. But of course the needs still continue to outpace the funds.

And we wonder why there is a dropout problem? This is only the tip of the iceberg. As Rabbi Yakov Horowitz put it: We are headed off the cliff if we don’t get our acts together.

A copy of the Yeshiva World News letter follows.

No doubt there are those that are going to disagree with the following statements, but many would be hard-pressed to dispute the reality it represents. The following statements are not based on empirical research, but rather a data set based on numerous qualitative discussions with young couples in our community. I should also point out that having been in chinuch, both as a Rebbi, administrator, family therapist, and now working full time in the corporate world, I believe I have some real insight into the different aspects of the following topic.

There are a number of challenges that Klal Yisrael is currently dealing with: shidduchim, parnossah, the Internet to list just a few. Each one comes with its unique set of nisyonos and hardships. However, there is a new issue currently start to grow within the young families in our community. Family Planning. There are many young families in our community who are currently restricting the number of children they have due to the current costs of raising children. This is not being done out of choice, but as a practical last resort, as a way of preserving some sanity and shalom bayis in a home that would otherwise have none. As a Family Therapist I can tell you that the number one issue couples fight about are finances. More and more couples are faced with doing something they never imagined when they first got married, not having more children in exchange for not fighting about finances. Many young couples are reaching out to their rabbonim to discuss heterim that are available to them.

First, let’s look at the current fiscal situation for a young couple. A 30 year old couple with 3 children in school could potentially have a tuition bill of up to approximately $35,000, depending on where you live of course. If you add camp to the tab at $2,000 per child per summer the total cost of education per year is approximately $41,000. In order to earn enough money for education and camp the couple would have to earn approximately $55-60,000 per year. They have not yet housed their children, clothed them or fed them.

There will be those who are quick to jump and say, “Where is your bitachon? Have as many children as you want and Hashem will provide”. There is no question that the Ribbono Shel Olam is the ultimate provider, but not everyone can handle the challenges that come with being such a baal bitachon. That’s their reality. Does responsible parenting mean one is lacking in bitachon? We are talking about erliche families, who learn and daven daily in addition to earning 6 figure salaries. Who only want to provide the best possible chinuch and opportunities to their children without having to work 2-3 jobs and not even have the chance to see their children, learn with them, or play with them.

Think about the choices that some families have to make: Sending kids to camp, in my opinion, a vital part of bringing up children or having another child? Paying full tuition and perhaps being able to hire a tutor when necessary or growing your family? Having your wife be able to work part time (or maybe not at all) or having another child? These are the choices currently being made by young couples today. Are they lacking Bitachon? Do they not have Emunah Sheleimah?
“Move somewhere cheaper.” Is that the answer? Instead of being able to provide the best svivah, hashkafah and chinuch to our children we should move to a new community that does not have these assets? Young couples should not be allowed to raise their children where they grew up themselves, because of factors beyond their control.

So what are the solutions? There is really no point in bringing up the topic unless there are some possible solutions. The solutions I am laying forth here have to do with the escalating cost of tuition in the Yeshivas and Bais Yaakov’s. For many families tuition represents the largest expense and that’s why many of the solutions lie there. The reality is with the rising costs of housing, food, and energy many people are going to be forced to default on their Yeshiva commitments as it is. It’s not as if they are not going to house and feed their children. Yeshiva’s need to start to create solutions for themselves otherwise they will be spending more and more time fighting to collect money.
What can Yeshivas do?

1) Yeshivas should not offer full scholarships, only partial scholarships, even to their own Rabbeim. At one point in my career I ran a high school. Many parents could not afford the full tuition. Once we established the amount they could afford, I would take the remaining amount and tell the parents, “I will raise half and you raise the other half”. Parents were required to fundraise too. If the entire achrayos for the scholarship would have been on the yeshiva we would have had to raise tuition and only further perpetuate the problem. Rabbeim and others who cannot afford tuition must be involved in raising money; they cannot just rely on the yeshiva. There is no company in the world that offers that type of “perk” on top of a salary. Think about it, if a Rebbi has 3-4 children in the yeshiva and pays no tuition, his “perk” is worth $30-40,000 pre-tax! And someone is paying for that perk!

2) Yeshivas should not be allowed to force parents to pay tuition beyond the actual cost of educating the child. The cost of education is the actual cost of maintaining the class (salaries, physical plant and administrative fees) divided by the number of students per class. Yeshiva tuition is typically not a reflection of the actual cost per student. If a Yeshiva charges $11,000 per child and has 25 children per class the total amount of revenue per class is $275,000. It does not cost $275,000 a year to run a class. A percentage of full tuition goes towards supplying scholarships to needy students. Should Yeshivas offer scholarships to some students knowing that families being forced to pay full tuition may need to compensate by regulating the size of their family?

3) There must be a discount given for multiple children in the yeshiva. I.e. if one has 3+ children in one yeshiva they should be able to get a “multiple children” discount. If not, those being provided with free or heavily subsidized tuition are being encouraged to have more children while those being charged full are being forced to not.
Nothing is easy about these issues, neither the problems nor the solutions. If no one chooses to do anything about it though, there are many who will start to look for solutions that will at least give them some peace of mind, even if it means doing something drastic like family planning.