Dear Mrs. Bluth,
We just moved to a lovely community in New York from our little town in another state. Being close to family was our great motivator, as well as schools for our children that offered a strong emphasis on Torah, chinuch and derech eretz. It took us a while to sell our little house and even longer to part with our friends, but we knew that if we wanted to raise our children with the same hashkafa in which my husband and I grew up we would have to move back home.
We managed to get a fair price for our house and, with the help of both sets of parents who chipped in towards the purchase of our new home, we made the move, enrolled our four children in the recommended yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs in the area and both I and my husband started new jobs that would cover all the new and greatly higher expenses than we were used to.
It took us awhile to find a shul where we felt comfortable with the rav and the kehilla, and to adapt to the custom of round-robin invitations to eat out and invite back on Shabbosim and Yomim Tovim. Unlike in our small town where families ate in their own homes and visited one another in the afternoon, the constant social scene here definitely put a strain on our budget. Even the birthday parties my children attended were far more extravagant affairs from the ones we always made for our kids. Pretty soon, we realized we were living above our means and seriously heading into debt. My husband took on another job after work and I started doing alterations in the spare time I could find. With that, we are barely keeping our heads above water.
Now I am faced with a new dilemma. During the weeks before Lag B’Omer all of my children brought home notes stating from school about outings being planned. The fees varied from $50.00 for the younger two and $75.00 for the older two. There was no way I could cut corners to find an extra $250.00 for these extravagant trips, even an extra $50.00 would be back-breaking. To add insult to injury, any child not attending the trips was required to come to school as if it were a regular day.
I have wonderful children, Mrs. Bluth. My older two offered to use the money they earned babysitting, tutoring and doing odd jobs so the younger two could go on their trips and they would stay in school. It broke my heart to see the sadness in their eye and my pride in their goodness and generosity fanned the anger I felt towards these “Torah institutions” that gave little or no thought to the feelings of shame and embarrassment they are causing the students and the parents who have little or no ability to stretch the dollar another penny’s worth. Why should my children be placed in a position of ridicule or pity? Why do my children need to feel as if they are in some way deprived, lesser beings when they never felt that way before.
If you wonder whether my children ended up staying in school or not, the answer is that I buckled under the pressure to not embarrass my beautiful kids; I wanted to spare them. So, I took the bracelet my husband gave me at our engagement and sold it so that my four precious jewels could walk with heads held high, even among the pygmies with whom they “learn.”
You have touched on something important and I agree with you that herein lays the source of decay within our communities, shuls and institutions. In your timely letter, the caliber of our character as a people lays exposed. Sadly, we as parents have chipped away at the integrity, honor and dignity that is Torah. We are taught to respect and love our neighbor, to live with whatever Hashem provides us and not to borrow what we cannot repay. As a community we currently labor under a number of misconceptions, among them that poor people are not deserving of recognition and do not contribute anything of value. We forget that some of the greatest gedolim of today and yesterday lived in abject poverty, yet made us, as a people, richer than any other nation on earth through their teaching, their goodness and giving and their total and undivided love for all klal Yisroel, regardless of how much jingled in people’s pocket.
We as parents have fallen prey to expressing love through bought pleasures, giving our children what they lust after and overlooking what they really need in order to value the important things in life, like spending real time with family and gifts from the heart. We have also allowed schools to create situations in which parents are forced to pay for things they cannot afford – graduation trips, school trips, special events and even building fund dinners should not be a back breaking burden for students or parents. It should not serve to divide, shame or impoverish those who cannot afford more than the schar limud which is at a peak already.
What I am suggesting is that there be a forum that allows parents to be included and consulted about extracurricular activities, trips or functions, so that no one has to agonize over whether their children can participate.
I remember a time when schools didn’t turn children away simply because their parents could not afford tuition, when parents contributed to the school to offset the cost: serving lunch, assisting teachers, running the women’s organization, etc. Parents and mechanchim need to partner in restoring the true purpose and spirit of “v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha” so that our children can rediscover the true meaning of “Ayzeh hu asheer, hasomayach bechelko.”