Thursday, September 05, 2002

September 2002 - RJJ Newsletter

Jews are a charitable people and religious Jews are the most charitable of all. Giving to the needy and providing for communal activities and institutions is instinctive, a part of the ethos of the Jewish people. Admittedly, there are Jews, including some of means, in which this instinct is underdeveloped, so that parsimony rather than charity governs how they respond to pleas for financial help. In the aggregate, we are generous. How we assist the poor, care for the sick and elderly and support our communal infrastructure make us the envy of other groups who marvel at our philanthropy.

As American Jews moved away in droves from religious observance toward a secular version of Judaism or, as often, abandoned Jewish identity entirely, they retained a transmuted notion of charity that gave priority to humanitarian and secular causes. Hospitals and other medical-related activities were given top priority and not far behind was support for colleges and universities which were the contemporary articulation of the Jewish emphasis on education. A large Federation network was developed to espouse secular giving and to channel contributions to causes that embodied this ideal.

Orthodox Jews who were long quiescent eventually protested against the Federation’s scheme of allocation, arguing that it shortchanged Jewish causes and especially day school education. It was said – and I played a role in this – that meaningful religious education had become the stepchild of Jewish philanthropy. The activities and commitments that have sustained us were being starved. Our advocacy was tough and we did not yield at all to the argument that, after all, there is a Torah obligation to feed the poor, help the sick and frail, give dignity to the elderly, in short, to highlight chesed activities in the distribution of communal charitable funds.

We did not accept this argument because we recognized that Torah education merited priority and not because we undervalued chesed. Ultimately, our advocacy had an impact and there has been an increase in Jewish philanthropic support to religious schools, although this increase has not been even remotely commensurate with the budgetary needs of these institutions.

We have, in any case, convinced others that yeshivas and day schools merit support. What is the record of the Orthodox community?

We obviously do not need to be sold on the importance of a yeshiva or day school education. Nearly all of our children attend full-time religious schools and the exceptions are special situations that scarcely challenge the rule. Yet, I believe, that in the recent period something has been lost within Orthodoxy, namely the more than two-thousand year tradition and heritage that religious education for our children is a communal responsibility and not merely a parental obligation. We have shifted bit by bit over the past generation, so that at the yeshiva ketana and
high school levels, the cost of a Torah education is overwhelmingly and at times exclusively the responsibility of the parents who are regarded as the consumers of an educational product and like all consumers they must pay for what they take or get.

I have fought against this attitude for more years than I can recount. It is a battle that I have lost. In fairness, the more “frum” a school is, the more likely it is to retain a caring scholarship policy. Although they know that increased scholarship assistance inevitably means increased pressure on them, yeshiva officials at many schools show kindness toward parents in need. It remains, though, that the exigencies of yeshiva finances have resulted in a toughened stance, the upshot being that hard-pressed families are being pressured to pay a larger share of the cost of educating their children. As family size continues to increase in Orthodox ranks, an ever-greater toll is being exacted in the form of the disruption of sholom bayis and in family emotional and physical health.

The problem is not with school policy, although there is room for improvement. What is difficult to accept is the abandonment of the principle that basic Torah education is a basic communal responsibility. Whether through voluntary contributions or taxes imposed by community officials, over the centuries religious schools were supported in the main by outsiders and not by parents. We never embraced – at least not until recently – the alien concept that a Jewish education is a consumer product.

Even with increased parental financial participation, yeshivas need outside support if they are to meet their basic obligations. There are charitable persons who understand this, yet the painful truth is that outside contributions constitute a declining and by now relatively small share of the income of most schools. Voluntary contributions increasingly come from the parents themselves who either give themselves or get, as for example in what has become the customary dinner charge. Outsiders are growingly reluctant to contribute to ordinary yeshivas and day schools. They will support special situations, such as kollels, schools for special children and some advanced yeshivas. But elementary and secondary yeshivas and day schools are generally off the philanthropic radar screen.

Tzedakah is an obligation for all observant Jews. There is a good deal of discretion in what people may do with their charitable dollars, although there are halachic guidelines that govern tzedakah, including the obligation to give to the needy who ask directly for help and also pidyon shevuim. Too many of us make the mistake that organizations which purport to provide medical services or help the needy are accorded the same priority status as the needy themselves. This errant view of tzedakah parallels nearly perfectly the attitude of the Federations that we used to criticize.

As between Torah schools and organized chesed campaigns, the schools must be given priority. That is what I heard from the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood and it was a message he proclaimed constantly as he molded the nascent American yeshiva world into the robust Torah community that has developed. A similar message was expressed by other Torah leaders of the last generation. Several years ago, I heard a tape of a shiur given in the 1950’s by Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik and he made the same point.

This fundamental standard that is crucial to the well-being of the Torah community is now being abandoned by people who obviously appreciate the importance of chinuch. Shuls everywhere

have cut down or stopped altogether making appeals for yeshivas. They prefer making appeals for chesed activities. We are, in any case, now bombarded by a flow of appeals for chesed organizations. These agencies are in the main important, but with few exceptions they are a good deal less important than Torah institutions.

This should be self-evident in the yeshiva world, which adds to the question of why this world is embracing the secularist approach to tzedakah that we once rejected.

There is no easy explanation. Likely, the complexity of the Torah community, including the great number of institutions and causes seeking support, serves as a disincentive to answering appeals for yeshivas and day schools. I believe that the ant-traditional consumerist view of chinuch that I have criticized has resulted in the unwillingness to support outside schools. This unwillingness works in two ways. There is the attitude that the operational cost of our schools should be covered by the parents. Secondly, parents who are required to pay large sums for their children’s tuition are increasingly adverse to the notion that they should help other schools, even if they can afford to do so.

A third explanation is that for understandable reasons we have yielded to the emotional exhortations that are an inherent element of chesed campaigns. The impulses that govern how non-observant Jews approach their tzedakah decisions have begun to overtake us. Put otherwise, on the emotional front an appeal for a yeshiva cannot hold a candle to an appeal for a chesed cause.

What is the position of Torah leaders in all of this? Where are they as high tuition charges are causing pain in too many good and modest Torah homes? Where are they as many yeshivas are in financial crisis, a crisis that has become deeper because of the economic downturn that has resulted in a significant number of Orthodox parents losing their jobs?

I recognize that there is more than a small prospect that should Torah leaders advocate support for yeshivas, their words would go unheeded. At the least, though, they should trumpet the message that support for basic Torah institutions is both a communal requirement and a tzedakah priority. As far as I know, they have not sent out such a message. I do know that in some fashion they have acquiesced to the notion that tuition is a parental obligation, even for poor parents.

We receive a constant stream of letters from Torah leaders importuning us to support this or that chesed campaign, mainly for individuals but at times also for organizations. There are questionable aspects to these campaigns that I hope to deal with in the next Newsletter. What concerns me now is the lamentable fact that our Torah leaders are giving more momentum to the emotional chesed bandwagon.

Chesed activities constitute a glorious achievement in contemporary Orthodox life. In a somewhat similar fashion, they were considered to be a glorious aspect of the Federation and secular Jewish world. It was wrong in the past that Torah education was not regarded as a priority and the same attitude is wrong today. There cannot be one rule for the secularists and another for us.