Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Jewish School – Time to Fix It

by Reb Akiva @ mystical roads and byways

A few posts ago I wrote about Elul as the New Year for Schoolchildren and the gehinom of the parents.  So someone responded, “ok, so what are your suggestions about it.”  Here they are…

The last 60 years have been a time of growing prosperity…for the West, particularly the United States, and for the Jewish people who’ve lived there.  Jewish people in particular have benefited from economic prosperity combined with a strong education culture, professional culture, and economic culture…


(This chart, by the Pew Foundation, shows income distribution by religion.  Jewish is the second highest in the US with 73% in the middle to high income range, and is together with Hindu being FAR above all other religions.  While Hindu immigrants to the US are traditionally upper status well educated English speakers, the Jewish immigrants of generations ago that came were uneducated refugees with no English.)

In this time of prosperity and recovery from the Holocaust, Jewish communities built religious institutions, hospitals, community centers, and schools in all areas with major Jewish population concentrations.  In recent times at the peak of the prosperity, the ultra-orthodox communities have been able to build schools at an even faster pace than the high growth rate (through high birth rate and influx of non-religious Jews choosing a religious lifestyle).

The prosperity has been high enough for the ultra-orthodox communities to move from basic (religious) needs to full service to offering every option.  Whereas 25 years ago a community would have 1 school, today there’s 4 schools to fit narrow differences in preference among the community (say a chassidic school, a litvish school, and a slightly more modern school).

Furthering the trend, increased religious education has become the accepted norm.  Every young lady goes to “out of town” (and often in Israel) seminary for 1 year after high school (and often extends it to 2 years).  Every young man leaves high school for mesifta, where they’ll learn for 2-5 years until they get married…at which point they’ll enter kollel for another 2-10 years.

Educational institutions to accommodate a Torah education from age 3 until 30 have popped up everywhere.

Between support from the religious communities as well as support from the less religious (Conservative and Reform) Jews, the prosperity lifted all boats.

But 3 trends have converged to change the situation. 

First, the older generation of less religious Jews is leaving or has left this world.  Those who remember their ultra-orthodox grandparents and therefore can relate to funding Torah institutions are going, going, gone. 

Second, the increased emphasis on deeper and longer in-depth Torah learning has resulted in less professional Jews coming out of the community.  Less doctors, lawyers, and accountants means less reasonably wealthy families to assist the institutions, and more poorer families needing communal assistance.

Third is the economic downturn.  Beyond the general societal impact, financial industry work is a traditional profession for the Jewish community (for lots of bad historical reasons, but it is the case).  As the financial industry is at the dead center of this economic storm, many a Jewish family has lost their livelihood and many others have lost their fortune.  Worsening it is the point that a number of the purveyors of risk were Jewish financiers.  That being the case not only individuals but many Jewish institutions invested their cash in high return leveraged areas, resulting in many institutions “losing it all” and others only losing a nice chunk of change (example, Yeshiva University’s loss of $110 million to Bernie Madoff).

The net result of these trends is that orthodox Jewish communities have become much poorer in the past two years.  And while “G-d will help” the odd trend of the community is NOT to help itself but to rely exclusively on G-d.  At the moment when the community desperately needs to be preparing the next generation to generate the prosperity needed for it’s growth rate and future, the leadership is grappling with the influx of modern trends by pushing away from the secular education and associated skills necessary to be highly successful.  “Better a poor Jew than one drawn away from Hashem and Torah” is a path that will lead to communal infrastructure collapse and many of those Jews turning to other paths to simply survive.

(This trend is accelerated in Israel where the orthodox community has the political clout and votes necessary to leverage the country into providing a sufficient level of socialist benefits to survive, but where their growth rate will make it impossible for the country to continue to provide those benefits without the orthodox massively increasing their contribution to the economy. 

For example, you can make “free health care” a benefit everyone is “entitled to”, but you can’t force doctors to provide it for free.  If the doctors don’t feel they’re getting paid enough for their work, they can choose not to work or enter another profession.  And if doctors aren’t getting paid enough to live and cover their education costs, then young people aren’t going to enter the field.  The result shortly after offering such a benefit is a “right” which no one receives.)

Back to the main topic, schools.  Times have changed.  The communal patterns of the past generation, just 3 years ago, are no longer valid.  The orthodox community can no longer afford the prosperous practices of that long past time.  And waiting out the downturn isn’t a solution, the current trends are set and the free flowing money time of the past generation is gone.

What to do?

1. The communities can no longer support multiple schools for each different sub-sect within the community.  Multiple small schools need to be merged together.

2. Small classroom sizes are great when you can afford it.  That time is past.  Classes must be merged together until each class reaches the point of covering it’s operating costs (not the magical tuition numbers nobody can really pay, but the real money brought in by the group of students).  In some cases this may mean merging two grades together.  There is no choice. 

3. Professional school administration is critical.  Instead of staffing the administration with family members (and inflating it to give a niece or nephew a job), the business skills of the community must be leveraged to make a professionally run organization.

4. Orthodox Jewish schools within a geographic region need to form themselves into a “school district”.  The point of a district is to combine certain administrative functions (such as purchasing) and get the discounts available with large purchases.  The fact the litvish school doesn’t say good things about the chassidic school in the next town (and vice versa) is a luxury we can no longer afford.  Now they have to work together for the communal good!

