Monday, June 02, 2014

Is There Such a Thing as Too Many Kollelim?

Typical Community Kollel Beis HaMedrash
We are approaching the end of the school year. This is about the time tuition and scholarship committees begin looking at scholarship applications. I’m sure that there will be more applications submitted this year than ever before.

It is no secret that the cost of a decent Jewish education these days is back breaking. Parents are being squeezed for every dollar they have. This is an old story. It has been discussed here and solutions are being sought by many people in Jewish education. But as of now, there are not only no real solutions, things seem to be getting worse.

There are very few people with even a small sized family of 3 or 4 children that can afford to pay what it costs to educate each child – which reflects the major portion of a tuition bill.  Among Charedi families where family size of 7 or more children is the rule, the problem is exacerbated.

I have no solutions. But I had a conversation with a very bright individual yesterday whose children attended Charedi schools. He pointed out something to me that helps explain why we are in this pickle. It’s not that I didn’t already know it. It is very clear to me that this is a problem.  Especially in Charedi schools. But it did generate this post.

Modern Orthodox schools have their own unique problems in that their tuitions are much higher and scholarships are harder to obtain. That’s because they tend to focus on the secular side a lot more. So that not only do they want quality Rebbeim and Morahs, they want quality secular studies teachers and all kinds of enhancement programs in both secular and religious studies. All that costs money. A lot of it. And their tuitions reflect it.

But the fact is that the Charedi schools are the ones that are suffering the most. MO parents tend to be more affluent and can afford to pay a bigger share of their tuition bill. And their family size is smaller. But Charedim are burning the candle from both ends in a very significant portion of their community that affects the ability to fund the cost per child: Kollel members.  

Their incomes are substantially lower than their working counterparts, and their families are generally much bigger. The result is that they send more children to school and pay less money for them. Which means the rest of the community has to somehow subsidize them.  The more Kollelim there are the more students there are and the less money there is per student.

Now if school wants quality teachers even if only in religious subjects they are going to have to pay for them. And if they want a decent pupil teacher ratio they are going to have to hire more teachers.

It is true that the Charedi world has many wealthy philanthropists that help pay the freight. But that money is not unlimited and certainly does not guarantee the future. With this formula of increased family size and thereby increased school population and less money per student available - after a while something will have to give.

With all the discussion about the problems with poverty among Charedim in Israel, at least they don’t have tuition problems. But Americans do. When you have a situation of large families whose fathers choose not to work you have a prescription for the financial collapse of Jewish education as we know it.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of the community Kollel.We have many of them here in Chicago. The pioneer Community Kollel here in Chicago was  established in the early 80s by Lakewood. Their positive impact is immense! I am a big supporter of them. But we now have several that all do the same thing each catering to different neighborhoods and/or constituencies. While I’m sure they all do good work, I have to ask whether the cost of having them here is too high.

I don’t mean the money they take out of the community for support – although that too is a factor. I’m talking about the massive financial burden they impose on the schools. If you have ten Kollelim with 10 Avreichim each - none of whom make nearly enough money to pay the tuition costs of education each of their children... and each member has ten children, you are talking about subsidizing almost all 1000 children. And as I said earlier the problem will only increase with time if we keep going in this direction.

So even though we have a better system here and the poverty of Charedim in America as not as great as it is in Israel, this tuition crisis is real, it will not go away, and perhaps only get worse. A lot worse! While Charedim in America are better prepared for the workplace than their Israeli counterparts, the idea of learning full time for as long as one can exists here too. And that increases the number of Kollelim. And although America does offer  a secular education to most Charedi children, it is continually being downplayed and the qulity of is reduced. That too adds to the increase in the number of Kollelim.

I think the cost is too high. There is an expression in the Gemarah that speaks to the cost benefit analysis of any project which says: Yotzah Scharo B’Hefseida – the gain is negated by its (enormous) loss. I think that is true here.

Now if there was enough money to support everything, Kol HaKavod. But since there clearly isn’t – is continuing down this path worth damaging Jewish education of our children? I really wish the Yeshiva world would put more emphasis on working for a living as a first choice to at least some of its students and provide better opportunities for education that will enhance their incomes via better jobs.

This is not how the Yeshiva world operated in my day. Many of the best and biggest Yeshivos allowed – and even encouraged their students to go to college. Students then were interested in making a living. Yeshiva Chaim Berlin is a case in point.  I am told by a former Chaim Berliner who is my age that when he was in the Yeshiva, 80% of the student body attended college at night working towards degrees that would help them get better jobs. Another former Chaim Berlin student that is a bit younger than I am told me that Rav Hutner used to advise his students which subjects to take.  The same attitude existed in Torah Vodaath. Not to mention Ner Israel. These are Charedi Yeshivas!

The Yeshiva world needs to go back to that paradigm. If it does, it will be a big first step to solving the tuition crisis. I know it sounds almost heretical to say this, but we need to curb this trend toward ever more Kollelim and redirect our energies into getting more people into the workforce. It may not solve the tuition crisis. But it sure will help.