All is well in our home, in our community. Isn’t it? A new school year is about to open and enrollment will grow by about 5,000 students over last year. There are a third more students in yeshiva-world schools than there were a decade ago, while in chassidic schools the increase during this period is an astounding sixty percent.
In New York and New Jersey alone, there are about 165,000 students in yeshivas and day schools. Torah has taken strong root in a land that once was known as the treife medinah, a land regarded as unsuitable for Torah living. We have reason to be proud.
But is all well in our home? The transformation in religious life that has occurred is directly attributable to our yeshivas, Beth Jacobs and other schools. There was a time when children from marginally observant homes were admitted to mainstream yeshivas. There are roshei yeshiva today who came from such homes. No longer. Our schools are far more exclusive and exclusionary – and this is true of yeshivas that have seats to fill.
A very small number of what may be called kiruv or outreach students somehow get admitted to mainstream yeshivas. By and large, however, our schools are homogenous institutions which fear that children from less religious homes will be a bad influence.
There was a time – and not long ago – when our community eagerly supported schools that served immigrant families and had an outreach orientation. As overall yeshiva and day school enrollment has gone up dramatically, the story is entirely different in kiruv and immigrant schools.
Over the past decade, their enrollment has declined by one-third and there is more bad news on the horizon. Machon, a Queens high school for girls from immigrant homes that has accomplished much, has just closed and a Brooklyn immigrant school for girls is eliminating its lower grades. Other schools in this crucial sector are barely hanging in there. Is all well in our home?
Mainstream yeshivas and day schools aren’t exempt from the bad news. I cannot recall as difficult a period in the nearly sixty years that I have worked on behalf of Torah education.
With few exceptions, our schools always struggle to make ends meet. In the 1950s, yeshivas were chronically late in making payroll. There is the classic story of Rabbi Shurkin, a rosh yeshiva at Chaim Berlin and a man with a delightful sense of humor. One sweltering June day he came to yeshiva wearing a heavy winter coat. A student exclaimed, “Rebbi, why are you wearing a winter coat – it’s June!” Rabbi Shurkin answered, “June? Yesterday I received my December paycheck.”
As difficult as things were then, we did not hear of yeshiva closings because of money problems. When a school closed, invariably it was because of population shifts that resulted in too few religious families left in the neighborhood to provide sufficient enrollment. Not since the Great Depression have yeshivas closed down because they could not pay their faculty and staff.
Is all well in our homes? Inevitably, the cost of educating a child goes up. So does tuition. Each year parents are required to pay a larger share of the budget, as a typical school gets a declining share of its income from contributions. Obviously, parents must pay a fair share. The problem is that family size has grown significantly in our community, the upshot being that even parents who ordinarily earn what would be regarded as a good income constantly struggle to meet their obligations.
There are parents who want to do the right thing and pay their fair share, and yet who are under constant pressure from school officials to pay even more. The officials themselves are under great pressure to meet their institution’s obligations.
Can we say that all is well in our homes?
The hardship faced by our schools is translated into hardship in countless religious homes. As the new school year opens, there are probably substantially more than one thousand teachers and staff members who have not been paid their full salaries for the school year that ended in June. These are people who are nearly all underpaid and nearly all desperately need the modest income they get from teaching in order to pay their own bills. There is suffering in their homes when they aren’t paid.