Resolving The Yeshiva Tuition CrisisBy: Elliot B. Pasik
We've all heard various proposed solutions to the chronic yeshiva and day-school tuition crisis: government vouchers, Federation support, Operation 5% (collecting five percent of assets from the estates of deceased Jews), and, most recently, Jonathan Isler and Kenny Gluck's Lawrence Plan, which would require the government to pay the salaries of secular-subject teachers.
Each of these ideas has merit, but also practical and legal drawbacks (or at least hurdles). Moreover, the implementation of one or more of them is unlikely to provide any immediate, significant relief to overburdened Orthodox parents. While the Lawrence Plan appears, in my opinion, to be the most promising, church-state legal issues clearly constitute an issue that must be dealt with.
Is it possible, however, that we have overlooked one solution commanded to us in our holy Torah? It certainly is, and the solution – though not without its own hurdles – is one that has been utilized successfully by Muslim countries, various religious groups, public and private schools – as well as by Jewish communities in pre-war Europe.
The solution is tzedakah and maaser – charity and tithing – giving 10-20 percent of our wealth to Jewish education as well as other worthy causes. We Jews are the caretakers of God's world, and that includes our wealth. "Mine is the silver, and mine is the gold – the word of God, Master of Legions" (Chaggai, 2:8).
The commandments of tzedakah and maaser are the manifestation of this lofty principle. The Rambam states that it is our duty to be more scrupulous ("l'hazir") in the performance of the mitzvah of tzedakah than any other positive commandment. (See The Laws of Tzedakah and Maaser by Rabbi Shimon Taub, Mesorah, 2001.)
The question, of course, is how exactly we do this. On a communal basis, how do we effectuate the mitzvot of tzedakah and maaser so that our yeshivas and day schools are securely funded and Jewish parents are given some tuition relief?
The solution is three-part. First, a Jewish Tax Return; second, a United Yeshiva and Hebrew Day School Fund; and third, the establishment of the National Association of Yeshiva and Hebrew Day School Parents and Friends.
The Jewish Tax Return
Currently, every modern nation pays for its educational system through taxes. And the children in those nations get educated. It wasn't always this way. In medieval times only the children of royalty and other elite classes were educated. The founding of the U.S. in 1776, with its ethos of democracy and egalitarianism, mostly changed that. Compulsory, universal education followed and gradually became the norm here and nearly everywhere else.
For Jews, it has been this way for millennia – until now. V'shinantam l'vanecha, you will teach your children, has been the secret of our survival, our prosperity, our happiness – and our disproportionate share of Nobel Prizes.
As practiced in America today, however, Orthodox Judaism has made v'shinantam l'vanecha a financial exercise in torture except for the rich. Our high tuitions scare away countless American Jew who might otherwise consider a day school education for their children. Little wonder, then, that American Jewry suffers from a 52 percent intermarriage rate.
A Jewish Tax Return might change things. A few knowledgeable rabbis and accountants need to hammer out a form and worksheet, not unlike IRS Form 1040, detailing income, assets, liabilities, expenses, deductions, and all other relevant financial criteria, and the bottom line would state an amount to be paid as tzedakah and maaser – a nice chunk of which would go to Jewish education.
In reality, there is one class of Jews who already do fill out a de facto Jewish Tax Return – the masses of middle class and poor parents who fill out school scholarship forms and pay a disproportionate and inequitable share of their income and assets to educate their children. In doing so, many fall into debt, practice early birth control, and suffer domestic strife – even divorce.
At a minimum, the Jewish mother, once the bulwark of the fabled Jewish home, is sent unceremoniously into the workplace while her children are raised, to a large degree, by a patchwork of housekeepers and child care workers. Modern studies bear out that families with a working – as opposed to a stay-at-home – mother suffer a greater share of social problems such as smoking, drinking, drugs, abuse, and kids-at-risk. (See Home Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes by Mary Eberstadt, Sentinel, 2004.)
Surely this inequitable state of affairs needs to be fixed. All Jews, not just parents, need to pay their fair share of "Jewish taxes," just as the Torah prescribes. Jewish taxes need to be paid by the rich, the super-rich, the middle and working classes, the young marrieds, the grandparents, the singles, the childless, the rabbis, the newly observant – in short, everybody.
America's Founding Fathers said "no taxation without representation." They never said "no taxation" period.
The Midianite priest Yitro (Jethro) once had a great idea and decided to approach Moshe directly. Moshe, he said, your current system of dispensing justice is inefficient. You need to establish intermediate courts. Moshe recognized that Yitro was right, and it was done. (For an illuminating discussion of parshas Yitro, see Eyes to See, ch.22, by Rabbi Yomtov Schwarz, Urim Pub., 2004.) In that spirit, let us look at what some other religious and educational institutions have done in this area and see what we can learn.
The Mormons are the prime example. The Mormon religion was founded in 1830 in New York State by Joseph Smith. Today, Mormons number about 5 to 6 million in the U.S. and about 12 million throughout the world – numbers very similar to those of the Jews. The Mormon Church is also very, very rich. Why? Because Mormons tithe. Every Mormon annually meets a church elder in a "settlement" to determine the amount of his tithe (not so dissimilar to the scholarship parent annually meeting a yeshiva's executive director).
According to Time magazine religion editor Richard Ostling's 1999 book Mormon America (HarperCollins), the Mormon Church is conservatively worth $35 to $40 billion. It owns vast real estate, oil and mineral holdings in Utah and elsewhere. There are also prominent wealthy Mormons who are known to tithe, including two Marriotts, the famed hoteliers. (Ironically, many Jewish communal functions are held at Marriott hotels.)
Another example is the Manhattan Country School. Who? Let me explain.
