The Irony of Jewish Economics

by Glenn A. Drew

The month of May brings with it the joy of spring and the thought of summer holidays, but since the worldwide economic crash of late 2008, May has also brought with it news of yet another Jewish school closing. As the academic year comes to an end and school trustees face the devastating reality of decreased student enrollment and depleted balance sheets, they are forced to recognize that their school may no longer have the financial means to carry on another year. As of mid-May, three Jewish schools in the United States had already succumbed and I suspect more will follow by the end of June.

The Jewish press of late seems obsessed with writing about the escalating cost of Jewish education and the need to create new models for Jewish schools which are affordable to the masses. Regrettably, I find it ironic that advocates of Jewish education fail to come to their own defense in light of the constant criticism hoisted upon them. Quick to assail the empirical as well as transformative values students gain through Jewish education, which I wholeheartedly affirm, it is not enough nor should it be, to satisfy those who voice the loudest concern over the cost of a Jewish education.

I find it similarly ironic and perhaps even disconcerting that given the intellectual capacity and success in business, particularly in finance for which Jews as a people have historically garnered the world’s respect, we have not as a community focused our attention on the “business” of Jewish education. Were we to do so, I believe we would discover far less to question and far more reason to justify our ongoing investment in our Jewish educational institutions.

As a people and as Americans, despite conventional wisdom, we really do value education and recognize its importance as an investment. So much so that notwithstanding our thirst for material possessions, late last summer the Federal Reserve reported that for the first time in U.S. history, student loans topping 829 billion dollars had exceeded our nation’s total consumer debt. Why then are Jews so unwilling to invest in their child’s Jewish education? What we hear so often is that its cost is simply prohibitive. I feel confident based upon my experience as a Jewish school board member that for the majority of Jewish families with school age children, there is no denying this reality. But if we compare our own community to society as a whole, what we will find is that the vast majority of families, not only Jewish, are also unable to afford private school education. Likewise, despite the charge that Jewish education is not cost effective, in most instances around the country one will find that Jewish school tuition is at least on par with if not less than competing secular private schools. Based on “price point” alone, one must question why current financial models for Jewish education are not sustainable.

We must begin with the understanding that but for a few exceptions, Jewish schools outside major metropolitan centers of Jewish population cannot deliver high quality facilities, curriculum, teachers and extracurricular programming and still be expected to break even fiscally. The business of Jewish education does not “cash flow” and we are fooling ourselves if we believe that reducing costs and in turn quality, will permit it to do so. The fundamental economic principles of supply and demand and the cost savings gained through economies of scale cannot be applied to the relatively small Jewish school age population spread across a vast geographic area. We must also recognize that while so many are calling for cost reductions in order to appeal to a greater number of families, we reach a critical point at which reducing operating expense is of diminishing value when excellence is placed in jeopardy. Are we to expect that Jewish educators should sacrifice their families and not be fairly paid so that we may educate our own children? What more can we ask of those who have chosen a career knowing the financial rewards will be limited but whose passion for Jewish continuity is beyond reproach.

The greatest educational institutions in America be they private day schools, boarding schools, universities or public school districts, have earned their acclaim as a result of the caliber of students that matriculated and who were provided with vast resources to spark their engagement. None of these schools at their inception or even today can depend solely on tuition revenue to sustain their operations. Their success is not based upon a traditional business model and we as Jews are simply naïve if we believe that our business acumen will somehow sustain our Jewish schools otherwise. Education is dependent upon philanthropic support and endowment. It always has been and still is – Jewish education even more so. Jewish education must be continuously subsidized like all other educational institutions in order to make it affordable to all for whom it is desired. The thought that Jewish education will somehow magically reformulate itself and become self-sustaining is a fallacy. Funny, I can’t remember the last time I received a letter from my alma mater which said, “Thanks for your past support, we’ve got enough now!”

Of course there are ways in which to improve our Jewish schools and help them to operate more cost effectively but it will require paradigm shifts. The merger or consolidation of schools in certain communities; the wasteful duplication of resources across denominational lines and the competitiveness between organizations that prevent them from working together to achieve cost savings for the betterment of all are just a few of the obstacles of the past that threaten to undermine the future of our Jewish schools. But even if achieved I feel certain it is not enough. Sitting at a financial aid committee meeting this month, I found myself utterly frustrated by the dilemma placed before us. Who among us could choose between the children of the chosen people? Who among us can decide which child should receive a Jewish education and which will be denied? It is time we face this question as a community of one people with all the power to bear lest we accept that Jewish education will become a privilege of only those who hold the financial means to afford it.

Glenn A. Drew is an attorney and Executive Director of the American Hebrew Academy, America’s only Jewish pluralistic college prep boarding school.