Monday, November 02, 2009

RJJ Newsletter - November 2009

In the recent period, I raised funds for two causes, apart from my RJJ fundraising. The results are telling. In the first situation, I played a key role assisting the family of a chassidic rabbi who died suddenly in his forties, leaving a wife and ten children, the youngest just months old. I placed an ad in the Jewish Press and the readers were asked to send contributions to my home. The second effort was on behalf of Beth Jacob of Borough Park, a school with more than 2,000 girls that was far behind in payroll. I wrote an article for Hamodia, a newspaper that is widely read in much of the Orthodox community, and, here too, asked that contributions be sent to my home.

The first campaign brought in a torrent of donations, at least ten-thousand dollars a week for many weeks, until I left for Israel in mid-July. The Beth Jacob effort brought in less than a trickle, this for a huge school that has achieved so much and is caring about students from poor homes or with special needs. The message was clear: In tzeddakah allocations, by a huge margin chesed has priority over chinuch. That which tugs at our heartstrings merits support. That which does not is not deserving of assistance.

In an important way, this is understandable. In much of what we do we are guided by our emotions and that which packs an emotional punch has a far greater capacity to loosen the purse-strings than that which does not. We are, in this respect, quite a bit like the secular Jews whose charity is devoted primarily to Federation causes. We used to criticize Federations for neglecting Torah education. Perhaps we should look in the mirror.

I make no apology for helping the chassidic family in need. However, I feel somewhat uncomfortable about this effort in view of the meager response to the Beth Jacob appeal. More than a half-century ago, I heard directly from the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood that in allocating tzeddakah, two-thirds of what is given should go towards the support of chinuch because Torah education is both essential to our survival as a people and the foundation for the chesed that we do. Years later, I listened to the tape of a shiur given by Rav Soloveitchik in which he said much the same thing and the lesson was also taught to me by my beloved Rav, Rabbi Yisroel Perkowski.

In the post-Holocaust years when we were led by outstanding people of great scholarship and great personal qualities, invariably that is the message that was given as they worked to create a vibrant Torah community on these shores. They certainly cared about Jews in need and yet we did not receive from them a stream of letters beseeching our support for chesed causes. Their fundraising almost exclusively centered around support for yeshivas and Beth Jacobs, whether here or in Israel.

In the article on the Borough Park Beth Jacob, I quoted from a letter written by the Chazon Ish in 1947, a period of great deprivation in what was still Palestine. He pleaded for support for the Beth Jacob school, writing that because all species were created in both male and female form, Torah education could not exist unless it, too, encompassed both genders.

There is a neglected chesed dimension when we neglect our schools in allocating tzeddakah. At a typical yeshiva or Beth Jacob, probably about eighty percent of the budget goes toward payroll. The teachers in our schools are nearly all underpaid, at times severely, and many of them are not paid on time. These are people with family responsibilities. When we do not assist schools that are struggling to meet their obligations, one unhappy by-product is the harm caused to families and staff who cannot meet their own obligations.

Even in the best of times, our chinuch institutions face an uphill financial road. As the economy nosedived during the past year, inevitably these institutions bore an inordinate part of the burden as contributions declined severely and as more parents said that they needed financial assistance. The bad news is everywhere, with schools that have been chronically late in payroll becoming later still. A number of day schools are reporting that children have been transferred to public school because they are tuition-free.

The outlook for the rest of the still young school year is not promising. At RJJ, there has been a stunning decline in contributions since April, with the drop amounting to about fifty percent in the crucial period from early September through the Yomim Tovim.

There is no quick fix, not for us or other schools. What is needed is a change in attitude that results in greater communal and individual support of Torah education. As experience amply teaches, attitudinal change is never a quick or easy process. The effort to bring about change is largely the responsibility of Roshei Yeshiva and other religious leaders. Without their advocacy and effort, there is no prospect for improvement. For too long they have inadvertently encouraged the notion that chesed trumps chinuch in tzeddakah, as is evident from the fundraising they do on behalf of chesed causes. They do not see fundraising for basic Torah education as part of their core responsibilities, except, of course, for the yeshivas in which they are directly involved. In this key respect, they depart from the lesson taught by the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood. More unfortunately, over the years they have given credence to the view that the funding of our schools is primarily a parental and not a communal responsibility.

I have challenged this attitude for more than two decades, not because I believe that parents can shirk their obligation to pay a fair amount, but because I know that the
economics of Orthodox life result in a large number of families that do not have the means to pay full tuition and, often, anything close to full tuition. There are, admittedly, tuition cheats who know how to play the system. There are far more families that act fairly.

The Rabbinical Board of Torah Umesorah recently issued a strong statement calling for support of yeshivas and Beth Jacobs. This is a welcome development, yet it is only a beginning and, at that, no more than a modest beginning. There needs to be intensive follow-up with additional statements and with Roshei Yeshiva and Rabbis using public forums to convey the message that there is an obligation to provide support for the Torah institutions in the communities where we live.

This is a formidable task and, admittedly, even the most forceful advocacy may not alter wrongful attitudes that are embedded in the mindset of too many Orthodox Jews who for understandable, but not acceptable, reasons have welcomed the news that they need not support basic Torah education.

A collateral need is the downsizing of what I have referred to as Jewish Education, Inc., the large number of projects that devour significant philanthropic funding to yeshivas and day schools while managing to avoid the reality that Torah education occurs in schools and classrooms and not in offices or projects or trips to Israel to “train” principals and teachers, nor in any of the many activities that result in our relatively well-fed educational entrepreneurs being even better fed.

This is another point that I have underscored for years, alas with little success. Jewish Education, Inc. is flourishing in our organizational life. Even as it flourishes, our schools are more behind in payroll. The still worse news is that there are schools that no longer exist, witness what is happening in kiruv and immigrant schools where enrollment now is about half of what it was not long ago.

The news in the yeshiva and day school world since September has been frightening and there is more bad news on the horizon. An item in this Newsletter describes another such development. There is certain to be lots of pain in the coming period. We cannot do much about the overall economy which affects the situation of many schools and many parents. What we can do, at long last, is to prepare the groundwork for a better day when the economy does improve. If our leaders understand that leadership of the religious Jewish community entails the responsibility to constantly work for Torah chinuch at all levels, there is the prospect that some of us will get the message.