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For Area Yeshivas, Status Quo Ante

For Area Yeshivas, Status Quo Ante

Six months ago, there was a lot of talk in the area about the urgent need to address the crisis faced by yeshivas and tuition-paying families as the economic crisis pushed an affordable Jewish education further more out of reach.

There was movement toward scaled-down, low-cost yeshivas, a push toward cost-sharing and more involvement by the general Jewish community, efforts to open Hebrew-themed charter schools and political activism to maximize the extent of public funding for private schools allowed by law.

But halfway through the current school year, little has changed for the better.

“The only thing new is the kehilla fund,” said Amy Citron, a parent of four yeshiva students in Teaneck, N.J., who has been an activist for more affordable tuition.

She was referring to a fund in the northern New Jersey Jewish community that raises money to subsidize tuition for those having difficulty.

While that fund is supposed to engage those who no longer have children in yeshivas, Citron says, “I do believe that right now about 90 percent of donors are yeshiva parents.

“The whole concept is that it should broaden participants so parents wouldn’t be the only ones paying into it.” Officially known as the Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing In Day Schools, the fund has reportedly delivered $180,000 to day schools in that area.

At the same time, in nearby Englewood, the local school district did not approve an application for a Hebrew-themed charter school.

“The state was not ready to support this initiative,” said Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes. “The players locally did not handle the school board politically correctly.”

Also in Englewood, efforts to establish a low-cost yeshiva in the area, with a $6,500-per-student goal, fell apart.

“The bottom line is there weren’t enough people that wanted to start an alternative,” said one of the organizers, Uri Gutfreund of Bergenfield. “We wanted to create a full-blown yeshiva and see what kind of financing we could come up with.”

The problem, he said, was that the group couldn’t muster enough people in the middle of the tuition scale, between those who receive scholarships and those who pay full tuition. “When people receive scholarships, they don’t have the incentive to take that leap,” said Gutfreund, who has since withdrawn his children from his alma mater, the Yeshiva of North Jersey, and sent them to the Jewish Foundation School on Staten Island, which draws many students from other communities because of its low tuition.

“JFS is a complete turn-key solution for affordable tuition,” says Gutfreund. “It provides an excellent education for a reasonable cost, and they have been doing it for 50 years.”

Gutfreund said his group trying to open the new school drew “moral inspiration” from the Orthodox Union, which last year announced an initiative to encourage such low-cost yeshivas across the country, with a $6,500 tuition goal. The OU also pledged to help fundraise for yeshivot through a specially designed Internet toolbar and coordinate benefits for employees that would make struggling yeshivot more viable.

Rabbi Steve Weil, vice president of the OU, said that the organization was making progress on pooling health care resources for yeshivas, but said “a number of these schools want to wait and see what the cost savings are to other schools.”

About the idea of low-cost yeshivot, Rabbi Weil said, “At this point it does not look like any of those schools are opening this coming September.” Asked if the idea was still viable, the rabbi said, “The primary focus of the OU is working with the [existing] day schools themselves.”

Nathan Diament, the OU’s Washington-based director of public policy, said his staff was advocating for a bill in Congress that would allow nonprofits, including yeshivot, to receive a 50-percent subsidy for retrofitting heating and air conditioning systems. The bill passed the House but awaits a Senate vote.

“We are also pursuing tax credits [for tuition payments] in New Jersey and Maryland,” he said.

A deputy director of the OU’s policy office, Howard Beigelman, has been appointed as adviser to a commission on lowering private school costs appointed by outgoing New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, Diament added.

A Hebrew-themed charter school, the second in the country, did open in Brooklyn this year with 120 students. But it’s unknown how many of its students are Jewish, or how many would otherwise be in a standard public school or in yeshivot.

Meanwhile, yeshivas and day schools continue to be strained by unprecedented requests for tuition assistance. The North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck last month launched a Torah dedication campaign intended to raise $1.5 million to offset the $15,000 to $25,000 cost (depending on grade level) for struggling parents.

Marvin Schick, an educational consultant for the Avi Chai Foundation who studies the state of Jewish day schools in North America, says he considers this the worst era for Jewish education since the Great Depression.

“Right now at dozens and dozens of schools the payroll is late, and the situation is worsening,” he said. “The second half of the school year is always the more difficult part,” he said, because early fundraising proceeds dry up as expenses rise.

In his Avi Chai report, “A Third Census of Jewish Day Schools,” which was released last month, Schick wrote that “The tuition crisis has moved from the talking stage to the action stage, with parents exploring educational options other than the conventional day schools …”

The census found 228,000 students in elementary and secondary Jewish schools during the 2008-09 school year, an increase of 11 percent from the last census, taken during the 2003-04 term. Much if the growth is attributed to Orthodox fertility.

“It remains to be seen whether the growing sense of a tuition crisis will impel more non-Orthodox or Modern Orthodox parents to choose public education,” Schick wrote.

The report also noted that many schools included in the census will not be open in the current school year or may have merged, and “even more are wondering how much longer they can survive.”

At Be’er Hagolah Academy in the Spring Creek section of Brooklyn, a school that for 30 years has provided a low-cost Jewish education for a mostly immigrant student body, director Pearl Kaufman said the financial crisis has forced administrators to make difficult decisions.

But since most of students would go to public schools if a low-cost yeshiva were unavailable, the school is trying not to water down the Jewish experience it offers them.

“The family that had given us $1,000 in the past is now giving us $100,” she said. “We owe money to everybody; it’s much tougher to make the payroll than it used to be. But without us they wouldn’t know what Israel is, wouldn’t know what Shabbos is.

“We don’t want to cut any service unless it doesn’t affect who we want these students to be.”