Struggling To Afford Day School: The STEPPY Syndrome

Education

By Shira Dicker

Published January 20, 2010, issue of January 29, 2010.
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The call came at 9 p.m. on a recent school night, caller ID informing me that it originated from SAR High School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, where my youngest child is a freshman.

Expecting a pre-recorded message, I was surprised to hear a familiar voice on the other end: It was the mother of my son’s schoolmate, reminding me that the school’s annual fundraising dinner was two weeks away.

The ticket for a couple: $750.

A year ago, I would have been embarrassed to confess that I couldn’t afford to purchase the ticket, but this time around, I found myself feeling badly for the caller, realizing that she was likely getting a steady stream of sad demurrals from other parents facing financial hardship in this horrible recessionary, post-Madoff landscape.

They — we — constitute a social phenomenon I call the STEPPY Syndrome, a classification that is likely to vanish shortly, either because parents will opt out of the Jewish day school system entirely, or because a solution will be found.

STEPPY is a specific designation, belonging to a generation — late baby boomers — and a geography — the Jewishly dense American urban centers and their suburbs where such schools proliferate.

It stands for Struggling, Two-income, Educated, Professionals Paying Yeshiva tuition.

STEPPY describes a shared experience at least two decades in the making, during which time the cost of Jewish education in America spiked from four to five figures. It illuminates the shadow side of the story of the growth of the modern American Jewish day school, revealing a sad truth, unacknowledged until recently, when the economy went south and parents became less ashamed to admit to struggling financially.

That truth is that a large segment of an entire generation exists in a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome, forced to build their personal and family lives around the challenge of earning enough money to send their kids to Jewish day school.

Today, tuitions in major cities are approaching $40,000 per child annually, and scholarship funds are being depleted due to money woes from unemployment and a tanking stock market.

A subject not widely discussed until recently, the stress of coming up with tuition money has been extreme, permeating personal and family life, impacting marriages, making wives wonder why their husbands don’t earn more, making husbands wonder why their wives are always so tired and cranky, turning Shabbat into a day of physical recuperation, making the prospect of private college tuition seem that much more out of reach.

A STEPPY is any Jewish parent who was driven to change careers, take on additional work, pull all-nighters, limit the number of children the couple would have, forgo an active social life, limit intake of culture and recreation, fire the cleaning person, pass on sending a child to Jewish summer camp, put off the parent’s own continuing education, drive a run-down car or put off the purchase of a home in order to keep the kids in Jewish day school.

And all this without even considering the cost of making a bar or bat mitzvah, or wedding, or sending one’s child to an Israel program, or joining a synagogue or Jewish community center.

The fault lies not in the concept of the modern Jewish day school, though Jewish education professionals and parents alike are hard at work coming up with viable alternatives — creating charter schools and Jewish curricula through public school systems, eliminating frills that drive up the cost of tuition, seeking alternative sources of funding, asking for communal support.

The fault lies in a winning model that became financially unsustainable based on the erroneous idea that if it was deemed important, parents would find a way to finance their kids’ Jewish education. The fault lies in the idea that parents could and should pay for this by themselves when the community needed to support — or subsidize — it all along.

The STEPPY Syndrome represents the ultimate paradox: the deleterious effect upon Jewish parents of providing the transformative experience of Jewish day school for their children. But a late development in my own story might provide a glimmer of a solution.

My husband and I will indeed be attending SAR’s annual dinner this month because I decided to do something I had never done before: fundraise. Heart in mouth, I asked a client of my communications consulting firm to purchase an ad for the dinner journal…and he agreed. (He purchased a $1,000 advertisement in the journal, which more than covered our $750 admission.)

I think that the idea of fundraising actively is a clue to the larger solution, which is sponsorship of Jewish education by someone other than the individual family. What was remarkable about my successful effort at asking for money was that it enabled me to refuse to stretch yet again to dig money out of an already empty pocket, to stop pretending that I could afford this thing and to figure out another way to get the money.

What this means on a large scale, I cannot guess. But it was an empowering personal experience, one gratefully embraced by this traumatized member of the STEPPY generation.

Shira Dicker is the principal of Shira Dicker Media International, a communications consulting firm, and writes the Bungalow Babe in the Big City blog.


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