December 24, 2013

Yeshiva Tuition and Israel-Diaspora Relations

Rabbi Haber

dollar-signsWhat do the two items in this post’s title have to do with each other?   I would have thought nothing, until I stumbled across a fascinating article last week. I’ll get to the article in a few paragraphs, but first let me briefly explain the problem for those who may be less familiar with it.

Most Orthodox Jews in the United States (and a small but significant number of non-Orthodox ones as well) send their children to private day schools. As religious institutions, US law bars these schools from receiving any type of government support (federal, state or local). While donations cover some of the cost, the lion’s share falls on the parents in the form of tuition payments.

Rising education costs have driven the tuitions higher and higher, with an average day school now costing  $10,000-$15,000 per year for elementary school, and high schools often approaching or exceeding $20,000.   Summer camps (which many consider essential) add on as much as $5000-$10,000 more per year.  And most parents then send their children to Israel for at least one year, with a price tag of close to $25,000 (plus airfare and living expenses). All of this, for each child, before even beginning to think about college and graduate school.

A typical Orthodox family with, say, four children can easily see total education costs rising above $100,000 per year, after taxes.  More and more families simply can’t do it without help.  The costs continue to rise and the subsidies and additional funding are shrinking.  The term “tuition crisis” has become common in the community’s discourse, and there is talk of Orthodox parents sending children to public schools or - worse - reducing the number of children they have.  Some people are predicting nothing less than the collapse of the entire system.  Everyone agrees that something has to be done, but to date, no real solution has arisen.

So this past week, as I said, I read a fascinating article suggesting a creative solution, by Yosef Abramowitz from Kibbutz Ketura (he identifies with the non-Orthodox day school community).  I can’t say it as well as he did, so I will quote a few lines:

It is time for Israel, and the strength of her economy, to play a critical role in making day schools affordable in new ways…. The Bank of Israel could make long-term, low-interest loans available to Jewish families...or, at the very least, it could provide a loan guarantee for day school parents….

While a child is enrolled in Jewish day school, part of the [loan] repayments would be covered for parents — half by the local Jewish federation and half by the State of Israel. Payments would be frozen whenever the recipient visited Israel, whether on summer programs, junior year abroad, MASA or some other long-term program. If the recipient makes Aliya by a certain age and stays in Israel three years, then all or part of the loan would be forgiven.

The State of Israel is also creating a sovereign wealth fund to invest smartly the huge windfalls it expects from its recently discovered natural gas deposits — an estimated $125 billion over the next two decades. While Israeli education, defense, renewables and society should certainly be the major recipients of the profits here, asking the State to set aside 10 percent of the funds, or $12.5 billion, to finance affordable Jewish education around the world would radically transform lives and strengthen Israel by strengthening Jewish peoplehood.

Personally, I was blown away by this proposal, for two reasons:

1.  Let’s understand what he just said.  He wants the State of Israel to provide financial support to the American Jewish community.  Think about what this means.  For decades (actually centuries), Israel has been built and sustained through Diaspora philanthropy – it is rare to find an Israeli school, library, park, museum, hospital or other public institution that doesn’t display at least one plaque honoring donors from the Diaspora.  But now it seems that the tables are beginning to turn. Thankfully, Israel’s economy is strong and growing, and sadly, America’s continues to flounder.  It was only a matter of time before someone suggested the philanthropy should go the other way.

This may sound overly dramatic, but I see this as yet another sign of what I wrote about a few months ago: the realization of the Messianic prophecies of redemption.  The Jewish People is coming home, slowly but steadily. And as a result, the center of gravity in the Jewish world is changing. 

2.  I’m not very knowledgeable about financial matters, and I admit that Abramowitz lost me completely somewhere between LIBOR interest rates and endowment funds, but this proposal sounds like something we should seriously consider.

Jewish education, around the world, is the single most important thing to the future of our People, and our State.  Together with defense and welfare, it needs to receive the highest priority in our expenditures – and yes, we Israelis are responsible for Jews around the world.  Israeli budgets are tight also, but we must make education a top priority.  To that end, it was encouraging to read in yesterday’s news that the government will cancel further planned cuts to the funding of yeshivot, and will restore the funding for Diaspora students learning here.

A plan like Abramowitz’s, which would announce to the world that the State of Israel sees itself as responsible for Jewish education worldwide, and simultaneously strengthens the bonds and encourages Jews to come to Israel and to ultimately immigrate here, sounds like a very solid investment.  I think we should consider it.  What do you think?

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