Not long ago I received an e-mail from a man who has helped the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School with great generosity, a man who though not of our community understands better than many within the community the ideal of communal responsibility for basic Torah education. He wrote, “It simply amazes me that the Orthodox world, which has grown materially in numbers over the past two generations and which has produced a large number of successful business people, has difficulty replacing [the previous generation’s] much smaller demographic cohort of donors.”
This is the point: In the early years of the day school movement and continuing after Rav Aharon’s death, yeshivas relied substantially on voluntary contributions from affluent persons who were not parents. Parents were asked to pay a fair tuition by the standard of those times; if they could not, their children were accepted and not turned away. To be sure, yeshivas struggled to meet their obligations, faculty and staff were woefully underpaid and often paid late, and there were other difficulties. But at least our schools kept their doors open and they kept them open to students from marginally religious homes whose parents perhaps could pay tuition but would not.
As those donors passed from the scene and as the Orthodox community developed its own cadre of affluent people, there was a critical change in attitude. As I have often written, parents were now regarded as consumers of a service and, as is true generally of consumers, they were expected to pay for the services that were being provided. Torah education was like a bottle of milk purchased at a grocery store. Rich and poor customers alike are required to pay for the product.
The consequence is that over the years, in most day schools and many yeshivas, parents were required to pay an ever-increasing share of the costs, with contributions constituting a declining share of the budget. By the 1980s, this attitude had become dominant in many schools.
In the late 1980s there was a financial crisis in Torah education in Los Angeles, centered particularly at the largest yeshiva in that generally affluent community. This school and several others were behind in payroll and increased pressure was put on parents. The suggestion was made that kollel wives should pawn their wedding rings and that families that receive scholarship assistance be required to take out additional mortgages on their homes or agree to have a lien placed on their homes equal to the amount of scholarship assistance that had been provided. If the homes were sold, the institutions would recoup the scholarship assistance provided years before. This unprecedented approach received rabbinical approval. I strongly protested to the roshei yeshiva of Torah Umesorah, pleading that what Rav Aharon had taught us was being betrayed.
I was not successful.
The damage was done and a new attitude took root in too many communities and too many schools. What happened was dynamic, meaning that this departure from previous approaches inevitably expanded in its untoward consequences. In truth, chassidic schools in the main have a more caring or benevolent approach to scholarship assistance, as they rely substantially on fundraising, primarily within the groups sponsoring the schools. There are yeshiva-world schools that remain faithful to the standard set by Rav Aharon. Regrettably, however, there are many yeshivas and day schools that have embraced harsh policies.
Even greater damage has been inflicted on outreach schools and, more generally, on the kiruv movement. The abandonment of basic Torah education has inevitably encompassed those schools that reach out to and educate children from homes that are not Orthodox. What I constantly hear from those who struggle to maintain kiruv schools is that “no one cares.”
We need just reflect on what happens each September at many yeshivas and day schools as a new school year opens. Children who are eager to join their classmates are not admitted. At many schools there is the egregious wrong, even cruelty, of withholding report cards because parents are behind in tuition payments.
I do not come here to defend the parents. I write to express caring about the children who are always innocent. They are to suffer? How can this square with what Rav Aharon taught us? How can it square with our values and teachings as a religious people? Hurting children is not what Rav Aharon taught us. I recognize from an abundance of experience that schools are confronted by harsh economic realities. Whatever they are, children must not be made the victim.