The day school tuition crisis is not new. It has been brewing for years. School costs continue to rise while unemployment and underemployment remain high. And one also needs money to live in a neighborhood with shuls and mikvehs, to buy kosher food, to make proper simchas, to cover Yom Tov expenses, etc.
It seems that somewhere along the line it became mandated that in order to be frum you have to be rich – or at least extremely well off.
And of course you must keep your children in private day schools – or else, we are warned, you are putting your children’s Jewish future at risk.
We are told to sacrifice as much as possible in order to provide a Jewish education for our children. Give up vacations, cars, home renovations. Stop drinking coffee. Don’t send your children to camp. Don’t buy anything. Give all your tzedakah to the schools your children attend.
Give up everything that might bring you joy because there is no joy greater than your children’s Jewish education. This, we are told, will guarantee that our children will remain safely in the Jewish fold.
But what of families who have already sacrificed everything? What of families who are receiving financial assistance from the schools and still have trouble making those monthly payments? What of families forced to decide each month which bills to pay and which to ignore? What of families who risk losing their home to foreclosure or having their car repossessed? What guarantees do they get?
In an ideal world, families in need of tuition assistance would receive it and remain anonymous. In the real world, especially in smaller communities, this is impossible. The scrutinizing, the judging, the criticism of families who receive financial aid is intolerable and should be unacceptable. Those paying full tuition are frequently – and quite publicly – resentful, accusatory and spiteful.
The benefiting families are made to feel like a burden on their community. God forbid someone sees them eating at a restaurant. Heaven help them if someone notices them at the movies on Motzaei Shabbat.
Some parents no longer wish to be a burden. They want to pay bills when they are due without worrying where they’ll find the money for tuition. They want to save something for college or retirement. So they make the difficult decision to remove their children from day school and place them in public school. Other families opt for a Hebrew language charter school.
Here in South Florida, a number of Ben Gamla charter schools have opened in the past few years. The advantage of a Hebrew language charter over the local public school is that Israeli culture is taught alongside the language. So while the children cannot daven at school or study religious texts, they can learn, for example, about Chanukah and how the Maccabees fought and beat the Greeks. Just don’t mention the miracle of the oil.
Far from being ideal for frum families, the Ben Gamla charter schools offer an intermediate solution: free secular education for your children, with the added benefit of Hebrew language and Israeli culture and history, taught by Sherut Leumi (National Service) girls.
But what about Judaics?
You tell yourself you’ll send your children to the local Talmud Torah, but then you learn they no longer exist, at least not anywhere near you. You think you’ll hire a teacher from a local day school to tutor your kids a few afternoons a week – until you discover that not a few day schools have told their teachers not to tutor children who have transferred from day school to public school.
So these wonderful educators, who as it is are underpaid by institutions heralding Torah, mitzvot and midot, are threatened with job loss by those very institutions.
Perhaps the rabbis in the community would like to advise parents on finding tutors? Maybe they would like to facilitate a group-learning opportunity for the many children now in public schools due to the tuition crisis?
Some community rabbis seem to believe the majority of families with children in public school do not care enough about Judaics. I beg to disagree. For families who pull out of yeshiva for financial reasons, the cost of private tutors (if you can find one) is too high. For them, the idea of a communal Hebrew school program, geared specifically toward kids who began life in day school, is an attractive one. Something local, affordable and communal. A program like that will cost less per child, and even if it begins with just a few children the likelihood is it will grow in numbers as people see it working and parents are happy with what is being taught.
Our community rabbis need to step up and be rabbis to the entire community, not just the wealthy. They need to help those who are distressed financially – not by giving money, but by guaranteeing that there are options for the children of financially struggling families to continue to learn.
Our rabbis publicly decry those who put their children into public schools. They continue to preach from the pulpit that we need to give up everything in order to keep our schools afloat, and don’t forget to contribute to the latest Yizkor appeal, and make sure you donate money to Israel, and can you sponsor this program and…well, it just never ends, does it?
But they won’t organize local after-school Judaic programs for the children of their own communities. Do they fear that financially comfortable families will be lured away from increasingly expensive day schools into the public school system? What about “veshinantam levanecha”?
Here you have parents who want to give their children a Jewish education one way or another, and Jewish religious leadership is standing in their way. Not every parent has the background to teach his or her own child. We have a large contingent of families in which one or both parents are first-generation frum Jews. These are the families at the highest risk of being lost if nothing is done.
At the end of the day, it is the responsibility of every Jewish parent to guarantee a Jewish education for his or her children. If parents are able to provide this through paying tuition at a Jewish day school, gezunteheit. But the reality is that this is becoming more and more of a challenge for a growing number of families.
Families unable to give their children an ideal religious education should not be made to feel inferior. On the contrary, we should honor their honesty, respect their desire not to be a burden on other Jews, and help them in every way possible to find a solution so that their children receive a good Jewish education outside the day school system.
Vanessa Brooks is a frum-from-birth mother of three in Boca Raton, Florida. After years of struggling to pay for day school, she and her husband have made the difficult decision to put their children in a Ben Gamla charter school. She blogs on Jewish education and other topics at www.vanessaceo.wordpress.com.
About the Author: Vanessa Brooks is a frum-from-birth mother of three in Boca Raton, Florida. After years of struggling to pay for day school, she and her husband have made the difficult decision to put their children in a Ben Gamla charter school. She blogs on Jewish education and other topics at www.vanessaceo.wordpress.com.
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