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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

I am a longtime fan of Rabbi Gil Student. His blog TorahMusings.com provides a platform for thoughtful insights in the Modern and Centrist Orthodox community and his column in The Jewish Link is generally informative and sound.

I therefore was disappointed in his Oct. 19 column, “The Hidden Cost of Tuition,” which I found fraught with vapid simplicities and unsupported contentions.

  1. Student echoes the recent Nishma survey that cites costly private-school tuition as a top concern for Modern Orthodox families. He then then proceeds to endorse expansion of “no-frills, shalom-bayit schools” as a solution to soaring costs.

My difficulty is not with his proposal as a viable alternative, but in Rabbi Student’s presentation—portraying those schools that offer extensive extra-curricular programming and resources as culprits of marital stress and forcing too many wives to have to work to augment household income, and “shalom bayit” schools as a bane to happier parents, happier children, happier homes.

I am not against the so-called “shalom bayit” schools more commonly found in center-right and yeshivish communities. They are more affordable and, as Rabbi Student acknowledges, they come with far fewer extra-curricular programs or resources.

What I respectfully challenge is his Disney-like fantasy that these no-frills schools yield greater peace in the home. He writes, “…these are shalom bayit schools, because, for many in the community, they relieve some of the financial stress that often translates into marital stress and medical problems. … In communities where shalom bayit schools do not exist, the tuitions often are double what we described and the financial pressure and its attendant family stress even greater.”

He then suggests that these shalom-bayit schools are more likely to produce (or retain) more religious children—“parents struggle for decades, sacrificing greatly to pay for a yeshiva education that has a significant chance of failure. We can sacrifice less for a higher chance of success...”

Examined uncritically, Rabbi Student puts the onus on those of us who embrace serious academic, highly enriched Orthodox day schools. Why should we fight for such schools when we could simply roll out no-frill schools for half the cost?

Here are just a few reasons why:

Engaging the World. If one subscribes to Rav Soloveitchik’s belief in synthesis, America’s religious Jews have the opportunity to engage the world more effectively and meaningfully attending high schools like TABC, MTA, Frisch and others. I work in media and have had the opportunity to engage while retaining my religious observance. To hopefully be an “or lagoyim” (a light unto the nations), we must interact with people of different backgrounds while standing upright in our mesorah. We seek to raise children who will be shomrei mitzvot and participate in improving the quality of society both in the Jewish community and beyond.

Parnasa. It is not a secret that most rebbeim and teachers in “shalom bayit” schools are forced to take second—and often third—jobs as their primary salaries rarely top $45,000-$50,000. One of the reasons day-school tuition is higher is because they pay their faculty and support staff living wages.

Stress. No disagreement that the higher the tuition, the greater likelihood for financial stress in the home. But there are other stresses that I’ve seen play out more substantially in the “shalom bayit” schools. First, the hashkafic path is considerably more narrow. Kids who do not conform are often expelled or not invited back, placing great pressure on parents to find a school for those children. I have seen countless teenagers veer off the derech in the more yeshivish schools because they did not perfectly conform. Interestingly, many of these kids switched to the more expensive Modern Orthodox day schools and fit comfortably. They were never “off the derech”; rather, they were in a program that straightjacketed their personal and religious development.

In addition, most of these no-frills yeshivot do not endorse higher education (perhaps other than Touro and perhaps Yeshiva University). As a result, they are producing a generation of students who may face greater financial stress to even meet the cost of “shalom bayit” schools.

Total Person. What I have loved about our own experience with both Yeshivat Noam (primary school) and Yeshivat Frisch (high school) is their embrace of the total child. The schools offer a wide arrange of high-quality afterschool programs that allow kids to grow religiously, athletically, artistically and intellectually. These schools embrace a wide range of chesed opportunities and endorse the importance for religious Jews to actively care about one another and about non-Jews (e.g., widespread drives for hurricane victims). Sadly, I find few “shalom bayit” schools that talk about, no less do anything about, tragedies that fall outside of the Orthodox world. All too often, kids attending these “shalom bayit” schools are myopic and struggle to interact with anyone other than fellow Orthodox Jews.

Special Needs. The many no-frills schools I’ve come across offer scant services to accommodate families of children with even modest to moderate special needs. Conversely, we have seen kids categorized and rejected by “shalom bayit” yeshivot who were accepted into Modern Orthodox day schools and received the services they need.

Like most things in a retail market, choice is good. But buyers must always be aware that you get what you pay for.

By Mitch Morrison

 Mitch Morrison is a Passaic resident.

Rabbi Gil Student responds:

I thank Mitch Morrison for his thoughtful response. He highlighted many good reasons to pursue excellence in education. I am all for excellence in education as long as we mitigate the costs, not just in dollars but in people. Quality of education is a broad spectrum. We can hire a team of professors to tutor every student but we don’t because the cost would be prohibitive. The cost today is still prohibitive.

In a prior article, I mentioned discussion of the “tuition crisis” in 1995. Twenty-two years later, it has only gotten worse. Orthodoxy has to decide whether it will be an elite club of the upper class. In Israel, there are Orthodox bus drivers and sanitation workers. We don’t see that in the US because people with those careers cannot afford to be part of the Orthodox community. That is a hidden cost beyond the sticker price of tuition.
 
In response to my article, some people have pointed out other ways to reduce tuition costs. If they work, I think they are great. My only concern is lowering the cost and maintaining people’s dignity and happiness.