Subscribe To My Weekly Drasha

Send a message to with the word "subscribe"

Friday, July 31, 2009

On the Crisis of Jewish Education in America



On the Crisis of Jewish Education in America


As I was walking up the street with Reb Shmiel Kalbasavuah this morning, I met Rebbetizin Golda Neigelvasser walking her five triplets to the school bus. I immediately noticed that she was, once again, very pregnant, Surprised, I asked her, “Nu, you are having another, KeNaina Harrah? How come you didn’t come before the block association for approval?”

“Rabbi,” she replied, “there is no such committee!”

“Of course there is!” I responded. “My bashert, Feigeh Breineh always insists on meeting with the association every time I ask to have Tashmish HaMitah. And they always seem to reject my request!”

Mamesh, to be perfectly honest, I should have seen this coming. I recall that in the days before my Chassanah, all the meidelach who were friends with my Bashert made her a bachelorette party. Frayndee have her a set of kosher lingerie. Channileh gave her a crotchless Shabbos robe. Rivky gave her a vibrating Sefer Tehillim. But my mother-in-law gave her a jockstrap.

That should have been my warning.

I share this story because we live in an environment of confusion around the entire notion of kinderlach. The Toirah commands us: “VaShinantem LiVanecha VaDibartah Bum,” – “you shall teach your children the words of Toirah, and speak of them.” So, I ask you: where in the Toirah does it discuss yeshiva tuition? Where does it discuss yeshiva dinners and fundraising breakfasts, application fees and other costs? Rabboisai, if Klal Yisroel, standing on Har Sinai, understood the price of “VeShinantem LiVanecha”, would they have ever said “Na’aseh V’Nishmah”? Or would they have said “Thanks, Reboinoisheloilum, but I’ll take bacon, Saturday morning cartoons, and public school. Why don’t you instead offer the Toirah to the Palestinians? Just tell them it belongs to us – then they’d be happy to take it off your hands.”

Something akin to this shailah was first alluded to by Rabbi Akiva, in a Braisah brought down in Gemarrah Pesachim. According to the Braisah, Rabbi Akiva was once cleaning his house for Pesach when his Talmidim showed up at his door. As they walked in, they were immediately alarmed to see Rabbi Akiva, the Gadol of his generation, the man who organized the Shishah Sidrei Mishah and who invented bubble gum, on his hands and knees cleaning the chometz that had fallen between his washing machine and dryer. Shocked, one of his Talmidim asked, “Rebbe, why are you on the floor? Why can’t your cleaning woman prepare for Pesach, so you can spend your time teaching us your pearls of wisdom?”

From his position on the floor Rabbi Akiva looked up and responded: “Schmuck, I pay yeshiva tuition for my children. Do you think I can afford a cleaning woman? I can barely afford paper towels!”

So, as identified as early as the time of the Mishnah, there are definite costs associated with maintaining a Jewish lifestyle and tradition. It was for this reason that Rabbi Akiva had only five Talmidim: Rabbi Meir, Reb Nosson, Reb Yehudah Bar Ilai, Reb Yoisie Ben Chalafta, and Rabbi Shimoin Bar Yoichai. All of the other potential students went to the free Roman School, which had an excellent secular education, free gym, and all the Mishkav Zachor you could ever want.

As we look at our communities today, and specifically the Golus in America, we are confronted by a similar set of challenges that are fundamentally impacting the health of our communities. It has long been said that yeshiva tuition is the most effective source of birth control in the Yiddesheh community. It is also well known that the cost of a traditional Jewish education has been rising at four times the rate of GDP. (Actually, that’s healthcare in America, you Mechutziff, but it certainly sounds impressive.) But in particular, in our current era of economic upheaval, Jewish families are being pushed to the brink. Some are talking about establishing Jewish Charter Schools. Some are aspiring to set up afterschool Jewish studies programs to supplement a public school alternative. Many are even considering accepting Christ, sending their children to Catholic School, and being mezaneh with a hot red headed shiksa mom who has more children than a fertile Belzer Chassid in Bnei Brak.

Many of my Talmidim have privately asked me how they should address this challenge. Before suggesting a solution, it is important that we examine the causes of this phenomenon. As I lay out an intellectual, logical and rational analysis, you Minuval, please try not to hurt yourself.

Fact: There are genuine costs associated with a private school. In America, due to separation of church and state, at least outside of the south, there are no federal funds diverted to support Jewish private schools. This is not in itself a bad thing. But the burden of Jewish education rests solely on the Jewish communities themselves. Meanwhile, the Goyim, and their allies the Reform, take all our money and spend it on traifus in the public schools, teaching materials on evolution Chass V’Sholom, and condoms, which they hand out to first graders.

Fact: It is quite natural that there is a spectrum of economic distribution across the many families sending their children to yeshiva. Some can afford to pay full tuition. Others are supplemented by scholarships and other funds. Access to traditional Jewish education is viewed, at least in the Orthodox world of today, as a basic need, somewhat on par with koisher, mikvah, and Metzitzah BiPeh on your birthday.

Fact: The Jewish community in general, and the Orthodox community in particular, has been spending money like a bunch of drunken sailors on shore leave. There is no cause that they will not support: Museums, community organizations in America, community organizations in Israel, groups that fight Antisemitism, groups that support Antisemitism, foundations, hospitals, Israeli settlements, political action committees, film festivals, synagogues and synagogue expansions, publications, and myriads of charities, including the schnorrers who come to my door every Sunday. By the way – and this is true – I have given my Bashert, Faigeh Breinah, full permission to flash her… umm… double daled tzitz at any schnorrer who comes to our door if that will help discourage him. And if it encourages him, she is allowed to be mezaneh with him in lieu of writing a check. (Think of this as a contribution “in kind”.)

