Monday, January 13, 2003

Taking the Rap Off Yeshivas

Newspapers exist to disseminate news and ideas, to promote the discussion of public issues. Inevitably, they are catalysts to controversy, provoking those who disagree with one or another point of view. Because this is also true of Jewish newspapers, a case can be easily made for the publication several weeks ago in this newspaper of “Choosing Public School Over Yeshiva,” in which a mother describes her family’s decision to send two of their three children to public school. But it should be beyond the pale to attack the concept of a Jewish day school education, which the article primarily was about.

There are committed Jewish parents whose children do not attend yeshiva or day school. Finances often are the determining factor, although other considerations come into play. Among the very Orthodox, in particular, there are parents who prefer home schooling. While the evidence is overwhelming that formal and intensive religious education usually yields the greatest Judaic benefits, the right of parents to choose should be respected. This is true of the mother who wrote about her children. Unfortunately, what began as an explanation of this choice turned into a misinformed and rather nasty attack against yeshivas and the Orthodox community.

She transgresses in two ways, firstly by misrepresenting what the advocates of yeshiva education are saying and, secondly, by offering a negative view of day school education that is likely to influence some marginal parents who may now decide against enrolling their children in a religious Jewish school. Such parents are not likely to have the resources or Judaic backup that her family has and they therefore will not provide Jewishly for their children.

Interestingly, the attack comes from a person of the ultra-Modern Orthodox fringe, a tiny group with a negligible impact on Jewish life that specializes in going after the rest of Orthodoxy, specifically including the Modern Orthodox. The ultras who modestly label themselves as courageous are adept at self-promotion and at attracting the support of the super-rich who are in ecstasy whenever there’s an opportunity to give aid and comfort to the anti-Orthodox.

We are left with the task of defending yeshivas – flawed institutions, as are all human contrivances – because a mother justifies a personal decision by attempting to tear down that which she has opted against. In her words, how insufferably arrogant. Sadly, there is still a need to defend yeshivas – our most effective instrumentalities of Jewish continuity – against unfair criticism. Here are perhaps the most frequent grounds of attack.

Values – Like elementary and secondary schools everywhere, in addition to teaching subject matter yeshivas are expected to teach students ethical behavior and proper values, a task that is often easier to articulate than to accomplish. The naysaying mother alleges that the Orthodox, including yeshivas, claim to have a monopoly on good values. If the charge were true – and emphatically it is not – it should be easy to document because there are tons of publications that emanate from the Orthodox. It would be interesting to see a single document that supports this absurd charge.

What is the case and it is something quite different is that yeshivas are critical sources for teaching and transmitting Jewish beliefs and practices, a proposition that should be too obvious to be debated. In the event, although there is room for improvement, yeshivas do a good job inculcating proper conduct.

Finances – Tuition has been rising steadily and this is both a disincentive for some families and a cause for great hardship among day school families, especially since scholarship assistance is harder to come by as outside philanthropic support generally constitutes a declining share of the typical day school budget. While the cost of yeshiva education is expensive for many families, it is quite reasonable when compared to the cost at public and private schools that do not operate a dual curriculum. In New York, which has more than half of all yeshiva enrollment, the average annual per student cost is about $7,000, as compared to about $12,000 at public schools.

Yeshivas are nearly all under-funded and under-staffed, a circumstance that provides no succor for parents who are terribly burdened by tuition charges but which provides a necessary perspective and corrective when we consider the cost of yeshiva education.

Quality of Education – Because they are bereft of public funding and usually are small-sized as compared with other schools, yeshivas often do not measure well in terms of facilities, educational enhancements, extra-curricular activities and much else. These shortcomings are alleviated by the devotion of faculty and staff and by an environment that is conductive to serious education. If we look at results rather than just inputs, our schools have an impressive record.

Their achievements are evident in standard test results, including New York’s Regent Examinations, in SAT performance, in their ability – with some setbacks - to shield students against the pathologies that are wrecking too many young lives, in college admission decisions, and in the Judaic commitment and involvement and subsequent life pattern of their alumni, the overwhelming number of whom are contributing importantly to the general society and to Jewish life.

A decent respect for the truth requires that this remarkable record be recognized. Unfortunately, there are those who are too blinded by prejudice to see the truth.

Of course, yeshivas need to improve; some need to improve a great deal. Tuition is a painful subject that is becoming more painful. It is unfair to place the blame for this on yeshivas, nearly all of whom operate in a state of constant financial stress. Our community needs to address the tuition issue in ways that recognize the value of yeshiva education. I am not optimistic that this will happen.

We can hope that the children of the mother who has made her choice will be successful, both Jewishly and academically, and that they will grow to be respectful of the religion that is our heritage and our future.