Thursday, November 13, 2008

RJJ Newsletter - November 2008

It is too early to assess the full severity of the economic downturn that has engulfed this country and much of the globe. It is not too early to know that whatever lies ahead, what has already happened is very bad news and there is a strong likelihood that additional bad news is in the offing. It also is not too early to recognize that our community has been greatly hurt by recent developments and this is inevitably and directly translated into enduring pain at institutions and activities that are crucial to the religious wellbeing of American Jews. Most urgently, yeshivas and day schools are in trouble. In the best of times, nearly all are underfunded and on financial thin ice. The ice has gotten dangerously thin in recent months.

What are our schools to do when contributions are down, when a growing number of parents say they cannot make tuition payments, when the institutions that have worked hard to build up endowments see that these funds have been significantly depleted?

The starting point – the beginning of wisdom – is to recognize that there is a crisis, that what happens on Wall Street and at other key economic sectors has a direct bearing on yeshivas and day schools. Having blinders on is never a formula for intelligent planning and action. These days, having blinders on is reckless and worse.

Yet, that is how too many in our community are reacting to what is occurring. This is generally their modus operandi, since invariably our schools live a penurious existence and also because these are people of faith who believe that somehow salvation will arrive. They should know that their enumah is not compromised when they are realistic, when they are alert to outside developments that impact on their responsibilities.

However we view the response of individual schools to the crisis, what is especially troubling is the absence of communal leadership. This is inexcusable and yet in line with the absence of yeshiva-world leadership over what is already an extended period. Why isn’t Torah Umesorah involved, advising yeshivas how to cope and perhaps taking action that might help struggling schools? Is it too much to expect that its Rabbinical Board which is comprised of prominent Roshei Yeshiva will at long last urge religious Jews to focus their tzedakah on basic Torah chinuch?

Perhaps I am being unfair. A month from now, Torah Umesorah will hold an “Inaugural Presidents Conference,” at a luxurious PGA resort in Palm Beach Gardens in Florida. The organization is urging day school leaders, particularly lay leaders, to participate in “a weekend to cultivate relationships, share ideas and realize visions” and doubtlessly to have good food and a good time. At the risk of raining on someone else’s parade, may I respectfully suggest that the hundreds of thousands of dollars that will be spent on an event that will not enhance the economic situation of our schools would be better spent if given directly to yeshivas and day schools?

With eight months left in the school year and a growing number of yeshivas and day schools indicating that they are in trouble, without communal leadership and action we are in for very bad news, notably in the chinuch sectors that educate children in immigrant families or have a kiruv mission or primarily serve families that are at risk Jewishly. I fear that there may be schools that will not make it through the school year.

For most of our yeshivas, the options for responding to the financial crisis are limited. With relatively few exceptions, they are underfunded and understaffed, with faculty and office help being badly underpaid. Still, it is possible and certainly necessary to institute economies, such things as energy saving, reduction in mailing costs and recognizing that successful fundraising is dependent on trust and direct contacts and not on a school sending a costly gift to thousands of names purchased from some outside source.

Yeshivas should especially consider how they can cut back on the costs associated with the annual dinner. The invitations can be more modest, the gifts given to the honorees and others who attend can be less costly and I believe that other savings can be instituted. In the aggregate, our schools spend a million dollars or more on the annual Torah Umesorah convention that takes place after Pesach. Since many of them are behind in payroll, I wonder whether there is a halachic justification for such an expenditure when underpaid teachers are not being paid on time.

As in nearly all fundraising, our schools rely on known contributors, people who have given in the past. In the current environment, some will give less and others will say that they cannot help at all this year. It is necessary to seek new contributors and while this is a difficult challenge, it is not a hopeless task, provided that lay people participate and both the professional staff and lay leaders are willing to work hard at fundraising. I repeat what I have already said: fundraising that depends on expensive initial outlays is not the way to go.

Even the most determined and well-planned efforts to raise funds are not likely to close the budgetary gap. The larger community needs to see its responsibilities. I know that the prospects are not great. Too many Orthodox Jews do not assist yeshivas and day schools that serve their community when the economy is strong. Are we to expect them to give when the downturn has furnished them with an excuse?

