I write these words from Israel on the eve of Yom Hazikaron, the saddest day of the year as we remember the 23,447 casualties of war and terrorism; immediately followed by Yom Ha’atzmaut, perhaps the happiest day of the year. This roller coaster of emotions is reflective of Jewish history with its tragedies and moments of triumph. It is in Israel where tomorrow’s Jewish history is being made today. It is only here that Judaism is more than a religion – it is a way of life for a re-born nation.
As a sovereign State we have the opportunity to deal with issues that while central to Judaism have lain dormant for centuries. Economics, social welfare, taxation, health care, freedom of the press, criminal justice, transportation are some of the issues on which the Jewish State grapples with. We can remove the dust from the volumes of Jewish teaching that are now most relevant. Walking the streets of modern day Israel one begins to see the fulfillment of the dream of Rav Kook that “the old will be renewed and the new will be sanctified.”
A Jewish State means a publically funded education system. I would argue that one of the reasons we have a State today is because throughout our long sojourn in the Diaspora, Jewish communities saw to it that there would be a publically funded school system.
We today posses wealth unlike any other period in Jewish history. It is thus even more tragic to witness the rampant assimilation today – much of which would be avoided if the day school movement could be expanded. While many sadly would have little interest in Jewish education even if free, for many the main barrier is cost which for high school is approaching $30,000 a year. We can and must do better.
Throughout the 90’s and the first decade of this century few paid attention to the rising costs of Jewish education as enrollment was on the rise. But for the past eight years as the financial crisis hit and costs reached a breaking point there have been substantial decreases in enrollment to the point where the sustainability of the day school system in its current form is in serious doubt.
I was gratified to see that UJA Federation has recently included amongst its top priorities making day school affordable for middle income families - and given the costs of tuition for say three or four children a salary of some $300,000 may barely qualify as middle class.
In a recent survey conducted by Federation 75% of parents said that costs were a significant factor in deciding whether to send their children to TanenbaumCHAT. And of those whose day school education for their children will end after grade 8, 29% said that they would consider CHAT if tuition were lowered by 20%. Drop it by 30% and the number greatly increases – as the increase in tuition costs as compared to the costs of elementary school would be negligible.
To this end Federation is spearheading a pilot project in which interest free loans will be granted for up to ¼ of high-school tuition fees. It is only because of financing – with interest – that most can afford homes or cars. And financing education is commonplace at the University level. The time has come to do so at a high school level allowing many to get a Jewish education they would otherwise be unable to afford. And it is being done without impacting the amount of the tax-receipt parents will receive.
This is something that we should all embrace. Yet at the same time it is only a first step. Our goal must remain capping tuition at 10% of family income regardless of the number of children in the system. When Theodore Herzl’s intoned “if you want it is no dream” regarding the establishment of the State of Israel it took much more than wanting. Lowering tuition to 10% of income requires no more than those blessed with wealth to dream a little bigger. Our children are counting on you.