Friday, January 09, 2009

Advocating for Day Schools

It was pleasing to learn weeks ago of the Federation program to provide one-million dollars in scholarship assistance to at least two-hundred day school enrollees. This is another indication of an improved Federation attitude toward the institutions that are the most vital instrumentalities for Jewish identity and commitment and also the victims of philanthropic neglect. This improved approach was evident in June when Beth Jacob-Beth Miriam, a Bronx day school, closed after two-thirds of a century and there was the need to place several dozen remaining students. Most were taken in by the Stein Yeshiva in Yonkers and a handful by SAR in Riverdale, which waived tuition. Barbara Libman, Beth Jacob’s principal, contacted me regarding the transportation costs. I turned to Federation, which agreed to cover this significant expense.

It is good that day school advocacy has reaped benefits, yet a lot more advocacy is needed. When I criticized Orthodox leaders for not pressing Federation, as they naively relied on “quiet diplomacy” which ultimately proved fruitless, the now administrative head of a major Orthodox organization wrote that I was “despicable.” Put otherwise, my work on behalf of day schools has often been a lonely crusade.

One explanation is that starting in the 1980’s, there was a transformation in Orthodox life as increasingly the wrongful notion that support of yeshiva and day school education is essentially a parental and not a communal obligation came to be accepted. This mindset is antithetical to the teachings and practice that prevailed for 2000 years in our religious life. Even as tuition rose each year and Orthodox family size increased dramatically, so that more and more parents struggled to meet tuition payments, in nearly all of our schools parents were made to carry an ever-increasing share of the budgetary burden. There was no one else to turn to other than the parents.

There were, of course, exceptions, they being the small number of institutions where lay people fulfilled their responsibility and raised the necessary funds from communal sources and schools that educated immigrant and outreach populations from whom it would be impossible to collect more than a pittance in tuition. Overall, basic Torah education was shortchanged. Ultimately and inevitably, immigrant and outreach schools also became victims of communal neglect, as is evident in recent developments in this day school sector.

Over the years, my plea that rabbinical leaders who are the leaders of the day school world proclaim publicly the communal obligation to sustain our religious schools fell on deaf ears. I was told that such statements have little impact, which may be true yet do not get the Rabbis off the hook. More fundamentally, the attitude was that it is right for parents to shoulder the cost of their children’s education because it is they who are being provided the service. This argument is buttressed by the reality that there are parents who can pay full tuition but who don’t and the collateral argument that there are scholarship families that manage to come up with significant money for trips to Israel and elsewhere, for their children to study in Israel, for fancy simchas, etc.

This is a difficult line of reasoning to refute, even as I am certain that a far larger number of parents pay their fair share, although making ends meet is for them a daily ordeal. There is a callousness among too many in the day school field toward needy families.

Rabbinical leaders have now issued a public statement – I am told as a result of my advocacy – calling on parents to fulfill their obligation to provide a Torah education for their children and then calling on the community to support yeshivas and day schools. Obviously, the severe economic downturn has added to the financial difficulties facing our schools, many of which could scarcely get by when the economy was booming.

The downturn is one reason why the Rabbinical plea will not bear quick fruit. More fundamentally, it will take an extended and intensive effort to counteract and reverse the wrongful attitude that has now become embedded, to teach the religious rank and file and especially persons of means that our schools must be at the top of the charity list.

How hard this is to accomplish is a lesson I learn each year as I seek support for the four schools for which I have responsibility as president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. The arrangement is unique because under one institutional roof there are an advanced talmudic yeshiva and a coeducational day school, as well as separate schools for boys and girls, all fulfilling my view that one pattern of day school education is not sufficient for children from diverse backgrounds and attitudes.

Each year at Chanukah, I append a note to this column asking for support. The response invariably has been tepid. This year I did a little better, as there have been seven contributions, for which I am grateful. I can only imagine the difficulty facing other day schools whose presidents do not have the contacts and resources available to me.

I am in my thirty-sixth year as president of RJJ, a voluntary responsibility that is apart from other communal work in the day school field and elsewhere. This responsibility arose shortly after publication of my book on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, “Learned Hand’s Court,” which was well received. At that point in my life, I decided to devote myself primarily to religious Jewish education, fulfilling the last request made of me shortly before he died by Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the transcendent Torah leader in the entire experience of American Jewry.

There are persons who are close to me who have criticized my walking away from a career teaching constitutional law. I do not look back in sorrow, although there are times when advocacy for day schools is a lonely experience.