One of the insufficiently commented upon aspects of Orthodox life is that as the community expanded in size and wealth, its appetite for self-indulgence and hedonism expanded at a far faster rate. I know people for whom giving a modest contribution to a yeshiva is a difficult exercise and yet who can plunk down thousands of dollars for a luxury cruise or other extravagances.

Few of us come close to fulfilling our tzedakah obligations, a point that was made repeatedly by Rav Moshe Feinstein of blessed memory. Can we hope for improvement now?

Here, too, our Torah leaders have a responsibility that they have neglected. They are ready to sign all kinds of statements, yet for far more than a decade there has not been a single proclamation that there is a religious obligation to support basic Torah chinuch. Why can our Torah leaders not do what the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, Rav Aharon Kotler of blessed memory, constantly did during the twenty years of his elevated and fruitful activity on these shores? Although he was totally exhausted and burdened by other major communal responsibilities here and in Israel, he constantly advocated support for basic Torah chinuch.

In the larger framework of American Jewish philanthropy, there is an abundance of private foundations. In recent years, there has been a greater willineness to support in one way or another day school education. Unfortunately, this commitment has been undermined, at times nearly entirely, by a powerful tendency to neglect the education that is being provided in classrooms and to feed instead the large and growing army of experts, consultants, trainers, outside projects and much else that I have referred to as Education, Inc. In the aggregate, many tens of millions of dollars flow annually in this direction as we support trips, conferences, evaluations and a range of activities, including reports that are dead on arrival, that do not abet the schools that are educating our children in Jewish living. Is it too much to hope that at least until the crisis abates, this philanthropy will be directed more directly to the schools and the education provided in classrooms?

I am not optimistic. The other day the mail brought an announcement that the Jim Joseph Foundation, now one of American Jewry’s largest Jewish foundations, has made a $4.9 million grant to the Steinhardt School at New York University to help prepare researchers and practitioners for “leadership positions in a wide range of Jewish educational settings, from Jewish day schools and yeshivas to foundations, universities, and cultural organizations.”

What are the prospects that yeshivas and day schools will derive any meaningful benefit from this large grant? I think that they are nil. In fact, there is a cascade of other leadership training projects for yeshivas and day schools. Training is one of the darlings of American Jewish philanthropy. The sad thing is that the late Jim Joseph whose generosity established this foundation focused on direct aid to Jewish schools.

How Are We Doing?
We have just assessed the impact of the financial crisis on yeshivas and day schools. How are RJJ and our four schools affected? As for contributions directly to RJJ, in September and October our fundraising was down by about fifteen percent, which is below what other yeshivas and day schools have reported, but still considerable. Since most of the gifts were received before Rosh Hashanah, what happened on Wall Street and elsewhere in October had little impact on contributions.

The next significant fundraising period is December when end-of-the-year contributions are customarily made. Since investors have not fared well in 2008, we fear a steep decline during this period.

There are reasons for heightened concern in each of our schools, particularly since they led a frugal existence even in the good years. There are reasons for great concern about what lies ahead. It is critical for parents and persons in the communities served by our schools to recognize the consequences of the decline and to make a special effort to help.

The Elections
We had a mock presidential election at our Girls School. Unlike the one that took place this past Tuesday, the results have not been announced, but we think we can guess how our students voted. As for the main event, we have the following thought.

In a democracy, reasonable people reach different conclusions about candidates, parties and issues. That’s why we vote. When the votes are counted, the principle of majority rule must determine the outcome and whoever is the winner is imparted with legitimacy because the democratic process was adhered to.

Senator Barack Obama is now the president-elect, as he won the election fair and square, and he deserves our respect. During the campaign, it is clear that a large majority of Orthodox Jews supported Senator McCain. There have been reports that at certain yeshivas and day schools, faculty members have used classroom time to disparage Mr. Obama. While this is clearly inappropriate, the larger point is that now that the election has concluded, there is a difference between using the classroom for political discussion while the subject is relevant and using it at other times to express partisan views. My concern – and I refer not to our schools but more generally to yeshivas and day schools - is that nasty, even racist, language may now be used. It should be as clear as can be that such comments are entirely unacceptable in any setting and certainly in a setting that is devoted to Torah education.