Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Old School Year Hasn’t Ended

Within days, 230,000+ students will begin a new school year in Jewish schools across the country. The number will be more than 2% above last year’s figure, continuing a pattern of growth that has been uninterrupted for decades. This is good news, evidence that for all of our difficulties, meaningful religious Jewish education is firmly rooted on American soil.

There is other news and it is about the school year that presumably ended in June. It actually did, however there is considerable leftover business because many of our schools have unpaid obligations, primarily to teachers and staff who haven’t been paid in full for 2008-09. We are not talking about a handful; at the least, the number is in the high hundreds and perhaps several thousand, nearly all of whom are grossly underpaid and who themselves struggle to meet their financial obligations. The situation is likely to worsen during the new school year. For all of the robust enrollment numbers, I cannot remember a bleaker financial outlook for the institutions that more than other are crucial to the spiritual wellbeing of our community.

How bad the situation is was highlighted in mid-August by a message placed in Orthodox newspapers by Beth Jacob of Borough Park announcing that because it is deeply in debt and months behind in payroll, the school might not be able to open in September. With more than 2,000 girls, nursery through grade 8, Beth Jacob is the largest Jewish school in the U.S., outside of the chassidic sector. It is also a school enveloped in kindness toward children, many of whom come from poor homes. Beth Jacob accepts children from broken homes, children with emotional problems, children with learning difficulties and for these and other needs it provides a special measure of care.

I imagine that Beth Jacob will open, not because there will be a torrent of contributions but because the faculty and staff are its greatest contributors. They will see that the school goes on.

To one extent or another, the Beth Jacob story is echoed in dozens of schools, especially but not exclusively in the New York-New Jersey area which has nearly 165,000 students or more than 70% of all dayschoolers. There is a crisis at hand and while it is not evident if we look at enrollment data, it is evident when we look at what is occurring throughout the yeshiva and day school world. There isn’t sufficient support and the consequences are not only in payrolls that are late but also in the steep enrollment decline in immigrant and outreach schools.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Federations have contributed their share by neglect, sometimes benign, sometimes not benign. Given the huge number of schools and students in the New York Federation service area, its resources cannot provide much help, but that doesn’t get our Federation off the hook. Last year it played disgraceful games with a modest scholarship program. Beth Jacob was one of the victims.

In the larger arena of American Jewish philanthropy, there are some bright spots, but the foundations that care are too limited in number and there is a lamentable tendency to support activities that have little direct bearing on what occurs in the classrooms where education takes place. Matters were made worse during the summer with the suggestion by Mark Charendoff, head of the Jewish Funders Network, that its 800 members not provide support to religious institutions that are exempt from certain IRS filings. In a burst of self-righteous piety, Charendoff referred to this as a loophole. That is false. He is careful, of course, to examine the bona fides of the private foundations that are JFN’s constituency, a great number of them family arrangements. Doubtlessly, he checks whether each year they distribute a sufficient proportion of their assets, whether they are playing games when they assign outlays to programmatic activity rather than administrative costs, whether they are paying for family obligations such as tuition, etc.
I am certain that Charendoff insists that each foundation not look for or take advantage of loopholes.

Our vast establishment, including the AJCs, ADL, Federations, local Jewish councils and much else in our multi-billion dollar communal infrastructure, has played a critical role in the harm experienced by our schools through their near-paranoid notion that if government provides aid to the secular programs of day schools, all sorts of evil would occur, this despite mountains of evidence to the contrary in numerous democracies where such aid is provided and the roof hasn’t fallen in. Unfortunately, our Stepford Wives are not going to change.

The Orthodox have contributed their share, starting at the top, as for years yeshiva deans have sent a message that the funding of basic Torah education is a parental and not communal responsibility, thereby deviating from the Talmudic standard set 2,000 years ago. In contrast, chassidic rebbes and leaders make support for their schools their greatest priority.

There are Orthodox, as well as people who are not Orthodox, who support day school education. By and large, the rank and file does not. Increasingly, Orthodox Jews who are comfortable are enveloped in a hedonistic mentality.

Day school enrollment will grow by 50,000 or more over the next decade. Overwhelmingly, this growth will be in Orthodox schools and, overwhelmingly, it will be in the New York metropolitan area. Fifty-thousand more students translates into one-hundred new schools, each with five-hundred students. There is nothing on the horizon to indicate that the Orthodox community is thinking, much less planning, about how best to meet this need. What is on the horizon is the prospect of more day school stories like the story of the Beth Jacob of Borough Park.