The Hidden Expense of High Jewish Day School Fees

When our sages wrote that ‘without sustenance there can be no Torah study,’ they certainly knew what they were on about.

How does one weigh the mitzvah of Torah study versus being fruitful and multiplying? How does one weigh the mitzvah of creating life against the very notion of bringing a life into the world without being able to give that life the precious love for Jewish learning and Jewish values that we want to provide for all of our children?

When our sages recorded the words “Ein kemach, Ein Torah”, that without sustenance, there can be no Torah study (Pirkei Avot 3:21), they knew what they were talking about. Over the past couple of years there has been no shortage of articles on the rising cost of living a Jewish life in the Diaspora. Yet perhaps the most significant impact of today’s rising costs will be the number of students tomorrow who can afford a Jewish day school education – or, perhaps, even the number of Jews.

In the United States, a quality Jewish day school education has almost reached the point where it is a luxury. For middle and lower income families it is out of reach, unless they receive generous financial aid. One might argue at first that the reason for increasing costs stems from a diminishing number of eligible students among progressive Jewish families. But the cost of Modern Orthodox day schools was listed, by the Orthodox Union’s national convention this year, as ranging from $13,000 to $31,000 per child per year, pending geographical differences.

The reasons behind rising tuition costs at Jewish institutions are undoubtedly very complicated. In the United States, day schools receive no government funding. Today, many more Jews with disposable income have decided that instead of enrolling their children in Jewish day schools that have stereotypically poorer facilities, to opt for other private schools. This leads Jewish day schools to bear new costs of maintaining flashy facilities and state of the art campuses in an effort to attract students.

Yet, at some point there is little question as to whether the decision to pass the buck on to the consumer is going to incur another type of cost on the Jewish people: one that will, too, diminish the strength of our future. My wife and I - both Jewish professionals - were astonished when we saw that the non-denominational Jewish high school I had attended had increased its fees by almost $10,000 since I began studying there fifteen years ago, while her school’s tuition had more than doubled. This left both of us, die-hard day school graduates, wondering about what tuition will be like in another five to 10 years, when the time comes to send our future children to school. And then, we were shocked to find ourselves even having a conversation about the possibility of needing to have fewer children in order to be able to afford this very precious expense.

And so if two Jewish committed professionals are trying to weigh these important values - of Torah versus being fruitful and multiplying - I can only imagine that we are not the only passionate Jewish day school graduates to feel this way.

We must never forget that the inverse of our sages’ statement is true. Im Ein Torah, Ein Kemach. Without accessible Torah study, we, the Jewish people, are at risk of losing another type of sustenance: the very souls of our people.

It’s time for Diaspora Jewish communities to tell our schools that we’ve reached our tipping point. Instead of passing the buck onto consumers, local communities and schools need to work together to find other solutions to what is increasingly becoming an unsustainable financial model.

Children in school.

Major donors who in the past have generously stepped up must reconnect with a better understanding that what is at stake in this tuition crisis is the very survival of the institutions that so many of them helped to build. For the schools, lowering tuition may not be a feasible option, but each school must begin to understand where it will have to draw its final line. Local community federations - always on the lookout for young leaders - must see to it that more of their funds find go toward allocating scholarships for its future leadership. Many synagogues in recent years have also switched to a graduated dues model based on income to ensure people pay their fair share of supporting the community, instead of a “financial aid” based model; perhaps, schools ought to consider running a similar, sustainable model.

Because if our communities don’t pay serious attention to this kemach crisis, eventually, as tuition continues to increase, schools are going to find out on their own - when their doors close and there is no more Torah. Not only because the tuition dollars have made these schools out of reach, but also because there will be increasingly too few Jews left to fill them.