One of the hardest jobs in any school is being on the scholarship committee. Balancing a family’s real or perceived financial need with a fiduciary responsibility to one’s school is a tricky task. If the committee is too stingy, a child may not be able to get the education he deserves. Conversely, if it is too generous, a school may not be able to endure (or to meet its obligations to teachers and staff). If there was ever a thankless job, this is it.
We recognize this fact and we are grateful for the hard work these individuals do on behalf of the Jewish people. However, if we focus solely on our individual institutional needs then we lose sight of our broader communal obligation to provide the best Jewish education possible to our children.
Many people — myself included — were disheartened to read several recent letters from the scholarship committee of local yeshiva high schools. The letters in question assert that if high school students attend summer programs, it will make it more difficult for them to receive financial assistance. The schools’ move is based on the assumption that such a summer program is a luxury item, comparable to the purchase of a new car. It’s sad that the economic situation has led to such a letter, but for many reasons this approach is not the answer. A Jewish summer experience is not the functional equivalent of a new car, a luxury vacation or home remodeling.
In summer programs students connect to Jewish texts and traditions in an experiential, exciting way. The content that schools spend a year imparting becomes reinforced by the experiences and relationships developed over the summer. All students, especially those who are not diligent about their studies, create their own pathways and connections to Judaism and establish a place for themselves within a network of peers and young adult mentors. Summer becomes a crucial component of their social, educational and religious development.
Many would reply, “When I was a kid, we never went to camp…” That may be true, but much has changed since we were kids. Then, the worst-case scenario was that we would sit around “vegging out” in front of the television. Now that’s the best-case scenario. Our children live in a very different world. It’s a world that’s much smaller thanks to the Internet, text messaging, Facebook, etc. These are all very useful tools with wonderful potential, but they also present very real challenges, especially to teens. High school students are never “home alone” any more. Thanks to our technologies, they’re always with someone online — but with whom? An idle summer today means more than a lack of growth. It means potential backsliding to a degree undreamed of in earlier days.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Now that high schools have started talking about such policies regarding scholarships, elementary schools are taking note. If this situation is dangerous for high school students, it’s completely untenable for younger children. Realistically, what are working parents to do with their children who are home for the summer if sending them to camp will jeopardize their tuition assistance? Hire a sitter? That’s no cheaper and far less fulfilling from an educational standpoint. (Incidentally, if summer camps become perceived as a luxury item, it will have the inevitable consequence of creating a “caste system” of those who are privileged to attend versus those who are not. Portraying summer camps as an option only for the elite will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.)
There’s more: one person involved with his school’s scholarship committee has told me that it also looks at where older siblings attend college. I’ll leave it to others to defend the cost of Ivy League schools; my immediate concern is the question of whether an older sibling attending a Jewish college rather than a less-expensive public college presents an impediment to scholarship assistance. If so, that’s an obvious problem in and of itself. If the schools would reply, “Of course not, we recognize the Jewish education as necessary and not a luxury,” then the same should certainly apply to Jewish educational summer experiences for teens, who are in a far more precarious position.
We understand the tuition crisis. It affects all of us. Like the schools, Jewish summer programs give scholarships. (This is something that real luxuries, like cruises and European vacations, simply don’t do.) We’re all on the same side, trying to impart Jewish values and Torah education to the next generation. Perceiving one another as competitors for a limited pot of funds is not going to solve anything. We need to work together as partners in this endeavor.
The situation is real and finding a solution requires a communal conversation. Representatives of all stakeholders — schools, summer programs, synagogues, and parents — should come together for open dialogue and interaction. Working together, we can formulate a course of action that does not benefit one partner to the detriment of another. Undercutting one another is penny wise and pound foolish. Together we can develop a fiscally and pedagogically responsible approach that appropriately balances our unique institutional needs with our shared communal ideals and values.
Rabbi Steven Burg is international director of NCSY, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth.