The (Day School Affordability) Community Torah Value Crisis

by David Magerman

The Jewish Day School world is flooded with conversation about The Affordability Crisis. Even the most committed families, the Orthodox and observant Conservative Jews, are questioning whether the system is sustainable.

The concerns about the unbearable cost of day school to parents are certainly real, but they are misdirected. The problem is not simply a matter of affordability. Affordability is the ability of the recipients (customers) of a product to afford to pay for it. The problem is that all of the recipients or beneficiaries of the product aren’t paying their share.

Consider the following ludicrous proposal: Jewish children should be responsible for paying for their own education. To be fair, let’s start this program at kindergarten. Five- and six-year-olds should pool together their tooth fairy money and cash in the bonds they received at birth, scraping together whatever they can to pay for their first year of school. The resulting educational program would be, dare I say, inadequate.

So what’s the logical flaw in this proposal? Many of the real recipients of the benefits of the education aren’t paying for it. While the students may be getting the education, their parents are benefitting too, in countless ways. They are having their obligation to educate their children met by the school. Their kids are learning values that will make them productive, self-sufficient members of society and hopefully instill in them the sense of obligation to care for their parents as they age. Parents get significant value out of their children’s education, so it makes sense for them to pay for it.

In the real world, of course, parents are paying for their children’s education. But we are still living in the ludicrous land where the vast majority of the beneficiaries of day school education aren’t paying for it. Who are the real beneficiaries of Jewish day school education? Let’s look at this question more closely.

Consider the position of Jews in society. Why are we safe? Why aren’t we being persecuted now, like we have been throughout history? Some would say it’s because of the freedoms accorded to us by virtue of being Americans. But to conclude that is to ignore history. We have been persecuted in America, as have other minorities, even though the U.S. Constitution has always suggested it should be otherwise. And we have had freedoms in other times and other lands.

We are free and safe because it is in the interests of the leaders of the lands we inhabit in Diaspora to afford us freedom and safety. Throughout history, Jews have been leaders in medicine, science, philosophy and government, to the extent that we have been allowed to be. Even in lands where we have been reviled, our doctors have been welcomed into palaces to treat the royal and infirm.

So, we have to ask ourselves, why do the Jewish people survive, and frequently thrive, in almost every era and almost every country we have gone to in exile? The answer is the one constant that Jews have always had throughout time and everywhere we have gone: Torah. We thrive because we are the People of the Book. We teach our children Torah. We live our lives by Torah. And by that formula do we become, time and again, necessary to the lands we live in, regardless of whether we are loved or hated. Eventually, our success has bred jealousy and resentment, and we have been driven out. But first we are successful.

Sadly, we are now working hard to break this chain by convincing ourselves that the reason for our success in America is freedom and assimilation. We tell ourselves that we came to America as nothing, with nothing, and America and freedom made us great. This is so terribly ignorant and misguided. It ignores history. It ignores the disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes awarded to Jews around the world. It ignores the backgrounds of the immigrants who came here around the turn of the 20th century and formed the backbone of the modern American Jewish community. Those immigrants grew up in Torah-observant communities, and even if they didn’t observe Judaism in their American homes or even teach Torah explicitly to their children, the residue of their Torah-infused upbringings impacted their children and even their grandchildren.

All of the members of the Jewish community are beneficiaries of a Torah-educated Jewish people and all should bear its cost, each according to his or her ability to pay. The Jewish billionaires and millionaires who gained their riches by being welcomed and productive members of the world economy, benefit from the Jewish people being Torah-educated. Jewish parents and grandparents who want their children and grandchildren to be safe in America need for us to continue to learn Torah, to continue to maintain our relevance in society as a people. As we have learned time and again, we will always be Jewish in the eyes of others. But if we stop being Jewish to ourselves, if we stop learning and following Torah, we risk irrelevance and uselessness as a people, which is one step away from losing our freedom.

We don’t have a Day School Affordability Crisis. We have a Community Torah Value Crisis. We choose not to support Jewish Day Schools because we don’t value Torah education as an end unto itself. We allow secularists to frame the discussion. We talk about day school as an alternative to public school or secular private school. We talk about the extracurricular activities, the excellence of the math and English teachers, the way in which day school promotes “Jewish identity,” whatever that means. But we seem to be afraid of talking about G-d and Torah.

We need to start promoting Jewish Day School for what it is: Torah education that perpetuates our advantage in the world. If we want our children to keep winning Nobel prizes, making outsized paychecks, taking leadership roles in the world, we need to encourage Jews to study Torah. Children need to start when they are young. Adults who don’t know any Torah need to study it, both to get an appreciation for its relevance and so they can practice its moral and ethical teachings, if not its ritualistic ones.

The Jewish community can afford to educate its children. That is just a mathematical fact. If you add up the net worth of all of the Jews around the world, the Jewish community cumulatively has enough resources to pay for all of our Jewish educational needs. We just need to make it understood that Torah education for everyone is a communal need and the highest priority. If everyone studied Torah from childhood, we would all know about our communal responsibilities and we would naturally devote resources to fulfilling our obligations to the rest of the world. But the knowledge of what our obligations are stems from Torah, and if we don’t teach that to our children and our adults, we’ll never realize we aren’t living up to what is expected of us.

So let’s stop saying we can’t afford day school and start talking about how we can’t afford not to have day school. Let’s convince the beneficiaries of millennia of Jewish education, the wealthy and powerful and successful secular Jews in America, that they need to feed our children’s minds and souls with Torah, or else perhaps no one will think to feed, clothe and house them when they are old and in need.

David Magerman is President and Founder, Kohelet Foundation.