Time To Act: Birthright Education

By: rabbi jay kelman |

First it was Leo Baeck, then it was TanenbaumCHAT and now it is Associated Hebrew Schools. Three Jewish day schools with a combined enrollment of over 3,000 students have, within the last six months, announced plans to close one of their branches. This may be shocking, but it is not at all surprising. Like the financial crisis of 2008, the signs of collapse were manifest for years, but were missed – or should we say ignored – until almost overnight, the “bubble burst”.

This blissful ignorance and unwillingness to deal with a smaller problem before it becomes a more serious one is what lies behind stock market crashes, real estate bubbles, and the collapse of once-mighty firms – we Canadians might want to think Bre-X, Nortel or even Research in Motion.  

While I shudder to think that we may be, G-d forbid, witnessing the beginning of the end of the day school movement as we have come to know it, unfortunately, such is the reality. While for many, it is too late to fix, we cannot abdicate our responsibility to the Jewish future by failing to make vigorous attempts to fix what we can. We do have the means, many times over – we are, after all, the wealthiest Jewish community in history – but tragically, we lack the will. 

As the Head of School of Associated noted, day schools will survive—for the very wealthy and the very committed.  

The notion that no Jewish child will be turned away for lack of their parents’ ability to pay is – please excuse my language – an outright lie. Not because any school wishes such, but because there is just not enough money to go around. 

As is well known, concurrent with CHAT’s closing of the northern branch was an announcement of a $14 million gift enabling tuition to be lowered to $18,500 for this upcoming year, and remain under $19,000 for the subsequent four years. Instead of a jump of upwards of $12,000 between middle and high school, the fee increase will be under $2,000. Hopefully, this will reverse the troubling trend where the number of children continuing on a Jewish high school has plummeted from 80% to 50%. Clearly, these parents value the day school system; they sent their children to day schools for ten years. The increased cost of high school is just too much. One can value something to the nth degree, but if one cannot pay for it, it matters little. 

While this wonderful gift has the potential to be the catalyst to solve the tuition crisis, it also has the potential to speed up the demise of the day school movement unless it is emulated by others. A new, lower tuition bar has been set, and there is no going back. Absent new monies and based on past trends of increase, in five years, tuition will hover close to $40,000, effectively marking the end of Jewish education for the vast majority of Jewish Torontonians. 

But even at $18,500, the system is collapsing. Many who can’t afford $29,000 – and that is most of us - can’t afford $18,500. Associated is an elementary school where tuition is already below $18,500.     

When all is said and done, it is inexcusable that a community of our wealth does not provide affordable (and sustainable) Jewish education to all those who seek it.

I urge all who have a net worth over $10 million to donate 1% of your net worth towards Jewish education. Can anyone honestly say that is asking too much? Furthermore, I beseech all those with charitable foundations to donate 5% of their assets toward Jewish education. The impact will be so much greater than donating the income earned on those monies. By making a huge difference now, you will be helping to create committed Jews who will then donate to Jewish causes, effectively leveraging your donation for so much more. Please act now before it is too late.