Schools have multiple missions. They primarily exist to educate children, to provide knowledge, and to develop skills that stimulate intellectual growth and prepare youngsters for a productive adulthood and success in life. They also serve a socialization function, inculcating in children behavioral patterns and attitudes that foster respect and the acceptance of appropriate norms and rules.
These are not easy responsibilities, especially in view of home conditions and societal pressures and influences that frequently undermine the capacity of children to learn. When schools fail, children suffer, as does the larger society.
Jewish schools share these two core responsibilities and they are charged with two additional tasks. Their educational role obviously includes Jewish and religious study, the part of the curriculum that forms the basis for their existence and which at least in Orthodox schools has priority. They also provide for religious socialization, for the development of an outlook and a behavioral pattern that are crucial for the religious development of the students whom they educate.
All of this constitutes a daunting challenge, particularly because of the diverse capabilities of students, as well as diversity in background, interests and emotional health. A further barrier is the severe financial hardship that is the lot of most yeshivas and day schools. While the dedication of faculty and other staff often compensates for conditions that limit the ability of our schools to properly perform all of the tasks that are required of them, at the end of the day Jewish schools face an uphill struggle as they seek to adequately perform their educational and socialization functions.
The consequences of financial hardship are inescapable. I know that parents are saddled with large tuition bills that keep on rising despite endless talk about the tuition crisis. There are schools that, so to speak, are in the chips, schools that charge $20,000 or more per year and for whom the word “scholarship” is scarcely in their vocabulary.
These institutions, primarily located in the more modern day-school sectors, are far more the exception than the rule. For yeshivas in the New York area, the average tuition is considerably below $10,000 and most provide meaningful scholarship assistance. This for a dual curriculum. By comparison, the average per student expenditure is about $15,000 per year in New York’s single curriculum public schools.
In the best of economic times, most Jewish schools struggle to meet their obligations and they are not able to provide or forced to cut back on services and educational options that would enhance the learning experience. A declining share of the typical Jewish school budget is met through contributions, a condition that reflects the creeping abandonment of the great principle that had been maintained since the Talmudic period which mandated that basic Torah education is a fundamental communal responsibility. In the current economic downturn, the outlook for our schools is scary.
American Jewry is blessed with a vast and richly endowed philanthropic sector, encompassing Federations and a growing number of private foundations. By and large, however, basic religious education is not a Jewish philanthropic priority. There are other causes, such things as museums, Holocaust memorials, camps, community centers and much more that take precedence over the needs of our schools.
There are philanthropic exceptions. I am privileged to be involved in the Avi Chai Foundation, which was established a generation ago by Zalman C. Bernstein of blessed memory, a remarkable man whose legacy is an outstanding foundation that gives priority to day school education in North America. Avi Chai’s support of day schools is a glorious chapter in the annals of Jewish philanthropy.
Another exception is the Gruss Foundation, and it is a vital aspect of its work, plus Avi Chai’s commitment, that generates my enthusiasm about a significant development affecting our most vital institutions. This foundation was established by Joseph Gruss of blessed memory. His intellectual and financial contributions to our schools are legendary and they will be lasting.
There are several distinctive characteristics to Gruss philanthropy, starting with the nearly exclusive commitment to day schools. Mr. Gruss understood that the best and possibly only path to Jewish survival on these shores is to support and strengthen religious schools that provide a meaningful dual-curriculum education to our children. He was not interested in fads or exotic approaches to Jewish continuity, believing that what had proved reliable in Jewish life over the generations was the product that he had faith in and in which he would invest.