Friday, March 03, 2006

RJJ Newsletter - Wealthy Charedim and Tuition Costs

There has been an explosion of wealth in the charedi sectors of Orthodox life, a development triggered by the booming real estate market and also by hard working and creative religious Jews who have made the most of business opportunities. In terms of numbers, the larger story is still of needy families, usually parents with many children at home who struggle to meet tuition and other obligations. Even a relatively well-paying job is not sufficient to make ends meet. Kollel families and those in chinuch contribute their share to the ranks of needy religious Jews. Yet, this reality does not alter the corollary reality that there are significant pockets of Orthodox affluence, including a number of persons who are super-rich. Why, then, are most of our yeshivas always strapped for funds, even as they operate close to the bone? Why is tuition increased each year, adding to the painful burden on many families if there are religious Jews who possess the resources to sustain our most vital institutions? Put otherwise, why isn't the budget gap in the typical yeshiva closed through voluntary contributions? Are contributions keeping pace with the expansion of wealth?

These questions shed light on crucial aspects of Orthodox life. There are two charedi sectors - chassidic and yeshiva-world - and right now they are largely on different financial tracks. Historically, the chassidic sector was significantly less acculturated and certainly less affluent than the yeshiva world, which isn't surprising since Chassidim have very limited secular education and more limited contact with the host society. Yeshiva-world families have tended to be better educated in non-religious subjects, with university and professional degrees being common, which is also to say that this sector is far more engaged with the outside world. As a consequence, yeshiva-world graduates tended to fare better than Chassidim.

This pattern has changed somewhat, not regarding acculturation but with respect to work patterns and relative affluence. Except for top students, Chassidim are less likely to remain for long in kollel or in yeshiva after marriage. They also have in the aggregate a remarkable instinct for entrepreneurship which in some curious fashion is actually enhanced by their lack of secular education and even by their limited interaction with the host society. Since professional and other career paths are closed to them, there is a greater likelihood that Chassidim will opt for the business world.

In the yeshiva-world, kollel is valued and regarded by many as imperative. When this experience concludes, the usual career path leads to chinuch or other communal work - generally low paying activities - or as an employee working for others. These are generalizations, of course, yet they accurately reflect what is occurring in these two Orthodox sectors.

Because of their attachment to a Rebbe and to their group's institutions and activities, Chassidim tend to direct their charity to internal causes. This purchases for them status within their group and few things are of equal importance than the acquisition of status. The internalized targeting of tzedakah is abetted by the tendency of chassidic schools to be large, which means that there are fewer institutions to support. The relative centralization of authority and activity in chassidic communities also contributes to this end.

This is sharply in contrast with the yeshiva-world where there is an absence of centralization and a huge number of meritorious chesed projects and chinuch institutions soliciting help, including an abundance of small mesivtas, Beth Medrash programs and kollels. Speak to any person of means within the yeshiva-world and he will tell you that each day he is badgered by institutions and causes pleading for help.

Furthermore, instead of focusing primarily on the yeshivas for which they have direct responsibility, Roshei Yeshiva and other yeshiva-world leaders tend to be all over the place, trying to raise funds for both communal causes and individuals in need. What they do not promote - unfortunately as I have noted with alarm and sadness - is the obligation to support basic Torah education.

On top of all of this, those who are affluent in the yeshiva-world too often see greater gratification in helping religious institutions and causes in Israel, probably because there is greater status to be achieved by attaching themselves to Israeli Torah leaders of unquestioned stature. What they contribute to American causes is often directed at special chinuch or chesed situations. Basic Torah education at the elementary and high school levels is not very much on their radar screen. The consequence is that most yeshivas do not benefit from spreading Orthodox affluence and therefore parents of limited means are obligated to shoulder the burden through increased tuition.

What emerges is a stark contrast between the two charedi sectors. Chassidic institutions charge lower tuition, are more generous with scholarship assistance, rely far more on voluntary contributions and manage to raise substantial funds for new and improved facilities. In the yeshiva-world, there are large institutions that for decades have struggled with inadequate facilities.

These factors address the questions raised in the opening paragraph. There is an additional consideration, which is whether the charitable giving of those who are affluent falls short of what they are required to give. While there obviously are people of wealth who meet their tzedakah obligations and even give more than they are required to give, there is reason to believe that in their calculation of income for tzedakah purposes, many of the affluent consider only the funds that hit their personal accounts and do not take into account the value of the assets that they own.

This issue is touched on in an interesting tshuvah (responsum) of Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztl, (Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah, vol.3, no.85) concerning the propriety of someone who collects tzedakah telling another person who also collects tzedakah that such and such a person is affluent and is worth approaching for a contribution. Rav Moshe rules that such behavior is not inappropriate, "since it is certain that [the wealthy person] has not yet given ma-asser, inasmuch as most people do their tzedakah calculations at the end of the year." He then adds that since "in general it is not common for the wealthy to give ma-asser and certainly there is no reason to think that they have given a fifth of their income, it is an additional mitzvah to inform others."

In short, until the affluent recognize that chinuch, including basic Torah education, must in this period be regarded as the top tzedakah priority and contribute the share that they are obligated to contribute, our schools will continue to operate in a state of penury and the bulk of the financial burden will be on parents who are already struggling to meet their obligations.