Sunday, March 01, 2009

RJJ Newsletter - March 2009

It’s too early to know or assess the reach and consequences of the worldwide economic crisis. What we have seen so far is frightening and the bad news keeps on coming in the form of massive layoffs, the sharp decline in consumer confidence, home foreclosures, corporate bankruptcies, the near collapse of major banks and the severe tightening of credit. Worst of all is the spreading fear which feeds on itself. Hopefully, the unprecedented degree of governmental intervention will stem the tide, but certainly not quickly. In the long run, there will be a turnaround, but not before there is much additional pain and perhaps even social and political unrest. There will be alterations in the social fabric and they may be permanent.

The pain and damage will be everywhere; there will be few places to hide. There will be millions of unemployed and many who have left the workforce altogether. There will be, as we are already witnessing, devastated pension and savings accounts. There will be marriages and relationships under great stress. There will be homes lost and dreams shattered. Yet, life will go on and in important ways not much different than previously. A depression does not mean an economic collapse. It does mean widespread harm.

Of course, the Jewish community will not be immune from the bad news and there is already significant evidence of damage to our communal infrastructure. Yeshivas and day schools, our most vital institutions, will be strongly affected. Some schools will close and in too many places salaries will be late in coming. We all know that even in robust economic times, many of our schools live a parsimonious existence. The downturn can only make things worse. Worst of all, there will be children who are no longer in a Jewish school, children whose Jewish future will be undermined.

It may seem excessively parochial to lament such developments in our small world of religious schools. Yet, we must be parochial and not only because there is little we can do about the economy but because Torah education is our responsibility and no one else’s and it is our lifeline. We religious Jews believe that the world exists because of the breath of young children saying Aleph Bais and older students studying the texts that have sustained us through hardships far worse than financial deprivation.

We must focus on what our schools and our community can do in the crisis and on what small and even tiny steps they may take to deal with the situation that will confront them. Assuredly, those whose heads are in the sand or who rely on the mantra that G-D will help will inadvertently contribute to a greater disaster for Torah institutions. True, we ardently believe that Netzach Yisroel Lo Yi-shaker – that the eternity of the Jewish people will not be denied. This belief must not induce inaction but inspire us to take action.

What can be done? There is no ready answer because the yeshiva/day school world consists of more than eight-hundred schools and they vary enormously in size, orientation, financial situation and much else. There is no one size that fits all. Our hope must be that each school will have individuals – staff, parents, lay persons – who take responsibility and are willing to act.

Taking responsibility means making hard decisions. Consideration must be given to school mergers and to other cost-cutting approaches, such as sharing back office operations or a single fundraiser for two or more schools or the joint use of technology. Forty percent of yeshivas and day schools have fewer than one-hundred students and an extraordinary number have fewer than fifty. I am conducting another census of day schools in the U.S. and as the project has passed the two-thirds mark, the impression I have is that there is a tendency for even smaller schools, especially in the yeshiva world sector of Orthodoxy.

The efficacy of cost-sharing has been abundantly demonstrated on Staten Island in the fruitful relationship between the Jewish Foundation School and the two RJJ/Merkaz schools. This is an achievement that we can all be proud of. I am involved, as well, in a foundation-sponsored initiative whose aim is to encourage schools to develop cost-sharing and other cooperative projects.

Yeshivas and day schools rely heavily on the annual dinner to raise the funds needed to close the budget gap. It is necessary to consider how costs associated with this event can be trimmed, something that is already on the radar screen of more than a few institutions. Is a bloated dinner journal necessary? I doubt it. Can catering costs be cut? Certainly. What about gifts to the honorees or fancy invitations? The list can be expanded.

There are activities and expenses that can probably be justified when there is money around, but not when it is in very short supply. American Jewry has created and allowed for the rapid expansion of what I refer to as Jewish Education, Inc., consisting of consultants who charge much and offer little, expensive training programs, trips and too much else that occurs outside of the classroom while what occurs inside the classroom is shortchanged. We must learn to practice educational triage and this translates directly into giving preference to what occurs inside of a classroom.

With this in mind, I have informed our principals that we will not be paying for their attendance at any conventions or conferences and they have understood the necessity of this move. This includes Torah Umesorah’s annual convention. This step and other measures that are aimed at reducing expenses is intended to maximize the fulfillment of our moral and halachic obligation to pay our staff in a timely way. It is not a message of dissatisfaction with Torah Umesorah or anyone else. Over the past year, I have helped Torah Umesorah in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, the reaction of certain persons associated with the organization to my determination to reduce non-educational costs has been nasty and even worse.

Cost-cutting measures are necessary, yet there still will be a gap between the income and expense sides of the budget and it is apt to grow larger because the main sources of income are tuition and fundraising and both have already been impacted by the economic downturn. For all schools, payroll, including fringe costs, constitutes by far the lion’s share of the budget and, for most, there is little room to cut as these institutions are understaffed and, for the most part, faculty and office help are underpaid.

Schools that are exploring reducing payroll should seek halachic guidance and they must show compassion and concern for teachers and other staff who invariably work with great dedication. If staff cuts are to be made, it is best to seek the savings through attrition rather than through the firing of personnel.

