Monday, January 01, 2001

January 2001 - RJJ Newsletter

If yeshivas and fundraising seem like inseparable Siamese twins, it’s because they usually are. While there are day schools – mainly in the non-Orthodox and Modern-Orthodox sectors – that command high tuition, offer meager scholarship assistance and live nearly entirely off parental payments, yeshivas and many day schools operate at the brink of financial disaster. They cannot survive without outside assistance.

A yeshiva’s educational program has standards, both religious and academic. One goal is to teach subject matter and to encourage the intellectual growth of students. Another and perhaps more important goal is to inculcate these youngsters in a religious lifestyle. Fundraising is a means toward these ends. Perhaps because these ends are important, there is a tendency to be lax, to relax ethical standards and to accept the invidious notion that in fundraising, the end justifies the means.

This is understandable in view of the grueling pressures school officials face as they scurry to cover bank overdrafts and to meet their obligations. An explanation of wrongdoing does not convert what is wrong into a right. When yeshivas act improperly, their sacred mission is violated. We have every right to expect more exacting ethical standards in the institutions that are central to our religious life.

Fundraising excesses tend to be irritants rather than serious departures from appropriate behavior. This is true of telemarketing, one of the banes of modern civilization and also a favorite device of fundraisers who are bereft of creativity. They opt for paltry financial gain as they forfeit the good will of people who might provide more substantial support.

Although some may think otherwise, the common practice of charities buying and selling contributors lists is a rotten way to raise money. It is malodorous for an institution to reward those who support it by peddling their names to some other charity. Lay leaders have a obligation to see that this business does not occur at the places for which they have responsibility.

Fundraising encompasses the search for governmental assistance, when it is to be had. Even with the powerful strictures against aid to religious schools, some public funding is available. Usually it is indirect or based on formulas that reduce the opportunity for mischief. However, if the U.S. Supreme Court agrees at long last to review the school voucher issue and they are ruled constitutional, a new and far more serious dynamic will be set into motion and the moral fortitude of our vital educational institutions and their leaders may be tested.

The issue confronting yeshivas is not the constitutionality of vouchers. The Orthodox community reached a consensus in the 1960’s that governmental aid to parochial schools is consistent with the doctrine of separation of church and state. Of course, overwhelmingly American Jews do not agree and they and their organizations have maintained without let-up the fanciful notion that the Republic, as well as public education, will be endangered should governmental support be provided for just the secular programs of religious schools. It apparently counts for nothing that in those democracies where public funds are provided in this fashion, the experience has not brought about the predicted untoward results. It apparently also matters very little that public education is short-changing millions of children, mainly in the minority communities.

I may be the most veteran proponent of government aid in all of American Jewry, since my first article supporting assistance to public schools appeared in the 1950’s. But while the validity of using public funds is not in my judgment a legitimate concern, there is the unavoidable question of whether such aid is wise. The problem is the inevitable link that will be established between governmental and political and communal scoundrels. Most governmental funding programs contain at least the seeds for corruption and some provide an open invitation to those who are intent on doing wrong. This is especially the case when there is a means test attached to the public benefit, as is likely to be true of voucher arrangements. There are those, including in our community, who know how to exploit such opportunities for inappropriate institutional and personal gain.

At the least, our advocacy of vouchers must come with the recognition of the inherent dilemma confronting us. We must recognize that unless programs are tailored to minimize subjectivity on the part of government officials and unless we approach what is being offered to us with a sense of restraint and responsibility befitting our religious obligations, along with much-needed financial support, governmental assistance will result in a measure of Chilul Hashem.