I subscribe, via e-mail, to Education Week. One day, as I was on the magazine's website, I typed the word "tithe" into the search field, and what came back was a remarkable January 19, 1982, article by Alex Heard titled "Novel Funding Plan For Private Schools Termed Successful."
The article tells the story of the private Manhattan Country School, founded in 1965 and located on East 96th Street, just off Fifth Avenue. In 1972 this lieral-minded school adopted a "tuition-reform plan." Families below the poverty line are required to pay as little as three percent of their income, and families at or above median income level pay up to 10 percent of their income. Higher income families pay an additional "mandatory commitment." Each family's tuition is calculated through a mandatory financial disclosure worksheet, available on the school website (ManhattanCountrySchool.org
The tuition-reform plan came about through 38 public meetings with active participation by three-quarters of the parents. According to the plan's two authors, Arthur Vitullo-Martin and Frank Roosevelt, enactment of the plan had the benefit of not only securing the school's financial health, but also decreasing the divisiveness between the "haves" and "have-nots." Roosevelt, an economics professor at Sarah Lawrence College, cited the inequity of the traditional scholarship system, under which families receiving scholarships had to provide full financial disclosure while full-tuition families did not.
The scholarship families also felt they had less influence on the school than wealthier families. Vitullo-Martin, research director at Metroconomy, a public policy research firm, stated that the Manhattan Country School plan would be particularly apt for religiously-affiliated schools, because the plan asks parents to return to the traditional practice of tithing.
The school's website contains several reports detailing the history and philosophy of the unique tuition plan. In one notable passage Vitullo-Martin writes, "For some Orthodox . . . Hebrew Day Schools, [adoption of] the [Manhattan Country School] tuition reform plan involves no radical change at all, since those communities expect parents to contribute according to their means. The tuition reform plan will help formalize an expectation already existing in those schools [emphasis added]."
A similar example comes from the University of California, the nation's largest state university system. Faced with rising costs and the political impracticality of raising taxes, state legislators devised a plan in July 2003 to charge students with family incomes exceeding $90,000 as much as $3,000 more per year.
Now let's take a hypothetical step. Orthodox Jewry adopts the Jewish Tax Return, or a tuition-reform plan akin to the Manhattan Country School plan. To whom would we write our checks?
The United Yeshiva and Hebrew Day School Fund
The Mormon Church has raised billions for its schools and institutions. So has the Catholic Church throughout America. The United Negro College Fund has also raised billions.
As a tuition-paying parent, I find it shocking that no comparable body exists in the Jewish world to which someone can make a contribution. A philanthropist who likes yeshivas and desires to give, but wishes to do so collectively, lacks an address to which he can send a check.
This is no small omission on our part. In April 2003 a report issued by the Institute for Jewish & Communal Research, authored by Gary Tobin and Jeffrey Solomon, found that only six percent of the $5.3 billion in mega-gifts Jews donated to individual institutions between 1995 and 2000 went to Jewish institutions. A mega-gift is $10 million or more.
"Something is wrong," said Gary Tobin, president of the institute. "This study points to a very serious problem in Jewish philanthropy and in the Jewish philanthropic structure."
Might it be that the "something wrong" is the simple lack of a well-promoted Orthodox name and address to whom philanthropists can direct donations? Perhaps. But we won't know unless we try, and we won't get unless we ask.
We need to establish a United Yeshiva and Hebrew Day School Fund.
If a Jewish Tax Return or tuition-reform plan were to be created, decisions would need to be made on where to direct the money – how much to the parents' yeshiva, howmuch to the newly-established United Fund, and how much to other worthy causes. And once the United Fund were established, how much money, and to whom, would it distribute? How much would it invest and deposit in stocks, bonds, and banks in order to generate income and interest?
These would be pleasant decisions to make compared to the type of decisions being made today in yeshivas – i.e., whom do we pay first, the oil company or the electric company?
A National Association of Parents
Finally, how do we, the parents, get these and other ideas for raising money for Jewish education heard where it counts – and then put into action? Currently, there is no forum for us aside from letters to the editors of Jewish newspapers, which, I believe, have been of help in keeping this issue alive.
My own thought, as I wrote in a letter to this newspaper some months back, is that, yes, klal Yisrael needs one more organization: a National Association of Yeshiva and Hebrew Day School Parents and Friends. The agenda would consist of promoting tzedakah and maaser for yeshivas and day schools; pursuing all other funding sources, including the Lawrence Plan; counteracting domestic strife, abuse, and other social ills; improving secular studies; and enhancing our children's physical health through a proper school-based regimen of diet and exercise.
Will accomplishing these goals be easy? Of course not. The status quo is never easy to change. Pessimism, cynicism and apathy can be our greatest enemies. And who wants to pay taxes – American taxes, Israeli taxes, or Jewish taxes? The answer, of course, is that the Torah wants us to pay taxes – and therefore we shouldwant to pay them.
The Chofetz Chaim famously said that when he was young, he tried to change the world; and when he didn't succeed he tried to change Lithuania; and when he didn't succeed there he tried to change Vilna; and when he didn't succeed with that he finally resolved to change himself and he did – and it was then that he was able to change Vilna, Lithuania, and the world.
I humbly believe that we Jews need to do the same on a communal basis. For too long we̓ve been seeking funds for our schools from the government and secular Jewish organizations, and have mostly failed. Perhaps Orthodox Jewry first needs to change itself – and then everything else will follow.
Elliot B. Pasik is an attorney who practices serious personal injury law and general civil litigation in Manhattan. He was the proponent and drafter of the May 2005 Rabbinical Council of America resolution supporting passage of legislation requiring all nonpublic schools – including yeshivas and day schools – to perform criminal background checks on all employees who have contact with children.
Readers interested in the ideas expressed in this essay can contact Mr. Pasik at email@example.com