2005 Tuition is Just a Symptom
Chananya Weissman
October 7, 2005, The Jewish Press

As someone who is dedicating himself to a career in Jewish education, I’ve been following the ongoing debate over out-of-control Yeshiva tuitions and proposed alternatives via the public school system with particular interest. I will admit at the very outset that I can’t suggest a concrete answer. However, I wish to raise what I believe to be the right questions, questions that will hopefully point the community in the right direction.

The very first point that needs to be addressed is the fact that many of the letters and articles that have appeared on the subject, particularly from those critical of the status quo, have appeared anonymously. It is a sorry state of affairs when Jews living in an observant community feel implicit or even explicit intimidation from expressing what may be a minority or a controversial viewpoint. This topic is worthy of an article all its own, but for now suffice it to say that nothing could be further from the Torah way, and those perpetuating this culture of fear bear responsibility for the numerous horrific consequences of intellectual suppression. Those submitting to this culture of fear should also realize that opinions expressed anonymously are quickly forgotten, if not immediately dismissed.

To this point, the discussion has focused almost exclusively on the unfortunate fact that some parents feel compelled to send their children to a non-Jewish school, and whether or not this is an appropriate decision. Could the parents tighten their belts just a little more? Are they short on faith? Do they not value a Jewish education in a Jewish environment as much as they should? Do they appreciate the dangers of exposing their children to a public school culture? What are the chances that their children will turn out observant, and is it worth the risk?

These are all interesting questions, but they do not point to the core issue, and in fact only distract the community from addressing the core issue. The core issue is not whether the parents in question are good Jews or bad Jews, smart Jews or foolish Jews, but what is wrong with Jewish education and how to fix it.

If anything, these parents are to be applauded for recognizing that there are deep problems with Jewish education and seeking in good faith to do something constructive about it. They are putting their reputations and their own children on the line, in public, in an attempt to find or create a solution that will potentially help thousands of suffocating religious families. They are doing so with full knowledge of the fact that those who deviate from narrowly defined accepted norms in the observant community are likely to be lambasted, isolated, and worse. They do not come across as seditious influences seeking to destroy Torah institutions and those who attend them, but as well-meaning Jews grappling for solutions when others pooh-pooh the problem. Whether they turn out to be right, wrong, or somewhere in between, I respect that.

The only contribution so far from most of our Rabbis is whether or not these parents belong in hell. We need not melodramatic proclamations from the community’s spiritual leaders, nor vapid acknowledgement of a “tragic situation”, but a precise investigation of the problems and fearless leadership in fixing them. Some may feel that I am being disrespectful to Rabbis, but I am merely stating the facts as we all know them to be.

The first question we should really be asking is just how much it should cost to provide a quality Jewish education to a child. We need to ask how much money the schools are getting from tuition, donations, and other sources, what their expenses are, and what their expenses should be. After all, before we can talk intelligently about whether or not tuition is high, we need to clarify what constitutes “high tuition”. To me, high tuition is not “more than what many people can afford”, but “more than tuition should justifiably be”.

One well-known Rabbi has suggested that parents happily pay whatever the tuition is, since the Gemara promises that money spent on Torah education is reimbursed by Hashem. Without casting aspersion on the Gemara, I must ask if this means that schools do not need to be fiscally responsible, since parents will be reimbursed anyway. I must also ask if this means that teacher salaries can be made respectable, if not exorbitant, with the added cost being included in the tuition which will, of course, be reimbursed anyway. Finally, I must ask if this Rabbi would mind laying out the money pending this reimbursement that he seems to be sure has no limits or qualification.

The truth is that, despite being a teacher, I have absolutely no idea what it costs or should cost to run a school. Chances are that neither do you. And you know what? That, too, is a serious problem. Those who run schools have no difficulty lambasting parents for taking their business elsewhere, and often subject parents to humiliating inquisitions to determine whether they should receive tuition breaks. It is only fair for them to come clean as well, to share with us this important knowledge of what it costs to run a school, even if this opens them up to potential criticism as well. The only way we can work together as a community to find effective solutions is if we lay all our cards on the table.

One thing I do know is that the money garnered from high tuitions sure isn’t going to pay teachers. My salary as a morning Hebrew teacher is less than $20,000 after taxes with absolutely no benefits, including health insurance. If not for the fact that I am fortunate to have other sources of income, do not yet have any children, and am deeply committed to a career in Jewish education…well, you do the math. Many of my colleagues would tell me that I should consider myself fortunate that I am paid on time. How long would the janitor stay on board if he wasn’t paid on time?

I should also mention that I have a Masters in Jewish education and several successful years of teaching experience, in addition to miscellaneous other qualifications to have merited this exorbitant salary. Is it any wonder that our best and brightest do not typically choose Jewish education as a career choice, that the few who do rarely stay in the field more than a few years, and that the even fewer who stay are stretched so thin with multiple jobs and responsibilities that their effectiveness as an educator is neutralized? Is anyone worried that if in a few years it becomes impossible for me to continue teaching Torah to young Jewish children in their formative years I am likely to be replaced by a wide-eyed seminary girl or a Rebbe who believes that knowing how to learn is equivalent with knowing how to teach?

