Monday, July 09, 2012

Is Jewish Education in Danger? Follow the Money

How Ironic. There are two simultaneous crises taking place in the world of Jewish education.

The Conservative Movement is now struggling with what it calls its “Crown Jewel” – The Solomon Schechter Schools. Their enrollment nationwide is dwindling. Some schools have closed. Others have merged with community (non denominational) religious schools or Reform schools. The bottom line with them is that the dwindling enrollment in these schools reflects the dwindling membership in their entire movement. The Conservative movement realized decades ago that their future was at stake without providing an avenue for their youth to be Jewishly educated. They saw the growth of Orthodoxy (to their surprise) and correctly deduced that it was largely due to the intensive religious education we give our children.

Orthodoxy has an almost opposite problem. Our schools are growing by leaps and bounds.  The crisis is in their cost. As I have pointed out many times in the past and as has recently been pointed out by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein in a recent Cross Currents article, the cost of Jewishly educating one’s child has skyrocketed to the point where people making what most would consider an upper middle class income are struggling to meet their tuition obligations. A family with 4 or 5 children whose income is in the 6 figure range must now often ask for partial scholarships. And they are granted!

An analysis of these two crises is - I think - very revealing.  The reactions of the parent bodies of both schools are very different. Most Conservative Jews don’t on average have enough commitment to Judaism  to justify their high tuition costs. They do not see it in the same way Orthodox parents do.

We see it as a necessity. Without which many of our children would be influenced to go off the Derech. Without a basic Jewish education the effect the non Jewish atmosphere is certainly conducive to that. So most of us just tighten our belts and pay the price. Conservative Jews on the other hand see tuition as high as $37,000 plus per child - just say they can’t afford it. And send their kids to public school. They hope that their children will somehow retain a Jewish identity in spite of that. But it is for the most part wishful thinking as attrition and intermarriage rates continue to climb. The lack of any formal Jewish education or environment will take its toll.

I consider the impending failure of the Solomon Schechter Schools not just a crisis for them, but a crisis for all of us.  Even with its theological problems its controversial (to say the least) interpretation of Halacha - losing the Solomon Schechter Schools with the attendant assimilation and increase in intermarriage is not anything to celebrate. And it is certainly no reason for any kind of Orthodox triumphalism. We have our own problems. Not the least of which is our growing tuition crisis.

How do we solve these 2 crises?  If I knew the answer to that, I would be the most honored person in all of Jewry. But having been involved in the fundraising side of Jewish education for many years, I have a couple of suggestions worthy of consideration.  Perhaps we can make “lemonade” out of the “lemon” that is the Solomon Schechter crisis.

Long ago when tuitions started going up to the point where were starting  to be concerned about it, someone had an idea of a Jewish tax: A Kehilla (community) tax pretty much along the same lines public school taxes are charged to every citizen – even those without children in the system.  An educated public benefits everyone. That is certainly true for the Jewish people.

How do we start such a fund? I would suggest that the infrastructure is already in place. Every major Jewish population center in the United States has a Jewish Federation whose purpose it is to raise funds for Jewish causes. Funds are collected from the entire Jewish community – Jews of every denomination.

In the past the number one Federation priority was Israel.  That is of course still very important. But it is not their only project. Their philanthropic pie is sliced many ways. Some of that money is given to Jewish education. But many would argue – correctly in my view – that as important as virtually all of their programs are, Jewish education has never been a high priority. Which it should be (after helping the truly indigent).

Jewish Federations - comprised of many members of the Conservative movement - now realize that Jewish education is indeed important. This is certainly what their own Conservative rabbinate has been telling them. In recent years allocations to religious schools of all denominations have increased because of that.

But “Crown Jewel” or no, their schools are either shrinking or disappearing entirely. As intermarriage and attrition continues to increase - the realization that education is essential to Jewish survival has not been abandoned.

I am told by Conservative rabbis and their people in outreach that they consider it a success when one of their constituents who they have successfully gotten interested in Judaism – becomes Orthodox.

Bearing all of this in mind, I don’t think it would be all that difficult to convince members of a Federation who see the alarming rates of intermarriage to allocate more of their money to education – even though now more of it would go to Orthodox schools. There would be resistance by some. But I think there would be an equal amount of support by others.

It’s just a question of priorities. Jewish Federations are good at fund raising. And they are good at promoting their causes.  What better selling point can there be then stemming the rising tide of assimilating out – and intermarriage?

Some Federations have actually increased their allocations to the schools. The paradigm for this is Chicago.  But even here in Chicago, I truly believe that a reprioritization needs to take place. As important as Israel is, our survival as a people depends on Jewish education.

Another area that perhaps can be more effectively used for funding education is the philanthropy of our own wealthy Orthodox Jews. They of course already give very generously to their city’s schools. But they are equally generous to schools outside of their own city. Perhaps even more generous.

I understand the desire of philanthropists to spread their wealth and their desire to be associated with the great Yeshivos of the world. Like Lakewood and the Mir. It is nice to have those schools on their philanthropic resumes. But in my view they too need to reprioritize. As generous as they already are to the in-town schools (and they are very generous), I believe that they need to give even more. Even if it means giving less to the out-of-town schools.

The tuition crisis is not going away. It is only getting worse. We all want a quality education for our children. Better teachers. More programs. Better administrators. Demands keep going up. And so do expenses. How do we pay for it all if virtually every parent - even relatively well to do parents are already being squeezed for every extra dollar they have and most schools are already at their fund raising limits?!

As Rabbi Adlerstein implies - must we have smaller families to stay viable? Is his point about the animosity towards Klei Kodesh with large families and low incomes valid? (…that partly because of them tuitions that squeeze every dime out of even an upper middle income parent are skyrocketing?)

The cost of Jewish education is spiraling out of control. Something has to be done. I don’t know if my suggestions will increase revenue at all - let alone cover the shortfall at which many schools operate every year.  But something has got to give. If we don’t increase outside revenue and tuitions keep rising - the entire house of cards will fall.