This leaves the income side, which doesn’t seem promising. Tuition is a difficult challenge in schools like ours that accept the obligation to provide a Torah education irrespective of the ability to pay. There are, indeed, day schools – more than a few – that operate under a different principle, as they insist on high tuition which rises significantly each year, even as they offer limited scholarship assistance. I am in regular contact with yeshivas and day schools across the country and am struck by their blithe attitude toward parents who are struggling to meet tuition and other obligations, too frequently telling parents to seek another school for their children if the tuition is too high. What is even more striking about this is that as a general rule in Jewish day school education, the more affluent the institution and the higher the tuition it charges, the less likely it is to offer meaningful scholarship assistance.

It is no wonder that parents in what might be referred to as the expensive day school neighborhoods are increasingly exploring options that would certainly diminish the Torah education their children receive.

For schools that have a caring policy, tuition can be a painful balancing act. There is the reality that without sufficient income, they cannot provide a decent dual education and may not be able to survive, especially since contributions constitute a constantly smaller proportion of the income of a typical yeshiva. This is one of the sad consequences of the attitude that I have bemoaned for decades, namely that our community has come to look at basic Torah education as a consumer product that should be paid for entirely or nearly entirely by parents who are the consumers.

The reality on the other side of the scale is that in thousands of Orthodox homes, as well as a fair number of homes that are not Orthodox, day school tuition creates enormous pressures. I believe that far more families properly fulfill their tuition obligation than those that do not. The severe downturn is not going to help observant families with a bunch of young children at home and with tuition bills coming each month for each of them.

How can caring school officials, lay and professional, balance these two realities?

Tuition will not be increased next year at the three Staten Island schools, this despite their financial difficulties. We hope that there are parents who can give more and who will give more on a voluntary basis. We are mindful of the pressures facing many parents and therefore are taking the additional step of sharply limiting extracurricular expenses, the charges that are tacked on for trips and other out-of-school activities. I have advocated for many years restraint in this regard, referring not so much to our schools but to the yeshiva/day school world generally where such charges have gotten out of hand. This call has been disregarded by school officials who are blind and deaf to the ongoing hardship in many observant homes. The use of children to pressure parents to pay for extras adds to the sin.

There is, as we who labor in the vineyard of Torah education know too well, a second side to the tuition story, consisting of parents who can pay a fair share but who evade their obligation. There are parents of means who live comfortably and who are fiercely determined to shirk their responsibility, thereby harming the schools that educate their children. These parents are determined to deceive, in service to the perverse notion that not doing the right thing in the right thing. As with other wrongdoing, there is no way to root out entirely this rot.

Some yeshivas and day schools deal with this chronic problem by denying admission to or not readmitting students whose parents do not pay what the schools are determined to get. The lesson is taught, but as is true inevitably when draconian measures are employed, too many innocent people – meaning parents who are poor – get hurt along with those who are not innocent. The further serious damage is that there are children who are lost to Judaism.

A look at our tuition records would quickly provide a snapshot of our tuition policy. We try to get parents to pay a fair amount and there is a minimum tuition requirement, except in special circumstances, such as sickness and unemployment. At the end of the day, we relent, primarily because I insist that we relent, doing so with strong misgivings that teachers and staff and the schools generally pay a price when parents take advantage. The decisive factor in determining our policy is the sanctity of each child, the promise of each child. Education – and especially Torah education – must always put the child before any other consideration.

We have not come to our one-hundred and tenth year to reject children. Our mission from the turn of the last century until today is to educate children in the ways of the Torah so that when they reach adulthood they will be prepared for fulfilling lives as Torah-abiding Jews in a society that affords us the additional blessings of liberty.

The only meaningful source of income other than tuition is fundraising. Except for minor support, governmental assistance is closed off, in large measure thanks to the war against religion conducted by too many in the American Jewish community.

As the next item in this Newsletter reports, our fundraising is going badly so far in 2009 and the prognosis is not good. Similar reports are coming, of course, from schools across the country and from throughout the world of nonprofits and charitable activities. It could not be otherwise under present economic circumstances.

There are reasons to despair, but we must not despair, if only because that would make matters worse. In reality, a severe economic decline does not mean financial collapse. Overwhelmingly, most of us will continue to work and to earn. Luxuries and extravagances will not be banished from the face of the earth. There will be conventions, vacations and trips. Students will continue to study in Israel, usually at great expense, and Pesach will remain a time of exodus to hotels for many observant Jews. All is not lost and will not be lost.

The challenge each of us faces is how our values and our charity will fit into the financial equation at a time of economic decline. There will be people who give less or won’t give at all and some of these are people who cannot give. There are others who will be able to give but are reluctant to do so, perhaps out of fear or an inability to shake off the hedonistic impulse which dictates that it is more important to spend on oneself than to help others. I am reminded of the tshuva or responsum of Rav Moshe Feinstein, ztl, the great posek in the American religious Jewish experience, in which he wrote with uncharacteristic criticism of the tendency of persons of means not to properly fulfill their tzedakah obligations.

I am also reminded of the sacrifice that is an integral part of the history, legacy and mission of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. When the Great Depression came, the American Torah community that was already severely weakened by assimilation was badly harmed. Yeshivas closed. RJJ remained open because of the creativity and emunah of those who guided the yeshiva in that perilous period. People of faith kept us alive, some by giving and some by doing. I am frightened by what has already transpired and I am afraid about what lies ahead, not merely for us but for other yeshivas and other causes. There are schools in more perilous shape than we are in. Let us now have courage and faith. Let us be inspired by the example of those who preceded us and let us always be mindful of the eternal blessing, Blessed are those who sustain the eternal Torah.