Friday, November 21, 2008

How to Survive the Crisis

We know that the economic downturn is far more severe than the run-of-the-mill recessions that crop up every decade or so. What we do not know is what lies ahead, how bad it will get and how long it will last. Right now, despite a multitude of bailouts in which a billion dollars seems to be treated like petty cash, major financial institutions and corporations and hundreds of thousands of home owners are under water.

Jewish life is obviously affected. Many of us have seen our life savings sharply reduced. On most days, when the sun goes down we are worth less than we were when it rose. Our vast army of institutions and organizations depend on philanthropic support and this in turn depends on Wall Street and the health of the economy. There is already much communal pain, with more to come. Likely, when the final reckoning is in, our communal landscape will be altered.

The starting point for dealing with the crisis is to know that it’s there. This should be easy since the bad news is everywhere. It isn’t because of inertial forces and the tendency to hope that salvation will somehow come. I am all for emunah – for faith – but not at the expense of reality.

We are sorely in need of communal triage, the separation of the wheat from the chaffe by determining what is essential for the well-being of our people and what is not. We can start with a sharp reduction in our yen for conferences, conventions and other expensive activities that accomplish little in the best of times and should be discarded now that programs that are Jewishly meaningful will have to be cut. The travel and hotel industries will be impacted but that is not our concern and their fate will not be determined by what we do. We can also safely do away with the legion of experts and consultants, most of them well fed, who have responsibility for nothing except for reports that invariably are dead on arrival. Pork is treife, yet pork-barreling is a significant feature of our communal life and the extent of the waste is staggering. Our philanthropies and activities should be focused directly on those who need help, whether because they are poor or not Jewishly knowledgeable or because they cannot fend for themselves.

If some good comes out of this crisis it will be because of the turning away from attitudes and behaviors that while richly funded achieve very little.

My greatest concern is for our educational sector, notably the day schools that with some exceptions always struggle to get by. As hard as it may be to believe, the majority of U.S. day school children are educated in institutions where the annual expenditure per child for a dual curriculum is below $7,000. Teachers in these schools are all underpaid and they are often paid late. There isn’t much to cut from their budgets. They are now going to be hit harder than other communal activities because in addition to a reduction in contributions, parents who are out of work or have suffered sharp financial reversals will not be able to meet their tuition obligations. I fear that there will be an enrollment decline, especially in schools that educate children from marginally Jewishly-involved homes.

One place to cut is the lucrative and ever-expanding world of Jewish Education, Inc., that select universe of academics, consultants, trainers, etc., who are not responsible for the education of a single child, yet who feast on the limited resources available for day school education as they tell those who are in the schools and classrooms how to do a better job. There is something cynical about this exercise.

At a time when a growing number of day schools around the country cannot meet their payroll, it is morally incumbent that our charitable giving be directed directly to the places where children are taught. We have an excess of training programs that cost many millions of dollars a year. Let’s put the training train in mothballs, at least until the crisis abates.

The signs are not promising. It is disheartening that in several weeks Torah Umesorah - the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools - by far the most important organization in the field - is sponsoring a conference for lay leaders and executive directors at a luxurious resort in Palm Beach Gardens in Florida. It is claimed that the gathering will be useful in providing fundraising guidance. Forgive me for my skepticism. However, if such knowledge needs to be imparted, there is a far better and less expensive way to achieve this goal. Since more than two-thirds of Orthodox enrollment is in New York and New Jersey, there can be a one-day conference in New York. The event would draw a far larger audience than would be found at the resort, at a tiny fraction of the cost. School officials in other parts of North America can participate via video conferencing.

There is scant likelihood that this approach will be taken. Rather, I will be sharply criticized for stepping on the toes of an organization that should know better.

It is still early in the school year. I believe that every day school that teaches, in the main, children from immigrant families or has an outreach mission or whose student body comes mostly from poor homes is already in serious trouble. I fear for what lies ahead between now and June.

Unless the crisis is recognized, great damage will occur in this vital educational sector. Hopefully, after recognition there should come the understanding that there is no greater philanthropic or charitable obligation today than to support the institutions that do more than any other activity to ensure Jewish continuity.