While no one can deny that yeshivot and day schools and the parents who utilize them are in a crisis over the skyrocketing cost of full-time Jewish education, there is no consensus about how unique and how critical that crisis is.
And even less agreement on where to focus solutions.
That schism was apparent at a forum co-sponsored by The Jewish Week and the Jewish Values Network in Midtown last week, as three rabbis with firsthand knowledge of the crisis shared ideas.
Seeing inability to afford Jewish education as nothing less than an existential threat to Jewish continuity, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the author and radio host as well as the father of nine yeshiva students, passionately argued that lobbying for federal aid for the secular portion of parochial education should be at the top of the Jewish agenda, even likening such an effort to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“The American Jewish community is incredibly well organized when it comes to Israel,” said Rabbi Boteach, who said tuition consumes about 40 percent of his income. “There is a lobby for everything in this country. But when it comes to one of the most important decisions you have to make as a parent, we have, in this country, no choice.”
Blasting the Obama administration’s decision to phase out a Washington, D.C., voucher program that allowed kids to choose private schools over failing public schools, while the president and first lady send their daughters to an expensive private school, Rabbi Boteach called for a Jewish Rosa Parks-like figure to bring the issue of school choice to national prominence.
“I truly believe the foremost communal priority right now is to organize politically,” he said. “The Supreme Court and federal court won’t find anything unconstitutional about people keeping some of their tax money.”
He also called for more political support of pro-voucher politicians and for coalitions with other religious groups on the issue.
In a more sanguine analysis, Rabbi Jeffrey Kobrin, headmaster of the Ramaz Middle School on the Upper East Side, said the recession presented an opportunity for schools to re-examine their priorities and core values and to cut programs that are not essential to their mission.
Conceding that he is “brainwashed and biased as a13-year veteran in day schools,” he said, “Is this a crisis? Yes. Is it unbeatable? I don’t think so.”
Equally optimistic was Rabbi Adam Siegel, founder and principal of the Ben Gamla Academy, a public charter school in Hollywood, Fla., with a curriculum focus on Hebrew culture. He said that struggling for kids’ religious education is not a recent development in the American Jewish experience.
“The crisis now is compared to the last 20 years, when we had a lot of prosperity,” said Rabbi Siegel. “Jews throughout history had a more difficult time paying tuition than we do now. But day schools are not going out of business.”
Citing his own school as an example, Rabbi Siegel said it was possible for day schools to be leaner and more cost-effective. The state of Florida pays just over $6,000 to educate each child at Ben Gamla, close to what the Orthodox Union would like to see tuition reduced to at scaled-down yeshivas now in the planning stages.
“Our average class size is 25,” he said, insisting the funding level entailed no sacrifice.
While religious instruction is prohibited at Ben Gamla, some students learn with rabbis after-hours in a nearby building for $70 per month.
The forum at the Safra Synagogue was attended by about 130 people, most of whom appeared to be parents of school-age children.
Acknowledging the frustrations felt by parents, panel moderator Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week stressed that the focus of the discussion was not to assess blame.
“We’re here to find solutions, not scapegoats,” he said, noting that an estimated 60 percent of the nation’s yeshiva and day school students live in the New York area, paying an estimated $1 billion in total tuition — far more than any Jewish federation or organization could attempt to fully subsidize.
Calling on the panelists to assess the damage, Rosenblatt asked: “Is it true, as people say, that tuition is a form of Jewish birth control?”
Indeed, said Rabbi Boteach. “I can’t tell you how many friends I have who have fewer children because of the tuition they are paying. The reason there are a billion Christians and a billion Muslims is that they go out there and actively convert people to their faith. We discourage people from converting. The only hope we have for survival is a higher birthrate.”
Rabbi Siegel did not propose the development of more Hebrew charter schools as an answer to the problem.
“When we started Ben Gamla it was never meant to be a substitute for yeshivas or day schools,” he said. “There are qualitative differences. Only 5 to 10 percent of students came from day schools. We looked at it as an opportunity for public school kids to get a Jewish education.”
About 70 percent of Ben Gamla students are Israeli immigrants, he said, who are generally secular but interested in Jewish culture. Rabbi Siegel noted that prayer is allowed during the school day only if initiated by students. Morning services are offered before school hours but no student is required to be there, as they are in a yeshiva. “If the kids want to bench [say prayers after meals] they have to do it on their own. About 20 percent [of male students] wear a yarmulke or tztizit.”
The students study Hebrew language for about 45 minutes a day. Asked by Rosenblatt whether study of the Bible was allowed, Rabbi Siegel said “theoretically” it should be, but suggested the school was somewhat gun shy on the issue because of all its battles with the school board over its curriculum. Foreshadowing a battle yet to come, he said, “We don’t want to push that right now.”
Rabbi Kobrin said the potential spread of Hebrew charter schools — one is expected to open in Brooklyn next year — was not a threat to established yeshivot like Ramaz.
“My sense is that the school in Brooklyn, like the one in Florida, will pull from a different constituent group. Kids who go to Ramaz or North Shore [Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, L.I.] are not going to be attracted to it.”
Addressing the issue of low-cost yeshivot — such as one in formation in Englewood, N.J. — Rabbi Boteach said that even if it meant larger class sizes, “that’s still better than a kid not being in a day school environment.”
But Rabbi Kobrin noted that since the bulk of any yeshiva budget is its payroll, smaller budgets inevitably will mean lower-quality instruction. “If you pay less you get crummier teachers,” he said.
In response to a question from the audience about improving the quality of after-school Hebrew programs to make them more attractive to public school parents, Rabbi Siegel noted that his program could be a model for better after-school Hebrew programs. “We are essentially running a Hebrew school after a public school,” he said.
“The difference is that it’s on campus and kids don’t look at it as a burden, because they’re with their friends.”