Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Turning Our Backs On Orthodox Education

This column appears in this week's Jewish Press.

After more than fifty years of communal activity - the lion's share of it devoted to yeshivas and day schools - I know that disappointment comes with the territory.

I know that nearly all of our schools operate under severe financial hardship, a chronic condition that affects morale and the educational product. There are costs when teachers are badly underpaid and often paid late and when the curriculum and maintenance are cut nearly to the bone.

I also know that no recitation of these sad facts or passionate advocacy will alter the situation. Like people who have come to tolerate tight-fitting shoes, we have come to accept the neglect of Jewish schools. I wrote years ago that yeshivas and day schools are the stepchildren of Jewish philanthropy.

But for all of my experience and knowledge, I was not prepared for the announcement by New York Federation, the dominant partner in the Fund for Jewish Education, that basic grants to yeshivas and day schools in its service area were being terminated. I believe this decision makes New York's Federation the first in the country to betray the basic communal obligation to directly assist institutions that we acknowledge as vital to Jewish continuity.

I really did not expect that this cruel course would be taken, that schools already in great difficulty would be told that even modest support would no longer be forthcoming from Federation.

Our schools will now experience even greater pain, and the phony rhetoric used by Federation to justify its wrongful decision only makes matters worse. It will be surprising if other Federations do not follow the awful example set by the folks in New York who have betrayed our schools.

What is perhaps most remarkable about this decision is the muted reaction to it. Except for The Jewish Press and some scattered murmurings elsewhere, there has been silence from those who are most directly affected, as well as from those who presumably speak for and lead what remains of the day school movement.

True, the announcement came during the heat of the summer when schools are essentially closed and few of us are occupied with communal responsibilities. Still, the decision was in the works for months. Is it too much to expect the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools to protest an action that harms member schools?

This question becomes more urgent when we contrast the present placidity with the determined efforts made a generation and more ago to achieve fair treatment for yeshivas and day schools. The religious community was considerably smaller then and we had fewer resources. But we had commitment, even passion, and these qualities have been lost.

What is evident is that the Federation betrayal could not have occurred without a sea change in how the Orthodox look at basic yeshiva and day school education.

Our schools have fallen victim to benign neglect. In an important sense, they have been abandoned by the community that they serve and this abandonment has given cover to those who do not care much about day school education. We Orthodox Jews have forsaken our tradition and teachings regarding the obligation of each community to support basic Torah education.

While the establishment of religious schools and their maintenance was for generations regarded as a communal responsibility, increasingly they are considered to be primarily the responsibility of parents whose children attend them.

Except for special situations, we have embraced a consumerist mentality by accepting the once alien notion that basic Torah education is a product or service, and like other products and services is to be paid for by those who make direct use of them.

This attitude, which departs from the traditional understanding, leads desperate yeshivas and day schools to accept the notion that unless parents - including those of limited means - are forced to carry most of the load, the schools are unlikely to survive because they can no longer depend on community support.

A key moment in this transformation came more than fifteen years ago when a Los Angeles yeshiva that could not meet its obligations - despite considerable local religious Jewish affluence and only a small number of schools to support - adopted draconian measures aimed primarily at the poorest of its parents.

One of these measures required parents whose children were on scholarship to give the yeshiva a mortgage on their homes equal to the assistance that they received.

Understandably, the plan provoked strong opposition, notably from parents who themselves were in religious education. Its appropriateness was submitted to the Rabbinical Board of Torah Umesorah. Whatever reservations the yeshiva deans may have had, they sanctioned the plan. My written remonstrations to the contrary were of no avail.

In this instance and in subsequent actions, we see the emergence of the view that basic yeshiva or day school education is the obligation of the consumer and not of the community. Like a container of milk, Torah chinuch is a product to be paid for by the purchaser.

I have great respect for our yeshiva deans and have been obedient throughout my years of communal service. They carry enormous burdens and face constant pressure. Above all, they are honorable and good people.

That is all the more reason why we must be willing to raise questions that otherwise might not be addressed - and why, entirely consistent with the respect that is due yeshiva deans, we must be comfortable about raising issues that affect most of us.

So far as I can recall, for at least a decade our respected Torah leaders have not even once issued a statement proclaiming that it is a communal obligation to support local yeshivas and day schools. This is a serious matter because they aren't reticent people, as we know from the causes they do endorse.

If we would examine what is published in Yated Ne'man, the yeshiva world's newspaper, it's evident that yeshiva deans and Torah leaders are giving priority to special educational situations and chesed projects over basic Torah education. Is it preferable to advocate support for a special education program that, as meritorious as it may be, serves a small number of students and neglect a yeshiva ketana that enrolls 200-300 or more students and cannot meet its obligations?

When more than a generation ago the effort to pressure Federations to support day schools was launched, the philanthropic focus was on hospitals and activities that served the needy, projects that we would describe as chesed. If we read our mail and pay attention to other messages sent nowadays by Torah leaders, it appears that they are telling us that chesed has priority over chinuch. This isn't what they believe, but it is the message that they are sending.

In the aggregate, what we are hearing from them is that in giving tzedakah, chesed has priority. Incidentally, the Federation's basic grants that are being terminated amounted to $2.2 million a year. The chesed letters sent out by Torah leaders raise a far greater sum.

