Across Israel, Meir Panim responds to the growing needs of the country’s 1.75 million impoverished residents through various food and social service programs.
Elsewhere, the picture is different. The abandonment of kiruv is painfully evident in the troubled condition of day schools that serve an outreach function, including the education of children in immigrant families. Between 1998 and 2008 these schools lost one third of their enrollment. By the time this September’s statistics are in, the loss will be in the vicinity of 50 percent. Some of this has to do with the changed profile of immigrant families, notably within the Bukharian community. The greater responsibility lies with too little concern about the situation of these schools. They once attracted much attention and a fair amount of support. Now they are like unwanted stepchildren.
On the day this is being written, the principal of a kiruv school that he opened nearly forty years ago told me in shul in Jerusalem that he does not know whether the school will be able to open in September.
Conventional Orthodox schools are also experiencing unprecedented hardship. Modern Orthodox institutions that in the aggregate cater to relatively affluent families and charge top of the line tuition that without pause grows each year are now in trouble and forced to make staffing and other cuts. After smoldering talk for several years about the tuition crisis, chickens are coming home to roost. Much of what we know at this point is impressionistic. What is certain is that there are parents who have switched their children to public school. The notion of public school for Orthodox children is gaining in legitimacy, as parents claim they are confident they can provide alternate meaningful religious education. They are wrong, yet I believe more parents will follow in this direction.
What is clear is that enrollment in Modern Orthodox schools is declining.
Admittedly, a significant portion of this decline results from the impact of aliyah, as in recent years a significant number of Modern Orthodox families with children of school age have settled in Israel. The long-term impact of this development will be greater still because children yet to be born will not add to the enrollment rolls of the schools they would have attended had their parents remained on these shores.
Even so, there is no denying that a small but growing number of Modern Orthodox parents are opting out of day school, giving high tuition as the explanation. The evidence is in yarmulke-wearing male students in public schools from New York to California.
Modern Orthodox schools have miscalculated in believing that economic forces do not affect enrollment. Generally, Modern Orthodox schools do not do a good job of fundraising and their leadership arrangement is impaired by the practice or tradition that mandates that the school’s lay leadership changes every two years or so. While I do not recommend that any school or person follow my example of serving thirty-eight years (so far) as a voluntary yeshiva president, the two-year term that is standard at many day schools is a recipe for failure.
Admittedly, even the best of leadership cannot overcome the unwillingness to make support of yeshivas and day schools a tzedakah priority. This hurts all our schools, from the most Orthodox to those that are minimalistic in their Judaic commitment. Even with their high enrollment, haredi schools are experiencing severe hardship. They remain open because (1) salaries are low, (2) they are often paid late, (3) educational enhancements are severely stinted on and (4) it is their mission to remain open. We should not regard this as a healthy situation.
Tzedakah is at once mandatory and voluntary, the former because we are obligated to give and voluntary because we can choose where to give. As astounding as it may seem, over the past generation American Torah leaders have sent the message that basic Torah education is not a tzedakah priority. As I have written over the years, that message is sharply in variance with what Rav Aharon Kotler taught and demonstrated during his exalted lifetime, as well as what other American Torah leaders taught in the post-Holocaust period when the day school movement began its remarkable growth.
The message we hear is to give elsewhere, not to basic Torah chinuch. It is not surprising that too many observant Jews heed that message. It should not be surprising that as a consequence, whether in enrollment decline or the inability to meet payroll, our yeshivas and day schools are suffering.
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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