If one child attends a school with the most impressive building and state-of-the-art facilities, but whose teachers are ineffective, and another child attends a school situated in a warehouse with a light bulb dangling from a string in the ceiling and without even any books, but whose teachers are teachers in the truest sense of the word, the latter child will receive a superior education and will feel better about himself in the process. As long as the community does not appreciate qualified teachers as the absolute foundation of Jewish education, and demonstrate this appreciation in a tangible way, the debate over public school is pretty much moot.

This brings us to the next question: for all the money being spent on tuition, are parents and children receiving fair value for their money? A quick look around is enough to answer this one in the negative. How many people who daven for the amud in your shul can even pronounce the words properly, let alone demonstrate knowledge and competence with this most basic religious task?

The first thing my Bar Mitzva teacher had me do was read for him out of a printed Chumash, as he had a lifetime of experience teaching boys who had received the best Jewish educations our community has to offer, yet could not read Hebrew properly. He had to teach them how to read before he could teach them how to layn. A Rebbe of mine who teaches university-level students laments that he has to first undo the damage of years of Jewish education before he can teach them correctly.

For all that we spend on Jewish education, what are the returns? Does the average yeshiva student have the basic knowledge and skills to be a functional observant Jew? Does he have any passion for Judaism? Does he know what it means to be a Jew, what a Jew’s mission is in this world? Does he care?

The average Jew with a typical Jewish education is not even familiar with Chumash and Rashi. This is not surprising. During my first year of Israel study I was admonished by a Rebbe for “wasting my time” studying Navi, and in university was informed by a Rosh Yeshiva that studying too much Tanach is essentially bittul Torah.

Some schools will impress parents with a rigorous Ivrit B’Ivrit program. They don’t mention that such a program is almost impossible to run successfully. It only further shrinks the pool of available, qualified teachers. It only further widens the communication gap between teachers and students, making it more difficult for the teacher to express a lesson and for the student to grasp it. And at the end of the day, how many kids do you know who go to these schools and come out speaking fluent Hebrew? Is the benefit worth the cost?

Why is it accepted that developing basic knowledge, skills, and interest will wait until the student goes to Israel after high school? Why is Israel study more a rehabilitation, a last-gasp attempt to turn someone around, than a natural continuation of a strong, vibrant foundation?

Shouldn’t yeshiva education provide more than a Jewish peer group and minimal protection from the “outside world”? Shouldn’t it be able to enrich the average student, the below average student, and not just the poster-boy valedictorian who will achieve in any environment? Shouldn’t every student enjoy personal development, heightened self-esteem, creative nourishment, and a deep connection to his heritage in exchange for the many tuition dollars, not just the student who dazzles with his brilliance? And shouldn’t we recognize that the goal of Jewish education should not be to teach the ability to split hairs with Talmudic commentaries, and that impressing parents with a rigorous curriculum often comes at the sacrifice of all but the most brilliant? Is it really a surprise that so many kids are turned off to Torah and Judaism? What do they really learn about either of the two?

Do schools care more about “presenting an image” than teaching substance? How many schools will refuse to hire a teacher who doesn’t have a certain “look” in favor of someone who “presents the right image” but is clearly an inferior teacher? Why are the needs of the students for the best available teacher not first and foremost, and why do we think that they will buy into a hollow image?

As a teacher I can tell you that all children are very, very perceptive and much sharper than their grades might indicate. This is why the vast majority of them quickly conclude that to be an acceptable Jew they need only to present an image, and most of the others conclude that Judaism doesn’t have much substance beyond the image. The latter group becomes slapped with the label “at-risk”, a permanent black mark, when in reality it is the community that is at risk. It is the community that conveniently blames the failure of these students on “secular influences”, like all its other problems, and buries the deeper issues in the darkest recesses of the ghetto.

We need to ask why in many girls yeshivas the students are intimidated from asking penetrating questions, questions that the teachers themselves may not be equipped to answer, lest they harm their shidduch chances ten years down the road. We need to ask why many boys who have questions about fundamental components of Judaism are warned by primitive Rebbeim that further inquiry will be punished with labels such as “non-believer”. We need to ask whether intellectual suppression is not a more sinister form of child abuse than physically striking a child (which, too, has been known to occur).

These are just some of the many questions that really need to be asked. Despite my criticisms, I know that there are many fine, dedicated educators and administrators who want only the very best for their students and the community. I am also deeply grateful to the administrators whose graciousness made it possible for me to attend their schools, and to all the others whose sacrifices may never even be recognized. If the community can open itself up to a real assessment and substitute a culture of fear and public relations with a culture of genuine Jewish education and values, we can really turn our ship around. If not, public school is the least of our worries.

Chananya Weissman is the founder of EndTheMadness (www.endthemadness.org), a comprehensive campaign to rehabilitate the culture of shidduchim. He can be reached at admin@endthemadness.org.