5. Larger institutions are able to accommodate different children’s needs.  Having a higher-level class, an average class and a remedial class is reasonable and possible if you’ve got 90 children in that grade – and therefore the parents don’t need to try to cover special tutoring or other such problems because the children don’t fit in the single average class.  Merge, grow, and accommodate.

6. Key communal orthodox Jewish institutions are absolute musts.  While we just had 60 years of democratic capitalistic communal growth, empowering our rabbinic leadership to determine the key institutions that need to be funded and leveraging a communal tax or dues is appropriate.  The mikveh, the school, the shul – we have to cover the basics and probably can do so if they’re a communal focus and operated reasonably well.

7. The current “Torah scholar or nothing” educational focus of the school system (and marriage market) turns a solid segment of our young people into losers.  A significant segment of our young people can become very successful businessmen and the foundation of financial support of the Torah institutions for the next generation.  Would we rather have them as “Torah scholar drop outs” or “big supporters of the yeshiva”?  To turn them into the successful supporters we as a community must validate that as an option.

8. Building higher walls around the community to prevent the penetration of secular society is a losing proposition.  Turns out 3G cell phone service and wifi connectivity penetrates everywhere.  If we cut ourselves off from the tools of the future we’re going to find ourselves at a significant economic disadvantage at a time when we can’t afford it.  Instead we need to co-opt them into a kosher use style.  Kosher certified web sites, Jewish religious internet service providers (ISP’s), orthodox app’s for the iPhone and other smart phones, and flooding the internet with the massive quantities of Torah content our communities produce can provide a positive environment for use of the most modern tools – and allow the minds of our community to find new and better uses that they can also sell to the world.  And proper use of such tools should be part of our education.

That’s my prescription for the survival of Torah education in a form reasonably similar to what exists today.  Our leaders must stand up and take action today for a better tomorrow.  G-d willing, they’ll do so.

A quick google on the topic found these.  We can act before the list grows!

- Jewish day school closes, Clearwater Florida.
- Jewish private school closes, Howell NJ.
- Jewish orthodox school system (8 schools) files for bankruptcy, Southern New Jersey.
- Beis Yaakov closes, Lakewood NJ.
- Hebrew High closes, Kansas City.
- Two Yeshiva’s to be evicted for over $1 million in owed rent, Toronto.
- Yeshiva Bais HaTorah closes, 350 students without school, Lakewood NJ.


  1. For example, you can make “free health care” a benefit everyone is “entitled to”

    Free health care is not an entitlement. This is how socialism and communism starts. I came from the Soviet Union where health care was free. I do not think you want to have this type of health care. If you do, come to my house and I will perform surgery :)

  2. You did the religious readers a big favor, by shining some light on this critical situation. When one reads about a shouting protest in front of a religious bookstore in Beit Shemesh, with insults thrown at the Israeli Chief Rabbi, Just for buying a book in that store, one needs to highlight education and Middos.

    Hashem is moving His children in the right direction ever so slowly. The religious element needs to move together to accomplish the best for it's children's future.

  3. Very well said. The opportunity for the Haredim to take control of their future is at hand but who and how it will it occur? Will the rabbi's have he chutzpah to be dynamic and direct it, or will the revolution come from below, and perhaps uncontrolled?

    I had the opportunity by chance to speak with a Haredi student recently that I would have never had the opportunity to meet otherwise, and he was literally crying to me about being sick of living in poverty and not being able to provide for his family on his wife's salary and his bursury alone. He told me how he desperately wanted to work, but how many employers here (Israel) advise him at interviews that their company is simply 'not the right place for him'. His wife also received some of that and is now learning a master's degree. He says he's relegated to studying full-time instead for the stipend it provides. Very enlightening discussion. I told him that now is the right time for the change. To have Haredim flood the army with kids, the army will be forced to change drastically. Create Haredi hesder yeshivot. My new friend also spoke of the Haredi housing crunch, I told him that he could replicate the success (mostly) of the Dati-leumi-torani garinim which settled in various cities and in several have created a religious community from scratch or strengthened a dying one into a young rejuvenated one instead.

    R Akiva, can you get your message to the rabonnim?

  4. I think that you might have overlooked something important. The actual cost of providing top knotch education is about half of the asking tuition price. The reason for the hyperinflated price are mainly (1) tuition subsidies and (2) top heavy administrative costs. One way to lower cost while enhancing education (and not making the 'sacrifices' that you mentioned) is to go to a Cooperative model. Check out the success that the Jewish Cooperative School in Florida is having. They have gained international attention including a grant from the OU to write a manual for setting up such a school. Tuition is low, classroom sizes are capped at 12 and that is often with an assistant teacher.


Welcome to Mystical Paths comments. Have your say here, but please keep the tone reasonably civil and avoid lashon hara.

Your comments are governed by our Terms of Use, Privacy, and Comments policies. We reserve the right to delete or edit your comments for any reason, or use them in a future article. That said, YOU are responsible for YOUR comments - not us.

Related Posts with Thumbnails