We should not forsake chesed causes. But why is the expanding Orthodox promotion of chesed activities less questionable than the funding preferences of secular Federations? It's true that Orthodox chesed activities are nearly always voluntary so that contributions go directly to those who need help, and it is also true that those who are helped are needy Jews. Yet, shouldn't Orthodox Jews be more attuned than secular Jews to the transcendent importance of sustaining Torah education?

We who know the value of yeshivas and day schools have less of an excuse than the secularists. Basic Torah education is being downplayed as a communal obligation. There are comfortable Orthodox Jews - more than a few - who go to shul regularly and live strong Torah lives but who in the course of a year contribute next to nothing to yeshivas and day schools.

In the typical yeshiva or day school, parents are required with each passing year to shoulder a greater share of the budget. In religious families, yeshiva education is not an option, no matter how high the tuition. (Actually, there are hundreds, perhaps more, of Orthodox children who are being home-schooled, primarily as a result of high tuition charges.) In some families, grandparents help with tuition, an arrangement that cannot be maintained endlessly.

Whether or not there is outside assistance, there is widespread difficulty and pain as parents struggle to meet tuition and other obligations arising out of their religious commitment, a struggle made more difficult because of the growing size of Orthodox families.

Parents who work hard and honorably and whose income is limited are being told that high tuition is their problem, and it's not for the yeshiva to figure out how they meet this obligation.

All of this enacts a huge toll in terms of emotional stability and shalom bayis.

Meanwhile, throughout the U.S., there has been a steady contraction of scholarship opportunities for needy day school families, the only exception being when a family is hit by a catastrophe.

(I do not fault schools for insisting that tuition be paid irrespective of family circumstances. In a sense, our schools are the primary victims of a consumerist mentality.)

What isn't seen is the cost exacted among marginally observant families for whom a day school education is preferable but not mandatory. It stands to reason that rapidly rising tuition charges will tip the scales against some and perhaps many such parents sending their children to a day school. Enrollment data provides backing for this conclusion.

I recently completed a second census of U.S. day schools, following up on a study that I conducted in 1999. Enrollment figures were secured for all yeshivas and day schools. Overall, there was considerable growth, notably in the chassidic and yeshivish sectors that benefit from a significantly high fertility rate. In non-Orthodox schools, enrollment is essentially flat and there can be no doubt that tuition charges are a major factor.

A significant number of Orthodox schools around the country have suffered enrollment declines. This might be expected in view of population shifts and, in some places, the establishment of competing schools. What is telling is the decline in schools with an outreach orientation, including those that serve immigrant populations. I sense that there is diminished enthusiasm for supporting these schools.

Away from New York, the picture is disheartening in key communities where flagship Centrist Orthodox schools that have long been the backbone of the day school movement have in just five years experienced astonishing enrollment declines. While several factors have contributed to this development - notably the tendency of young observant families to move away - it's also evident that these schools are losing prospective students because scholarship assistance is not available.

Professional and lay leaders of these schools tell me that they feel left out, that they do not get the encouragement and attention that they used to get from the day school movement.

The students who are being lost to day schools have, with few exceptions, no names. Who they are is mostly unknown. We do not calculate that they are being lost to the Jewish people. We feel no pain or shame because day schools are no longer in most communities the magnet for attracting families to Judaism.

I fear that we are operating under the misconception that kiruv or outreach is not being compromised by the weakening of day schools. Increasingly, our focus is on adult activities and the establishment of community kollels. These are meritorious institutions, if only because the study and teaching of Torah is vital. It remains, however, that without strong day schools in communities where kollels exist, what they plant will be on barren land.

Although it is a sensitive subject, there is abundant evidence that kollels can undermine day schools, inadvertently or deliberately, both via fundraising competition and by promoting the attitude that day schools are ineffective vehicles for Judaic growth.

It's noteworthy that as day schools have declined in the Orthodox frame of reference, the kiruv movement has also suffered - this despite the large investment in kollels and claims that great numbers of Jews are returning to Judaism. It appears, in fact, that defections from our religious life now exceed the number of returnees. Such statistics are inevitably fragile, but they are supported by the observations of key outreach leaders.

I am mindful of the fundamental Talmudic principle that saving a single life - and this includes spiritual salvation - is akin to saving an entire world. I would hope that those who believe that there can be successful kiruv without strong day schools would reflect on another Talmudic teaching: If there are no young goats, there cannot be adult goats. More to the point, if there are no young students, we cannot have scholars and leaders.

We are witness to a multi-faceted abandonment of Torah education. We do not care enough about these schools, nor do we give them the respect and support they deserve. I know that times have changed and that standards and expectations have risen. Yet, we should remain faithful to the example of the great Torah leaders of the previous generation, particularly the great rosh yeshiva of Lakewood, Rav Aharon Kotler, zt"l, the transcendent Torah leader of our time.

I have endeavored in my communal activity and in this essay to be faithful to the last words spoken to me by Rav Kotler shortly before he died forty-one years ago, words that were echoed nearly twenty years later by his son, Rav Shneuer Kotler, zt"l, during my last visit to him, also shortly before he died.