Photo Credit: Jewish Press

In the past few weeks alone, I’ve been asked by several different Torah institutions to consider an additional contribution, with each explaining that funds were necessary because they were months behind in paying their rebbeim and moros.

I suspect that these requests are but the tip of a giant communal iceberg of delayed payments to mechanchim. My sense is that many mosdos – struggling under crushing financial burdens, and many parents, likewise struggling under the weight of enormous tuition burdens, have turned to deferring salary payments to their mechanchim as the methodology of choice, or at least of necessity, in balancing budgets and maintaining cash flow.


This practice has become so prevalent that, for many, it seems to be normative – part of the very essence of how our yeshivot maintain their financial viability. But is it fair? And, more importantly, does this practice model the values and priorities we hold dear?

When we preach to our young families the importance of providing a Torah education for our children at all costs, how can we permit ourselves to delay compensating, often for months, the very educators who are instilling a love of Yiddishkeit and Torah learning in the next generation? What is the message we are giving our children about our values and priorities?

And what are we saying, through action if not words, to those young mechanchim who love to teach Torah and dream of pursuing careers in Jewish education, when we cannot at least commit to a regular paycheck? Is this how we seek to reward their mesiras nefesh, or to encourage the best and brightest to enter the holy profession that ensures our continuity and the transmission of Torah and Torah values?

Somehow, those responsible for the critical spiritual education of our children are last in line in our community. We are essentially asking our devoted educators to take vows of poverty in order to accomplish the single most important task for the continuity of our community.

Of course, I understand the enormous burden on parents and institutions to meet the escalating costs of a yeshiva education. For the past three years I’ve spent much of my time engaged in advocacy efforts for more state aid to our schools. Over the past few years the Orthodox Union has made Jewish education affordability a major priority, by heavily investing in advocacy efforts on behalf of the Orthodox community.

And while there is enormous work still to be done, we have made modest progress in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Maryland, and California (where approximately 80 percent of yeshiva students reside) in increasing the levels of state aid.

This past year, New York State Assistance to non-public schools approached $300 million dollars. Teach NYS, the advocacy arm of the OU in New York State, successfully advocated for increased security funding – approximately 40 million dollars – for yeshivot and day schools. And, for the first time in the state’s history, we successfully advocated for partial funding to reimburse our yeshivot for a portion of the cost of science and math instruction.

In New Jersey, Teach NJ advocated for the Secure Schools for All Children Act, increasing security funding for nonpublic schools from $25 per pupil to $50 per pupil for the 2016-2017 school year. And we made similar progress in the other jurisdictions where we operate. These are all modest but increasingly expanding steps in trying to mitigate the burden of tuition costs on our families.

Yet no matter how much we might bemoan the incredible burden on our shoulders; despite the advocacy efforts we have engaged in; and despite the enormous and welcome contribution of our community’s philanthropists, the simple fact is that our mosdos remain under enormous pressure. But the question that our community must grapple with is where the weight of this burden should legitimately fall. It is, I submit, fundamentally wrong to shift this burden onto the shoulders of our mechanchim.

Simply open Sefer Vayikra (19:13): “You shall not leave [with you] the payment of a worker overnight until the morning.” Or, in Sefer Devarim (24:15): “On his day you should give his wages, the sun should not set on it, because he is a poor man and his life depends on it…” The Torah recognizes the pain of a laborer whose due wages are not promptly forthcoming.

Do we allow plumbers and housekeepers to go home unpaid? Yet too often, our rebbeim and moros do. There are far too many families, people who have devoted their lives to chinuch, who are struggling to get by, month by month, because our institutions cannot pay them on time.

And, quite apart from the inherent unfairness of this “new normal” financial structure of so many of our yeshivot, there is the even more fundamental issue of the values and priorities that we, as a community, project by saying: our mechanchim can wait.

As Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, once noted, the priorities of a community are reflected in its budget decisions. If we want to accord appropriate respect to our mechanchim; if we want to publicly acknowledge their importance and the centrality of chinuch in our lives and the lives of our children, they should be first in line for payment – surely not last.

What can be done to ameliorate this situation? Is it not time for our community to create a “pay our mechanchim on time” communal fund – a fund that our institutions can tap into when necessary for short-term assistance (not longer than 3-4 months) to meet their payroll obligations, and then repay within a rapid turnaround period?

While such a revolving fund will not resolve the fundamental issue of yeshiva funding generally, at least it will remove our mechanchim from the unenviable position of being the “funders” of last resort. And it will speak volumes about how we as a community value chinuch – and value those whose dedication, skill, and effort make it possible. Isn’t it time to begin this community conversation in earnest?


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Allen Fagin is the executive vice president and chief professional officer of the Orthodox Union. He lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.