Thursday, October 28, 2004

Boston v. New York

The subject of this piece isn't baseball, although it is worth pondering whether our intense interest in the sport - as spectators, with occasional exceptions like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax - is the result of the powerful acculturative forces that have shaped the American Jewish experience ever since Abner Doubleday's time. It's surprising that, as yet, none of our mega-rich have dedicated a pavilion at Cooperstown.

My subject is more parochial, to be precise Jewish parochial schools or day schools, as they are now called. Boston and New York are not in the same day school league. Including its suburbs, Boston has fourteen day schools with about 2,500 students. Enrollment in New York City alone comes to 82,500 or just 7,000 students shy of all U.S. day schoolers outside of New York State. In the larger New York metropolitan area, day school enrollment is about 125,000.

They aren't in the same day school league in another way. Thanks largely to the local Federation, three philanthropists are giving $45 million to Boston area day schools, the announcement coming not long after the Fund for Jewish Education (FJE) which is dominated by the Federation here decided to terminate basic grants to yeshivas and day schools. This astonishing betrayal of a trust was accompanied by a barrage of public relations sophistry, including - to be generous - the strange assertion that the grants which amounted to about $3,000-$20,000 per participating school were being cut out because the amount given was so low.

One reason why this wrong and harmful decision was made is that in dollar terms alone it is a challenge to figure out how to help New York's day schools. In a sense, there are too many of them and too many students for the local philanthropic sector to digest. This scarcely justifies taking away the little that had been given. Besides, there is the noble example of Mr. Joseph Gruss of blessed memory who was American Jewry's greatest Jewish philanthropist. The FJE came into being because he figured out how to assist New York's day schools.

At FJE as elsewhere, there are people who talk a good game about Jewish education but who fail or refuse to understand that education takes place in schools and classrooms, not in offices or meaningless conferences or outside projects and training programs. I believe that the fact that 97% of New York's day school enrollment is Orthodox, the lion's share of this in chassidic and yeshiva-world schools, did not increase the inclination to provide direct help to day schools.

The betrayal of our most valuable and vulnerable institutions would not have occurred had Orthodox leaders fulfilled their responsibility. The picture is not pretty. When the Orthodox were far weaker a generation and more ago, yeshiva deans sanctioned public pressure on Federations to support day school education. Much of this effort was channeled through the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools or Torah Umesorah which then championed basic religious education in communities throughout North America.

The recent record is far different. Federation and FJE signaled in advance their intent to terminate basic grants, yet neither Torah Umesorah or yeshiva deans said anything in protest of a decision that would clearly harm schools for which they have responsibility. This silence served as a signal to those who were bent on harming day schools that they had a free hand to proceed. Even now, as there are indications that those of us who have protested have had an impact, there is silence from Torah Umesorah and the deans. This is shocking and it should be unacceptable.

Many in the yeshiva-world are yielding to the pernicious notion that except for special situations such as immigrant and outreach schools - interestingly, their enrollment has declined - basic religious education at the elementary and secondary levels is a consumer product and like all other consumer products it should be paid for by those who benefit directly, namely parents, irrespective of their financial situation. It is telling and disheartening that at least for a decade, yeshiva deans have not issued even one statement declaring that basic religious education is a communal responsibility, in line with the way our religious life has been conducted for more than 2,000 years.

As a consequence, the betrayal of day schools has been inadvertently abetted by those who should be in the forefront of day school advocacy. The further upshot is that our schools now face even greater hardship. Many cannot meet their payroll, this despite severely underpaying their faculty and staff and skimping on maintenance and nearly everything else. The financial stability of these institutions seem shakier than it has been in a long while. The fundraising environment is not good because day schools are not favored by most donors and those who might provide support are besieged by requests for help, too many of them warmly endorsed by those who should be calling for support of basic Torah education.

The burden has shifted to parents and this imposes a severe hardship on most Orthodox families, both financially and emotionally. Hard working parents - often both work - with a houseful of children are not able to make ends meet and they are increasingly being told by yeshiva and day school officials that the school needs full tuition, irrespective of parental ability to pay.

There is another cost, one that is scarcely seen or felt. In the New York metropolitan area there are thousands of marginally involved Jewish families that would choose day school education if decent and affordable schools were available where they live. Unfortunately, there are few such schools. What can be accomplished was driven home by Lev Levayev who came to Israel from the Former Soviet Union. He had the vision to establish in Queens a school for FSU children. In its third year, enrollment is above 600. Apparently, he does not accept the notion that a Jewish education is a consumer product.