Photo Credit: Agudath Israel
Cincinnati Hebrew Day School students attending a rally for school choice in front of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, April 10, 2013.
Cincinnati Hebrew Day School students attending a rally for school choice in front of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, April 10, 2013. Photo: Agudath Israel

The “day school tuition crisis” sometimes seems intractable. Our community, however, is not poor and annually gives many millions to Jewish organizations. Why, then, does it not give sufficiently to day schools?

There are four answers to this question. First, Jewish organizations – following the liberal capitalist ethos of the United States – compete for our charitable dollars with little to no oversight or pushback.

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Second, day school parents and alumni have an ambivalent attitude toward the schools they are associated with.

Third, Orthodox Jews have increasingly lost touch with the broader Jewish community and ask the government for assistance before they ask their Jewish brethren, even though 30 percent of the Forbes 400 are Jewish.

Fourth, no national body exists to consolidate fundraising, hire fundraisers, and attract funding from new donors.

So, to solve the tuition crisis, I propose, first, that Jewish community leaders push members to provide the lion’s share of their charitable contributions to day schools or day school-supporting organizations. Some will protest that other organizations do incredible good. Yes, they do. But we need to focus on the core before we branch out.

Donating to day schools should also come first because many devout Orthodox Jews currently do not have more than three or four children because of the cost of day school education.

Some may attack them as insufficiently devout, but their thinking isn’t irrational. Large families can perhaps get by despite the high cost of education. But we can also get by without translating Torah works into English, offering refreshments at events, or hiring charismatic scholars to lecture to us. But we engage in these activities nonetheless because we want to encourage Torah learning. Similary, we should make tuition more affordable to encourage people to have more children. Isn’t that more important than anything else?

I believe Orthodox Jews would donate to day schools given a strong communal push, and the right vehicle with the right branding could attract very significant funding from non-Orthodox Jews.

Some will argue that the free-market competition among Jewish organizations cannot be fixed. Yet, communal organizations are currently lobbying the government to fund day schools despite decades, if not centuries, of the government declining to do so. If overturning such strong precedent is possible, surely reorganizing the charitable giving of the small Orthodox Jewish community can be done.

I also propose the creation of a centralized North American organization to distribute funds to day schools. The existence of such an organization would, among other things, eliminate the problem of people not donating due to ambivalent attitudes toward the school with which they are most familiar.

This organization’s branding and professionalism would attract new donors, even those who aren’t Orthodox or don’t have school-age children.

Today, there is no way for day schools to efficiently fundraise from Jews outside of their communities, and outsiders who are asked to donate have no reason to pick one school over another. With a centralized organization, this problem is eliminated.

The kind of organization I have in mind would annually distribute almost all the funds it raises and require that the money be used to reduce tuition costs for all students, dollar for dollar. The simplicity of this mission distinguishes it from other ideas to raise money for day schools that have been tendered in the past.

Previous attempts didn’t work for several reasons. First, they generally centered around a specific geographic community. I believe this model fails to attract donations from non-Orthodox Jews who do not feel connected to the local Orthodox community. These Jews would find donating to a national brand more meaningful.

Second, they generally involved raising money for scholarships for poor families, which doesn’t address the core issue of tuition simply being too high. Scholarships provides no relief for people who barely make ends meet but aren’t technically poor. They also don’t help people who, due to pride, won’t apply for scholarships.

The goal should be to encourage all Jews to have more children, enroll them in day school, and not worry about having to apply for scholarships due to high tuition costs. A model that aims to execute that goal is more likely to attract interest from Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews alike.

Third, other attempts sought to create endowments, with schools utilizing the interest. But the impact of an endowment is indirect, which makes raising funds for it hard. It also entails raising an extraordinarily large amount of money.

The expression “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste” was first used by Paul Romer, an economist, in reference to the state of education in the U.S. versus other countries. It applies equally to the Orthodox community’s educational crisis. Let’s respond wisely.

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