The American Orthodox Jewish community has enjoyed decades of freedom, strength, growth and self-confidence unprecedented in the history of the Diaspora. We are the freest Jews in virtually every respect in at least the last 2,500 years. There is a lot to celebrate, starting with the quality and availability of Jewish education.
The number of Jewish day schools across all denominations has risen at a healthy rate during the last 20 years. In 1980 there were about 450 schools serving approximately 100,000 children. Today, more than 750 schools educate roughly 200,000 students. More Jewish day schools are in the planning and nascent stages. Plenty of evidence suggests that children with a strong Jewish education contribute to their communities Jewishly, have very low intermarriage rates and go on to compete well in the secular world.
But beyond the numbers, there is also plenty of cause for anxiety. The dirty little secret of the success of the Jewish day school movement is that the parents of these budding scholars are, to a large degree, in a state of crisis. The anecdotal evidence is commonplace to any Orthodox parent. Wherever they meet, parents of school-age children bemoan their inability to make ends meet. Retirement savings or current investing is a distant dream. The frustration is compounded because many of those fearful are professionals, whose peers, not bound by artificially inflated home prices and the need for private schools, are enjoying lives reserved for the comfortable upper-middle class. Many have reached levels of earnings unimaginable to the average American, yet they have nothing left for savings or comforts that they have, by all other rights, earned.
Consider a typical young couple in the metropolitan New York area with five school-age children. They are carrying something in the area of a 30-year mortgage of about $250,000, paying around 7% annual interest. That works out to a little under $20,000 a year in mortgage payments. On such a property, our typical couple is probably paying about $8,000 in property taxes. With five children in school at an average of $10,000 per child, they are shelling out an additional $50,000 for education.
Our typical couple, then, assuming they are in the 34% combined tax bracket, must earn $118,120 just to house the family and send them to school. They have not fed the kids, cut the grass, paid for medical insurance, paid shul dues, paid for building funds, given charity, bought clothing and all of the other things that are the banal and costly necessities of living a middle-class life.
In fact, according to the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, in the metropolitan New York-New Jersey area the average per capita income reached about $37,000 for the year 2000. That leaves our typical couple more than $40,000 short of making the bare ends meet.
Many American Jews have long held the assumption that those who have benefited from the earning power of education can handle the expenses of living in this country. That assumption is open to some troubling discussion.
Left unaltered, either Jewish day school education will be relegated only to those of elite financial status who can afford it, or the disparity between teacher’s salaries at Jewish day schools and public schools will be so wide as to erode the quality of Jewish education. The system will collapse under its own weight. Long before these dire possibilities are visited upon the community, it would be well to consider some alternatives that might steer Jewish day school education on an admittedly less perfect but more realistic path.
The first alternative looks for increased financial help from United Jewish Communities, the roof body of North American Jewish federations. Federations raised nearly $2.9 billion in 2000. According to a recent report in The Jerusalem Post, a 1999 study found that federations funded an average of $530 per child annually for Jewish day school education. That’s less than two weeks worth of school.
If UJC were to increase funding by $2,500 per student — a massive $500 million commitment to education above the support currently maintained by the federation system —it would change the face of Jewish education and, indeed, American Jewry. It would also signal the change of communal priorities away from social services and toward education — the guarantor of Jewish continuity. Such a subvention would likely entice numerous unaffiliated or marginally affiliated Jews to consider Jewish education. The argument is not for Orthodox, Conservative or Reform day schools in particular — but for all of them. The enemy is not any denomination; it is secularism and indifference.
A second, and far less ambitious, plan involves willful consolidation. It is not unusual in a small community to have two or three Jewish day schools with slightly different shades of observance competing for the same children — and the same philanthropic dollars. This involves needless waste in duplication of facilities, the creation of relatively small schools with an insufficient student census to be self-sustaining and viable, and the competition for local charity dollars.
The consolidation of existing Jewish day schools, by concentrating donor funds to fewer entities, could return substantial cost savings. Noble and unique as the goals of each school may be, the future of the Jewish day school movement demands a reversal of the fragmenting tendency in our community.
Yet another alternative looks to fully utilize the public school system. Particularly in densely populated upper-middle-class communities, the burden of the public school system is already being paid for by the local homeowners. It is a service that is paid for but not at all utilized by the home-owning Orthodox community.
Perhaps we can suggest an extreme paradigm shift away from self-contained Jewish day schools and toward moving our children en masse into the public school system. Jewish day schools could be restructured to provide after-school Jewish education. Such an after-school Jewish education system, requiring fewer facilities and less administration, would need barely half of the resources it does now.
The last alternative, levying a community tax to fund Jewish day schools, was originally proposed during the 1840s by a Philadelphia minister, Reverend Isaac Leeser. His articulate vision fell on deaf ears. But it was farseeing nonetheless, and deserves a revisiting today. As is the case with the public school system, the burden of funding Jewish education would be borne by all members of the community, whether they have children in the system or not. A community-wide tax would make all community members stakeholders in a community school.
There are obviously both merits and shortcomings to each of the four alternatives. Equally certainly, there are other nuances or altogether different models that might work.
What is clear, though, is that the current system is not working. The ever-expanding free-spending system that prevails today is simply not sustainable.
Shalom Lamm, a real estate developer, is the father of five students in the yeshiva day school system.