Fact: Traditional Jewish residential neighborhoods tend to have higher costs of living, due to higher real estate values and basic laws of supply and demand. The costs are also influenced by a sociological phenomenon that is an inherent Jewish trait, which is that Yidden MUST do construction and MUST send their kids to sleep-away-camps and MUST drive large cars and MUST have a silver Atarah on their Taleysim and MUST have the biggest Lulav in the shul, etc. (Well, I sort of always have the beggest Lulav in my Kehillah, if you know what I mean.) It is this fundamental materialism that drove Yishayahu HaNavi to quote the Reboinoisheloilum as saying, “Loi Soiseephu Havee Minchas Shav Ketoiress Toiyayvah Hee Lee…Limdu Haytayv Dirshu Mishpat Ashru Chamoitz Shiftu Yassoim Reevu Almanah.” "Do not bring your worthless offerings any more, Incense is an abomination to Me...Learn to do good; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow" (Yishayahu 1:13, 17).

So, fundamentally, Jewish communities have been living beyond their means, dissipating community funds, and placing an undue burden on families: the source of our next generation. Too often, the decision makers on such policies are either the very well-off, who do not feel everyday economic pressures, and my heilikah Rabbinic colleagues, who are frequently too far removed from the economic burdens of the laity. In fact, the only time some of our Rabbis ever feel the pressures of the laity is when their underage targets reject their sexual advances (see Toirah Temimah, Hilchois Kolko).

As a result, the Jewish communities in America, AS COMMUNITIES, have viewed their relative wealth as a bottomless pit. And they have been flattered to be viewed by others, including our brethren in Eretz Yisroel, as sources of funding and “sugar daddies” for every cause, large or small. They have been blinded by their relative affluence, and have believed themselves immune to the need to make difficult decisions rooted in a fundamental truth: Every dollar that is spent outside of the community is a dollar taken away from the community. Every tzedakah outside of the school system and the community, righteous or ridiculous, comes at the expense of the Jewish Child in America.

So what is to do? There is a famous maiseh shehoya about Reb Yisroel Salanter. He was once travelling in the villages surrounding Kovno, peddling dry goods door-to-door, as well as selling shares in a non-existent company. It was Friday, and as he saw the sun setting, he realized that he would not make it home in time for Shabbos, so he rented a room at a local inn.

That evening, after davening Mairiv, Reb Yisroel asked the front desk to send two prostitutes up to his room. They quickly settled into their Oineg Shabbos activity, with one woman focusing on the raisha and the other focusing on the sayfa. As Reb Yisroel was about to complete his Makkah BaPatish, the women suddenly stopped. “Rabbi,” the leader said, “we need to charge you twenty percent extra for your Makkah BaPatish, the economy being what it is today.”

Reb Yisroel thought for a moment, and then responded. “Meidelach, you can leave now. I am not happy about it, but I will exercise my self-service option and take the discount.”

I am also reminded of an obscure machloikess between Reb Chaim Berlin and Reb Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor about a very similar dilemma to our own. In 1894 there was a shortage of funds in Byelorussia to support yeshiva education, and the regional Bais Din was convened. Reb Chaim, citing the lack of funds, suggested that all the yeshivas close down, and that the sizable Jewish community band together to overthrow the bourgeoisie, and, in his words, “purge our people’s commitment to the opiate of the masses once and for all.” Reb Yitzchak Elchanan, on the other hand, advocated the raising of additional funds for the community by selling advertising space on the noses of all the Jews of Byelorussia. In the end, Reb Yitzchak won out, and the region was able to keep all its yeshivas open. The community also made quite a hefty profit.

If we consider these two positions for our current dilemma, I personally favor Reb Chaim’s approach. However, we learn out from both Reb Yisroel Salanter and Reb Yitzchak Elchanan the most basic rules of finance: There are only two ways to address a budgetary challenge: By raising funding (revenues) or decreasing spending (costs). Or by doing both. There are no other alternatives or magic solutions.

Consequently, I believe that we must address our crisis as communities, and make difficult decisions together. Communities must build for their futures by investing for their futures. And there is no greater investment than education. Every other expense in America and elsewhere should be made a subordinate priority. And let me be perfectly clear: I am not speaking exclusively about Orthodox education. I am speaking of universally accessible, heavily subsidized, Jewish education available to all streams of Judaism for whoever wants it – Orthodox, Conservative, and, Rachmana Letzlan, Reform. Think of it as my “No Talmid left Behind” proposal.

I am also not speaking about afternoon programs, but community days schools that provide both secular and Jewish studies. We have the economic means to create this opportunity. But it will require the greatest degree of personal and community discipline because it requires us to decide what we WILL spend our money on AND what we WILL NOT spend our money on.

Rabboisai, tuition should never be a reason not to send a child for a good Jewish education. It should also never be a reason for couples not to have additional children. And, most importantly, it should never be reason for me not to get some hot adult action from my Bashert, Feigeh Breinah. Chass Ve’Chalilah my request for Tashmish HaMitah should ever be dismissed because of community concerns, and I have to go up to my bedroom alone to exercise my self-service option.

Ah Gutten Shabbos You Minuval.

3 comments: said...

اب شاء للة אמן

Anonymous said...

You're a funny man and a talented writer. I've been reading your pieces lately; thanks for the entertainment.


Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.