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Denial And Disaster


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The United States and much of the rest of the world are in a depression, a word that apparently must be avoided, perhaps in the hope that if we do not say it the bad news will go away.

Unfortunately, the bad news is all around us in the vast and increasing number of layoffs, the decline in consumer spending, the near collapse of the auto industry and the near insolvency of major banks. We are not in a Great Depression of the magnitude that devastated the U.S. economy and society and other economies and societies eighty years ago and the likelihood is that early and massive governmental intervention here and abroad will result in a recovery within the next two or three years.

Yet the bad news now dominates and it transcends by a great margin what is ordinarily referred to as a recession or economic downturn. The unwillingness to use the big D does not and will not change this reality. As in other situations, denial can be functional and even beneficial, provided that it does not induce self-deception or the purposeful avoidance of reality. Right now, there are signs of highly risky self-denial.

For all of the pain it brings, a depression does not mean that an economy collapses or comes close to a stop. Tens of millions of workers continue to have jobs, people shop, there is money for trips, optional spending and even luxuries – and there are some folks who manage to make a lot of money when the going is bad.

In the darkest days of the Great Depression in the 1930s, there were speakeasies where money flowed easily along with the liquor and there were pleasure cruises. Fans went to the ballpark and there was a great boom in movie theaters. All of this while many were unemployed and many suffered.

Charities are inevitable victims when the economy nosedives. People give less, mainly because they have less to give but also because they are fearful about what lies ahead. There is also a tendency to regard self-indulgence, including gratuitous spending on pleasures, as a priority over concern for others.

Jewish charities have already been affected by the severe downturn, far more than they have been hurt by the Madoff scandal. Some good may come out of the financial woes faced by our organizations if the loss of income is translated into the loss of some of the thousands of organizations that occupy our communal landscape.

Far more worrisome is the certain impact on yeshivas and day schools. The greatest damage will occur at non-Orthodox day schools and perhaps also Orthodox schools that serve a modern clientele because a combination of high tuition and lost income and savings will result in the withdrawal of students who will transfer to public school. For haredi or fervently Orthodox families, a yeshiva education is mandatory, irrespective of the financial situation, though there are families that have opted for home schooling because of financial constraints.

When the Great Depression hit, the adverse impact on the fledgling day school movement was severe. There were schools that closed. This added to the already powerful trend away from religious commitment in many American Jewish homes during the interwar period. It is too early to assess the damage that may result from the current crisis. The indications are not good.

I am conducting another census of day schools in the United States, five years after the previous survey. Yeshivas and day schools are reporting that contributions are down and scholarship applications are up and there are those that expect enrollment to decline in September when the next school year begins.

Of note is the recent report by the Los Angeles Board of Jewish Education that more than 200 students have left local day schools because of financial considerations. As expected, the lion’s share of the losses was in non-Orthodox schools. We should not be happy that these students are overwhelmingly now in public school.

The news out of Florida is also not good. Furthermore, the ill economic winds do not stop at some imaginary or real border separating Orthodox life from the rest of American Jewry. There are Orthodox day schools that are on the ropes. As I write, the leading kiruv or outreach day school in the country is saddled by massive debt and its future is threatened. The two leading immigrant schools are in deep financial trouble.

It will not avail to do nothing, to believe that salvation will somehow come irrespective of what we do. Our religious obligation is to have emunah and, at the same time, to be realistic, which means not to stick our heads in the ground and ignore that which is already before us. The economic fundamentals are miserable, they are likely to get worse and improvement isn’t around the corner. If yeshivas and day schools are struggling now, it is not hard to imagine what lies ahead.

Presently, there is far more denial than there is action to deal with the deleterious consequences of the crisis. As expected, people on the firing line – whether faculty and staff whose paychecks are late in coming, parents worried about meeting tuition obligations, or lay officers responsible for a school’s budget. At the communal level, there is inaction, even quiet, and if this isn’t a form of denial, I will accept suggestions for an alternative term.

So far as I can tell, our community organizations and leaders have been silent. Where are our rabbis? Where are our yeshiva deans? Have there been any meetings aimed at dealing with the expanding crisis? I am not aware of any. We need to bestir ourselves and this includes the philanthropic sector, if there are philanthropists left after the financial carnage.

One place to start is to recognize priorities. Over the years, I have argued with scant success that we have created an expensive and bloated enterprise I refer to as “Jewish Education, Inc.,” a collection of activities that purport to assist our schools even as they manage to neglect the truth that education occurs in schools and classrooms and not in self-serving grantsmanship that enriches consultants, evaluators and pseudo-experts.

