Thursday, March 15, 2007

RJJ Newsletter - March 2007

This isn't the worst of times for yeshivas and day schools and it also isn't the best of times. In earlier periods, yeshivas such as ours often were not able to make payroll, even though faculty were paid a pittance, and our schools were not able to meet other basic obligations. The lifespan of a typical American yeshiva during the first half of the twentieth century was relatively short. RJJ survived because of the heroic efforts of a small number of individuals, although at least twice our mesivta and high school program was terminated because the money wasn't there to keep it going.

There are yeshivas that close these days, although almost always because of declining enrollment resulting from demographic changes or competition from newer schools. Few yeshivas now live a hand to mouth existence. But the schools that serve an immigrant population or a kiruv mission or have a large number of children from poor families do struggle. It is tragic that enrollment in kiruv and immigrant schools has declined in recent years. As I write, the largest immigrant school in the U.S. and the largest outreach school are in crisis.

The best of times for the American yeshiva world was about a generation ago. Enrollment was growing in all sectors of Orthodox life. Torah Umesorah was a vital force in establishing day schools in places where there previously weren't any. Religious faculty salaries took a significant leap and there was much communal enthusiasm and support. Yeshivas weren't on easy street, yet the prevailing climate of opinion in Orthodox life was that these institutions were the primary instrumentality for ensuring religious commitment and continuity.

Of course, religious Jews today believe no less in Torah chinuch than they did then. In a sense, commitment has grown, as is evident in personal Torah study and in the mushrooming of kollels and other institutions of learning. What, then, is missing?

Part of the answer involves finances. Orthodox wealth has literally exploded, a development that is not even remotely reflected in the support being provided to basic Torah education. Rebbis' salaries at most yeshivas have been stagnant for years, this despite constant increases in the cost of living, especially for religious families, and constant increases in tuition. There is the poisonous attitude that I have decried for years, albeit with scant success, that relegates yeshiva education to the status of a consumer product that must be paid for by parents who are the consumers. It matters not that this attitude is a sharp rejection of our heritage, a rejection of the two-thousand year consensus in religious Jewish life that the community must share responsibility for the maintenance of schools that provide basic Torah education. This rupture is the primary reason for the tuition crisis that is convenient fodder for articles in our publications and speeches at our conventions. Alas, there isn' a yeshiva that can pay its staff or bills by presenting an article in Jewish Action, published by the Orthodox Union, or Jewish Observer, published by Agudath Israel, or the tape of a speech by a notable rabbi.

So the tuition crisis worsens, taking a heavy toll in shalom bayis and in how yeshivas operate. Still, the talk goes on. So does Torah Umesorah, although it is badly crippled, a condition that has hurt the day school movement. This truth will be masked after Pesach when day school and yeshiva principals have their annual convention, with hard-pressed Torah institutions footing the bill. The attendees will hear from eminent Roshei Yeshiva who doubtlessly will say all of the right things, except the desperately needed words that Torah schools at the elementary and high school levels must be supported by the community. As I have written, it has been a long while since there was a call by Roshei Yeshiva to support basic Torah education.

I have wondered for years why the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood devoted himself so greatly to the incipient day school movement. Why was he involved in chinuch issues at the elementary school level? He had other enormous burdens, including his own yeshiva, Chinuch Atzmai in Israel, and the responsibility to lead the entire Torah community. Yet, he felt it was his responsibility to give leadership, as well, to the day school world.

The attitudinal change that leaves our schools shortchanged is, at its core, an expression of not caring. This was apparent three years ago when the New York Federation stabbed our schools in the back by terminating basic grants. We were quiet then and we have been quiet since, delivering the message to the secular world that it is not important to assist these vital institutions. At best, we take our schools for granted. Excitement comes from other sources, including worthy enterprises in Israel, kollels and special chinuch situations. As for ordinary yeshivas and day schools, we reason that enrollment will continue to grow irrespective of the support they receive. Besides, there are too many schools to choose from and the path of least resistance is to give little or nothing to all of them. Like secular Jews, many of us have come to accept that chesed activities should have tzedakah priority.

The absence of leadership and insufficient caring account for the remarkable circumstance that there are students from good religious homes who themselves are good religious Jews who are not admitted to our schools. Without leadership, there is no planning. In contrast, in chassidic sectors where the fertility rate is higher and enrollment is growing more rapidly that in the yeshiva world, steps are routinely taken to create additional facilities and seats. In the chassidic world, students are not turned away because in the chassidic world there is leadership.

We may think that our wrongful attitude has no downside. We are wrong. What we are experiencing is not a victimless wrong. There are victims and they are in thousands of religious homes where the tuition crisis is not idle talk but a daily reality. Our schools are also victims, as are their faculty and staff. And there are victims in marginally observant and non-observant Jewish homes where there are families not being reached out to and children who are being deprived of the opportunity to embrace our glorious heritage.