Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Of Torah Dedications, School Budgets, and Tuitions

Converted fire truck often seen at Torah dedications in Chicago
Having served on the boards of several schools here in Chicago, I have come to realize how difficult it is for them to meet their budgets. There is no shortage of fundraisers on their part and yet many of them fall short at the end of the year. In their desire to meet their budget, the schools I worked for, set their tuition to reflect ‘cost per child’ - plus. The 'plus' in order to offset scholarship assistance that they offered.

I worked on a scholarship committee for many years at one of those schools. The one thing I got from those years repeatedly was that most parents struggle mightily to meet their financial obligations to the school. Even though the schools desperately need the money and often fall short, the burden on the parents is oppressive. People with decent – even upper middle class incomes (6 figures in some cases) are often given financial assistance simply because the tuition is high even for them if they have four or more children. Which is very typical. Except for the very wealthy, most parents struggle to meet their obligations even if they are on a partial scholarship.

This is not the first time I’ve discussed this issue and it probably won’t be the last. But last Sunday I attended what seems to be becoming a very common affair: a Hachnassas Sefer Torah (Torah dedication ceremony). And it got me thinking about this subject.

There have been a variety of suggestions about how to help solve the 'tuition crisis'. I have had my own ideas about it. But a thought occurred to me last Sunday as I watched yet another parade of well wishers marching along the parade route accompanying the new SeferTorah  (Torah scroll) as it was being transported.

It was only about 2 weeks ago that I attended another one of those. And I just heard about yet another one that will take place next week. These events seem to be multiplying exponentially. I have to wonder if the money currently being spent on this project is not ‘overkill’.

Writing a new Sefer Torah is not cheap. It costs between 40 to 50 thousand dollars. There was a time when it was relatively rare to find someone commissioning a new Sefer Torah. Most Shuls used old ones that often fell into disrepair and constantly need to be fixed. That generated a call to get those that could afford it to commission a Sofer (scribe) to write a new one. A cause well worth pursuing. It should also be mentioned that writing a Sefer Torah is Mitzvah number 613 according to the count of the Sefer HaChinuch. This is nothing to sneeze at.

But how many Sifrei Torah do we  still need anymore? The dedication coming up which I alluded to is for a Shul that already had at least 2 written for it. One as recently as about 3 or 4 years ago – to a huge celebration at a banquet. And that is in addition to older ones that are all in fine condition. 

Now when we are talking multimillion dollar budgets, 50 thousand dollars may not sound like much. It will not solve the tuition crisis. But it is not peanuts either. Schools that get donations of that size are very grateful. Very! Imagine if the family that commissioned that Sefer Torah would have instead donated that money to one of Chicago’s schools.

Please do not misunderstand. I have nothing against those who wish to spend their money in any way they choose. I am a big fan of that. And I certainly have no objection when they are doing it for Mitzvah purposes. But once you are in the category of Mitzvos, would it not be wiser to put that money where it will be most useful? Does a Shul really need 3 newly written Sifrei Torah more than a school needs to pay its bills? Especially when low Torah teachers salaries are part of that equation?

I think that this practice should be re-evaluated by rabbinic leaders of all stripes to see if we – as a community – can divert that some of that money where it will be used more productively. I realize that by discouraging this practice – it will not necessarily mean that those funds will be diverted to schools. But it would be nice if the next rabbi that is approached about writing a new Sefer Torah tried. Because Jewish education is where it is needed the most.

While we’re on the subject, I have been troubled a bit by the fact that when schools raise funds, it is never (to the best of my knowledge) given to parents as a means to reduce their tuition responsibilities. I understand their perspective quite well and do not question their motives. There is never enough to cover budgets. And even if there was, it is fairly common knowledge that Torah teachers do not get paid enough for their dedication and hard work. So any surplus funds they might get (not that there ever are any) can justifiably be earmarked for bonuses – or at least be put towards next year’s budget.

But then that always leaves tuition paying parents out in the cold. The tuition bills remain oppressive. Wouldn’t it be nice to set up a fund that would go directly to parents in order to alleviate their burden somewhat? I would love to see that. Perhaps the next innovative fundraising program a Jewish community develops can be earmarked for just that. That would be something I think everyone would support.

Just some of my thoughts.