Jewish Education, Inc. encompasses expensive training programs, expensive trips, expensive conferences and conventions and much else that is at once sterile and falsely promoted as essential for the educational wellbeing of our schools.

The training train should have been put into mothballs in the best of times because it constitutes the purposeful diversion of scarce funds away from schools and into the hands of entrepreneurs. We obviously are not in the best of times and we are coming dangerously close to a tragic situation as more and more yeshivas and day schools cannot meet payroll. There is no excuse for indulgence in educational frills and this includes not only training but also a host of activities involving trips and consultants.

Torah Umesorah must be awake to the crisis that already is inside school doors. It would be a wonderful demonstration of Torah priorities if its annual convention were suspended for a year. If this year is not possible because commitments have been made, then next year. More than the savings would be the message that for our schools it is not business as usual; that when the Jewish future of Jewish children is at risk because there are schools that may close, holding conventions is not a mitzvah. I know this would be a difficult decision since many believe a convention is an essential educational activity.

Our main challenge is what individual schools may do. This isn’t easy because nearly all are chronically underfunded and a great proportion of their budget goes for payroll. There isn’t much to cut. Still, professional and lay leaders at each school must carefully consider cost-saving steps. Here are a handful of suggestions.

Merger – This is the least likely approach to be taken since the strong impulse is for each school to make Shabbos for itself. It matters not at all that this isn’t cost effective from a communal perspective and often does not make sense from the perspective of schools that face a daily struggle to survive. There is one statistic that should be compelling: Forty percent of all yeshivas and day schools enroll fewer than one hundred students, with many having fewer than fifty.

This is to be expected in small communities where the total number of students is modest and there is an obligation to provide for the chinuch needs of families that span the religious spectrum. Thus, there are small Beth Jacob high schools sprinkled across the country. The New York metropolitan area is a different story. Yet, there is an abundance of small institutions, each engaged in fundraising. Is this necessary, especially during a period of severe economic deterioration?

Cooperative Activities – If merger is out, perhaps greater cooperation among schools within the same community may be possible, the aim being to reduce costs. Small schools, in particular, could share one executive director or fundraiser. Other possibilities are the sharing of faculty and the use of educational technology to link classrooms. In fact, I am currently working on a new initiative aimed at achieving inter-day school cooperation.

Annual Dinner – Experience shows that for many schools the annual dinner is vital for fundraising. Nonetheless, cost-cutting measures are possible, ranging from less lavish invitations to a less lavish meal, as well as restraint in the gifts presented to the honorees and a severe reduction in the customary journal which is bloated with quickly forgotten love notes to the honorees and others, with most copies thrown away before the food is fully digested and nearly all of the remainder being discarded with the Pesach cleaning.

Trips – Student trips have become ingrained in the school year, with parents picking up the ever-increasing cost, though at times schools foot part of the bill. Excluding the well-deserved eighth grade excursion to Washington and perhaps one or two other outings, trips cannot be justified at a time of fiscal hardship. Schools can save money and so can parents who can barely make ends meet.

Conventions and Conferences – I am back to Jewish Education, Inc., now from the perspective of individual schools. Whatever the justification in upbeat times for educators going to Israel at school expense to meet people they often meet on these shores, there is no excuse for this extravagance now. I know I will be pilloried for suggesting that lay leaders put their foot down and tell school principals that conventions are out this year and next and that this includes Torah Umesorah’s. It is not, in my view, halachically permissible to spend school money on such activities when faculty and staff are not being paid in a timely manner.

PTA – Parent associations can be useful adjuncts in the operation of a school by funding school-based activities that are not provided for in the budget. At times, however, the PTA attitude is “this is our money, not the school’s.” PTA leaders should consider how they can directly assist school officials who are responsible for paying faculty and other obligations.

Attitude – This list obviously does not include all that may be done to help our schools weather the darkening storm. At the end of the day, fundraising and tuition shortfalls will leave a painful budgetary gap. What is essential is the recognition that there is a crisis, that this is not a time for business as usual. Nor is it the time for denial of reality or its corollary in our religious life that faith is essential and that with faith alone Torah institutions will get by. Faculty cannot pay their bills with scrip called faith, nor are suppliers any more eager to accept this form of payment.

If a mindset takes hold in a school that there is a crisis and expenditures must be reviewed carefully, the prospect is that the school will come up with additional savings, whether in the use of e-mail instead of conventional mail or reduction of printing bills through use of the computer or energy savings and so on. If we avoid denial, we shall increase enormously the ability to get by in a responsible manner. If we are in denial, we are embracing a formula for disaster.

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About the Author: Dr. Marvin Schick is president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School. He has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years.


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