The Tuition Crisis – and the Road Back

The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County is proud to join forces with the lay leadership of our local yeshivot and other community activists to stem the tide of tuition costs that are escalating beyond the affordability of the average Jewish family by wholeheartedly endorsing the “Kehilla Fund, ” the short name for the memorable acronym NNJKIDS (North New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools). Clearly much thought went into creating the acronym, as much has been written and lamented in recent years about the high-cost of Jewish education. The “Kehilla Fund,” formed in cooperation with all the local day schools, shuls and the RCBC, asks that every Jewish family in Bergen County contribute, as a minimum, $30 per month to go into a special fund for Yeshiva education. Those who wish to give more will not be turned away – and nor will those who give less – but the goal is 100% participation, in recognition that this is a communal need.

If every family participates at the minimum level, the fund will annually raise over a million dollars, to be distributed proportionately – based on student population – to each elementary school. What will $1,000,000 accomplish ? It will not solve the problem of Jewish education, it will not give free tuition to every child, and it will not even relieve the crushing burden that many families feel today. But it will stem the tide, and prevent immediate tuition increases, and in the future, perhaps, rollback tuition costs through utilizing other avenues of assistance – for example, from the government.

Certainly, the “Kehilla Fund” initiative must be combined with two other (at least) initiatives – meaningful cost-cutting and effective cost-control at the yeshivos, and a re-evaluation by parents of their priorities.

Parents (and people generally) cannot continue looking to others for unlimited assistance, and it is unjust to expect the few to bear the burdens of the many. Parents must learn to prioritize in every sense of the word: to make do with less (materially) in order to fully fund their yeshiva tuition obligation to the best of their abilities – even if it means no summer camp for the children, no vacations for the adults, and no hotel for Pesach (even funded by others). What sounds Draconian is actually quite reasonable. It was not that long ago when parents literally sacrificed – living in small apartments, never vacationing, skimping on personal luxuries – in order to fully fund their child’s yeshiva education. We need some of that spirit again. If it sounds harsh and judgmental, it is only because we are also afflicted with the “entitlement” mentality that plagues American life generally – that every person is entitled to pursue happiness…and have someone else pay for it.

Apropos of that, we certainly recognize that there are families who are legitimately struggling and need – and should receive – scholarship assistance. But we are also sophisticated enough to recognize that there are some who might manipulate the system, who enjoy lavish lifestyles as a result of their successful “cash” businesses, and will dutifully file their tax return with the yeshiva scholarship committee showing their paltry income of $35,000 despite spending more than $200,000 – a feat that can only be accomplished regularly by the United States Government, but not by any individual. Scholarship committees should therefore routinely visit the homes of applicants to gauge their true standard of living and rule accordingly – because it is outrageous and unacceptable to expect others’ to foot the bill for one’s own obligations (not ot mention the crimes involved).

And schools must be more realistic about what they can raise and spend as well. Too their credit, local yeshivot have already begun to reduce their mortgages through government programming, have cut salaries, energy and health costs, and sought state grants for a variety of needs. More has to be done, and will be done. The question is: will we consider the work of the few or of the entire community ?

As I see it, there are only two groups who can rightfully complain about this new assessment: parents whose children have already graduated elementary school (and have already paid their “dues”) and parents whose children are still attending elementary school (and are now being asked to pay even more money, in addition to the tuition). But, of course, everyone falls into one of those two groups, and if each person cogently argues why he or she should be exempt from the “Kehilla Fund,” then there will be no “Kehilla Fund.”

So why should people contribute ?

The answer is that it is a communal obligation to support Torah – and to support Talmud Torah first and foremost, and to support the Talmud Torah of our children before we support Talmud Torah in Israel or any other place. We must learn also to prioritize our tzedaka dollar, and keep (as Rav Hershel Schachter said in our shul a few months ago) 75% of our contributions local, and 25% outside of our area. And, yes, that means reducing drastically the money we give on Sundays and weekdays to perfect strangers who knock on our doors seeking assistance. Charity does, indeed, begin at home.

And no person should think that his/her contributions are insignificant and superfluous. The Torah, when referring to “counting” always uses the expression “Nesi’at rosh” – “lifting the head.”  For Jews, nothing is more important than counting heads – and having heads that count. We are an intellectual, bookish people, we pride ourselves on our pursuit of knowledge and our commitment to education, and our whole Torah is extolled as “our wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations.” But in this endeavor, we all have a role – every person must do his/her share to sustain the “head” of the Jewish people.

To be sure, many people will have complaints and suggestions, and some will have complaints that are masquerading as suggestions. It is very easy to criticize, and very difficult to build; that is why the world has so many critics and so few builders. But we should all look at the bigger picture, join in and pledge by signing on at www.nnjkids.org, and together merit the divine blessings for ourselves, our children and our people.

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2 responses to “The Tuition Crisis – and the Road Back

  1. Srully Epstein

    Lichvod Harav,

    While I applaud this new venture (and have signed up online), I do wonder whether this is the solution that is necessary. It’s just more fundraising.

    Rav Yaakov Horowitz, speaking at Beth Abraham several weeks ago, quoted a boy whose rebbe kept repeating for him a lesson that he didn’t understand: “I don’t need noch amul; I need andarish.”

    The tuition crisis requires andarish.

    To my mind the only solutions would be (a) converting after-tax tuition dollars to pre-tax tuition dollars; (b) spreading out the tuition bill from, say, twenty years to forty years (not unlike a mortgage; and (c) creating an endowment fund that, yes, would rely on fundraising, but then would invest and grow the money for the future rather than “eat what we kill” each year.

    • Nathan J. Lindenbaum

      Mr. Epstein:

      Would that the three options you suggest were possible (and under our control)!

      a) Donations to the kehilla fund actually do turn funds that would otherwise be after-tax tuition into tax-deductible contributions. It is not currently possible or likely in the near term to make tuition deductible.

      b) Spreading the tuition obligation out over a longer period would require someone to fund the time lag, during which teachers and other obligations must be paid.

      c) The creation of an endowment is being investigated, but requires g’virim to step up and make yeshiva education a priority.

      It is unfair to call the kehilla fund “just more fundraising” in that the main goal is 100% participation, therby shifting from a user-fee model to a community support model where every member of the community has an obligation to help support the yeshivot.

      This is one small step in the right direction. Let’s not miss the opportunity to begin change the model. If we fail now, I fear the consequences.