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Denial And Disaster

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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?

About the Author: Dr. Marvin Schick has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years. He can be contacted at mschick@mindspring.com.

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