The moral case for reforming the Jewish education model

The moral case for reforming the Jewish education model

Abby Wisse Schachter
Abby Wisse Schachter

Last year, in Jewish Ideas Daily, Aryeh Klapper, who is dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership and teaches rabbinic literature at Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school in Waltham, Mass., came up with a radical proposal.

Instead of every Jewish family paying for their own children’s Jewish education individually, Klapper claimed that the financial and moral burden should be radically redefined in order to change behavior of both individuals and the community.

Klapper began by positing a difficult scenario. “Imagine that someone proposes a new Jewish practice that would have the following consequences:

• Parents take second jobs, or work longer hours, that deprive them of almost all weekday contact with their children and leave them too exhausted to make Shabbat meaningful.

• Almost half of households are transformed, for years, from community contributors to charity recipients.

• Children aspiring to intellectual, creative, or service work, such as teaching (especially Torah) or other helping professions are told that these are not options because they will not produce enough money to sustain a committed Jewish lifestyle.

• For economic reasons, families choose to have fewer children.”

With this succinct formulation, Klapper exposed the current condition for many, many Jewish parents, both in Pittsburgh and across the country.

But Klapper didn’t stop there. He suggested that turning even well-off professional Jews into charity cases was morally unjustifiable.

“Financial aid applications require families to state their expenses in often-humiliating detail,” Klapper explained. “They know a committee will sit in judgment of their priorities.  A family that eats pasta all month so it can go to a movie risks an aid cut because it spends on entertainment.  A family that uses an inheritance to visit yet-unseen relatives in Israel risks a cut because it can afford travel.

“The price of poverty is often loss of privacy.  This is an evil, which we should minimize.”

Klapper also argued that it was morally inexcusable to maintain this system because it “undermines the [day] schools’ effectiveness.” How? “If our children lack Jewish passion doesn’t that bespeak parental exhaustion?  If they are materialistic, isn’t this related to their being told that their career paths are limited because they are poor?  When they show signs of being “at risk,” doesn’t this reflect lessened parental involvement?  How can children internalize the core Jewish value of human dignity and the spiritual value of financial independence when their schools make them dependent?”

Klapper then urged a solution that he modeled on a proposal by the Solomon Schechter School of greater Boston that would follow a basic structure: “Tuition is set as either a fixed percentage of income — say, 15 percent, with small adjustments for the number of children in the school — or a relatively high set amount per student, which high-income families can use if they wish to pay a lower percentage of their income. Families unable to pay even the 15 percent could, as now, apply for financial aid.”

Admitting that no system is going to be perfect and this proposal would have to pass budget tests for the existing schools in any community, Klapper argued that such a model could in fact end up changing behavior.

“Families who do not consider day school under the current system, because of uncertainties or privacy concerns, may well consider it when they know how tuition payments will relate to their income and are required to submit only the first page of their income tax returns. Families with many children will be more likely to send them to day schools; indeed, such families may grow larger over time. Wealthier and even middle-class families, who will no longer see their tuition payments as subsidizing their neighbors, may be more likely to donate.  Families without children in the schools may also be more willing to donate if day school costs are presented as a communal obligation, not a commodity for purchase.”

Some Jewish schools in our community already follow parts of this model. But it is also true that I’ve encountered committed Jewish parents who chose not to send their kids to one of Pittsburgh’s day schools because of the financial burden and insecurity over maintaining one year to the next whatever level of aid they might be promised. So I’m in agreement with Klapper regarding much of his analysis and reform proposal.

The one aspect of his case that I think needs reinforcement is the point about presenting donating to Jewish day schools as a communal responsibility rather than as a “commodity for purchase.” Pittsburgh already has a Federation that supports Jewish education among the myriad causes and communal obligations it undertakes. And we are also fortunate to live in a state where there are opportunities to receive public funds in support of some parts of day school offerings. But if the state as a whole sees supporting Jewish day schools as a value, why doesn’t the community judge such support in its own interest as well?

Obviously, making day school more affordable and fairer for the maximum number of people who might want to take advantage of the offering should be a goal for the Pittsburgh community. But making the moral case that supporting these schools whether you have kids in them or not, for the health and welfare of all Pittsburgh Jews, is worth at least some consideration.

(Abby W. Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based political columnist, blogs at