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Jewish World Review /Jan. 20, 1999 / 4 Shevat, 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin

The High Cost of
Jewish Education

JUST LAST WEEK I heard about a friend who was having problems. The woman, who lives in another state, had recently lost her job. That meant her family was forced to make do on the salary of her husband, who is a fireman in a small town. It is a difficult situation, but there's nothing particularly unique about this. Many families go through the same thing.

But there is an aspect to her troubles that ought to give us all pause.

With all of her money problems, her greatest worry wasn't how to pay for a vacation or the other conveniences many of us take for granted. She and her husband had already given up those luxuries a long time ago. Instead, she is desperately searching for a way to pay for her two children's tuition to a Jewish day school.

One of her two youngsters is already on a partial scholarship, but the total bill still amounts to something in the neighborhood of $10,000 per year. Given their financial situation, that number might well be out of their reach.

The school the children attend, like virtually all day schools in the country, is doing its best to help, but there is a limited amount of scholarship money available. Much of it goes to people in even more desperate straits than my friend.

I know this because, as it happens, I know the president of the school. It is his job to try - along with colleagues on the scholarship committee - to decide who is entitled to more of the scarce scholarship dollars at the school's disposal.

It is an impossible responsibility. They are aware that no matter what they do, it isn't enough. And when the aid isn't available, it is his grim task to deal with the family and try to get them to pay as much as they can.

Though it is the school's official policy that no child will be turned away for lack of money, in practice, it doesn't always work out that way. Many families are too proud to ask for help. Others are deterred by the scholarship process, which can be humiliating even if the school does everything in its power not to make those applying for help feel like beggars.

And if the school determines that the parents are able to pay a sum that the family thinks it cannot afford, what then? How far into debt can a family allow itself to sink in order to pay for a day-school education?

Many families I know of make terrible sacrifices. But past a certain point, paying the enormous sums required can simply become too much.

Don't blame the schools. The tuition fees they must charge are staggering, but a 1997 study by the pro-Jewish-education Avi Chai Fund showed that at most day schools, tuition covers only approximately half of the school's total expenditures. That means little dramas like the one being played out by my two friends are going on all over the country. And whether they know it or not, the outcomes will help determine the future of American Jewry.

Despite all the high-minded debating about measures to promote Jewish continuity going on at think tanks and in board rooms, the real decisions about the Jewish future are being made around the kitchen tables of Jewish families that must decide what sacrifices to make to enable their children to get a Jewish education.

The dilemma for Jewish communities is, how much of a priority can we make funding for Jewish education?

Though they should not be thought of as a panacea to cure all the ills of assimilation (other programs, such as Jewish camps and Israel experiences, are also crucial), day schools have been shown again and again to be of the utmost importance in matters of continuity.

We are going through a process of reordering our priorities in which Jewish education -- and day schools in particular -- is recognized as our best investment in the future. But, at current levels of giving, communal fund-raising organizations simply don't have the funds to create a Jewish-education "safety net" that will prevent families like my friends from falling through the cracks.

Though education is supposed to be a prime Jewish value, getting a Jewish education still isn't considered that important by many of us. Though Jews are among the most educated Americans, most of us are functional illiterates when it comes to knowledge of our heritage. Even worse, most of us don't seem too embarrassed about this state of affairs.

Is part of the problem that not enough of us care about this issue? In spite of the lip service that has been paid to the day-school movement recently, the resistance to them in many sectors of American Jewish life remains considerable. In previous generations, the public schools were seen as the only pathway to success for Jewish children. Even though the public system has changed for the worse in the past few decades, many still cling to the idea that public schools are the savior of American democracy and so are uneasy about promoting a sectarian Jewish education system.

Fortunately, I think the tide is turning. While many in the Greater Philadelphia region have been talking this past week about the controversy over whether a local day high school should have been renamed for a major donor who was willing to donate millions (Raymond and Ruth Perelman, parents of the more famous Ron Perelman), the question of how to fund day schools is a national issue of overriding importance that transcends our local concerns.

Elsewhere in the country, others have also attempted creative solutions. A Boston-based group of major American Jewish philanthropists has formed a sort-of Jewish education superfund that is building new day schools where none existed before.

In Seattle, a private Jewish foundation funded a "cap" on day-school tuition, lowering costs per family to $3,000 from $7,000 and thereby boosting enrollment at one day high school by 20 percent.

In Chicago, an endowment plan has been organized to boost funding for a non-denominational coalition of day schools.

These are encouraging signs, but I still worry when I hear community professionals, who know something must be done about this problem, lamenting that not enough money is available to help day schools and that most major givers are reluctant to dedicate their philanthropic efforts toward day-school scholarships.

But what we need to do is to think about it one family at a time. Imagine yourself around the kitchen table as parents decide whether their children will get the best possible Jewish education or not. Imagine you are the person who must tell them that not enough aid is available.

How long will we wait before we are prepared to say that this isn't just one family's problem, but a Jewish communal responsibility?

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


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©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin