The first days of September are a pressure period for many yeshivas and day schools as parents who seek substantial tuition reductions usually wait until then to register their children. There are schools that complete the registration process for nearly all of their students before school ends in June. They are, as a rule, more affluent institutions, charging relatively high tuition and offering, at most, limited scholarship assistance. Other schools, like our three on Staten Island, charge relatively low tuition and registration is for many parents a bargaining process with school officials, with the latter usually yielding because, after all, the mission of the school is to provide a Torah education and that mission may be forfeited if the child is not admitted.
There is a tendency for local rabbis to intervene on behalf of parents seeking scholarship assistance. There is a corollary tendency for schools to heed the words of rabbinic leaders. They are rightfully respected and they may know much about a family’s situation, including finances, that is beyond the information available to the school. This past September, a Rabbi whom I respect, called to ask for my intervention on behalf of a number of parents whose children had not been registered, saying that these were hardship cases. As has happened previously, I yielded to his plea and instructed that the children be admitted, with little or no tuition being required, this despite the escalating financial difficulty our schools have in meeting their obligations.
During the recent winter break, one child who was on a full scholarship – meaning no tuition was being charged – vacationed in Aruba with his mother and perhaps other family members. This was called to my attention and I was shocked and still am by this situation. It is disgraceful and worse that a family would take such advantage. We told the family that we would have to have a minimum payment, else the student could not remain in the school. The payment has been made and the student is continuing in the school.
This episode has caused me much anguish, obviously because a child who did not make the decision to spend substantial funds on an expensive vacation was being severely punished. His Jewish future would have been compromised if he did not remain in a Jewish school. For all of my adult life and for nearly sixty years, I have worked and struggled to provide a Torah education to children, particularly those who are from marginally observant homes. I have often overruled school officials who have claimed that my leniency regarding tuition payments severely harms their institutions.
The Aruba incident was too egregious to ignore. What was involved is a form of theft and not merely in an abstract moral sense. Our schools are forced to stint on nearly everything. Faculty and staff bear the brunt of this, as they are severely underpaid and too often they are not paid in a timely way. When parents take extreme advantage, they are harming persons who have devoted their lives to Torah education, individuals who can scarcely get by even if they are paid on time. This is shameful and cannot be tolerated.
Over the years, when a student receiving substantial scholarship assistance has celebrated a fancy Bar or Bat Mitzvah or whose family has done something lavish, we have been told that the money came from another source, usually a grandparent. It escapes me how this is a justification for paying zero or little tuition.
What adds to our dismay in these situations is that there are too many parents who take similar or even greater advantage. What this amounts to is the reality that there is a sort of market place for the swapping of information regarding how best to cheat the school. Worse yet, what emerges is the existence of a culture of taking extreme advantage.
There are, it needs to be underscored, parents who are legitimate scholarship recipients. The severe economic downturn has taken a heavy toll in lost jobs. It is heartless to exhort parents who have lost their livelihood to pay significant tuition. It is part of the essence of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School and has been for one-hundred and ten years to be caring and to treat parents on scholarship assistance with the utmost dignity. This will remain our hallmark, even as we are determined to insist that parents who can pay a fair share do so.