Is day school tuition worth the steep price?

Many middle-class Jewish families are no longer sending their children to day schools. As tuition increases yearly, Jewish education is becoming a burden, families are starting to question if Jewish schools are worth the high price.

Jewish high schools in the New York tri-state area cost at least $25,000-$35,000 per year. For the average Joe, that’s a tremendous amount of money to spend on a single year of education before college. Not every family can afford such a price tag, this amount and to debunk a stereotype, not all Jews are rich. Many Jewish schools cannot offer sufficient financial aid to students who need it.

Families are weighing the cost of day school against other expenses, such as a mortgage, health insurance, vacation and college tuition and are opting out of Jewish schools. However, the price of Jewish education no longer affects only people’s wallets; it is starting to trigger an even greater problem: religious assimilation.

I’m very grateful that my school gives me a generous scholarship. Last year my family and I worried if I was going to receive the scholarship for this year. I did, but if not, I would have transferred to a public school, which is the last thing I would want to do. I would have to start all over making new friends and getting used to the teachers.

In most large, public schools it is very difficult to join a club or a sports team. In fact, some schools limit students to one or two clubs. However, in a day school you can become very involved and join more than one club. I would not be able to participate in most of the after-school activities that I currently enjoy, such as Model UN, the Red Cross club, mock trial, volleyball team, newspaper and student government.

Most problematic of all, if I went to a public high school I would lose my Jewish education and environment. We teenagers may not realize this, but in a yeshiva we gain Torah knowledge that we wouldn’t receive elsewhere. Not only are we able to learn through discussions and debates, but we’re also able provide our own insights and interpretations of the Torah and find connections to our lives. That’s something we can’t do by ourselves — we can’t do on the computer, and we certainly can’t do in public schools.

Moreover, being in a Jewish school makes us feel connected to Judaism and Israel. Even if we don’t come from a religious background, we still feel this undying sense of Jewish identity and pride. When we go to college, we’re going to encounter people who don’t support Israel or who are anti-Semitic. So it becomes critical that Jewish teenagers know who they are and what they represent.

Many Jews want their children to have a Jewish education along with an excellent secular one, but they can’t afford it. Should a lower- or middle-class family be denied the chance to give their children a Jewish education?

We need to make attending a Jewish high school advantageous and easier for teens and their parents. Day schools have become elitist and inaccessible to many people. Perhaps organizations that are part of the Jewish federation should focus more of their money on Jewish education and subsidize the cost of the schools.

Jewish schools and communities need to reach out to Jews from all denominations because, believe it or not, the Jewish community is shrinking. There has been an assimilation of traditional Jews, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey on American Jews. 

Today, one in five American Jews are considered Jews of no religion because they describe themselves as atheist or agnostic. About 79 percent of Jews of no religion have intermarried and two-thirds do not plan on raising their children as Jewish.

Although the number of Jews identified as having no religion is small, the number will grow as Jews become less observant. Only 10 percent of surveyed Jews considered themselves Orthodox, and about half of the respondents who were raised Orthodox say they are no longer Orthodox. Moreover, about one-quarter of Jews who were raised Orthodox switched to the Conservative and Reform movements; 30 percent of Jews who were raised Conservative joined the Reform movement; and 28 percent of those raised in the Reform movement are unaffiliated with Judaism.

These numbers quantify the problems of assimilation and the danger of the high price tag on Jewish education. Outrageously expensive schools mean limiting access to Jewish education for less-affluent families, which is something that we cannot afford, according to the results of this survey.

Judaism has survived through modern society because Jewish schools and institutions have always provided us with Torah knowledge and an infinite sense of Jewish character and pride, even during times of hardships and persecution. Today, American Jews are faced with the question of whether or not they can afford Jewish education for their children.

Unfortunately “no” seems to be a common answer, and the harm of that response is presented in the Pew survey: Jews are losing their sense of identity, belief and Torah knowledge. We need to make Jewish education affordable because otherwise, the numbers of assimilated and unidentified Jews will be higher in a future survey.

Sarah Nahmias is a senior at Westchester Hebrew High School in Mamaroneck, N.Y.