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.