Tuesday, July 6, 2010

One Man's Meat is Another Man's Poison

Months ago a comment on a different blog had me seeing red. That condition has not abated despite the passing of time. Perhaps the three weeks is the right time to deal with that comment publicly.

The discussion was about parents who get tuition breaks from yeshivas. Many were railing about the "obvious" luxuries that many of these parents were indulging in despite their receiving tuition reduction for their children. It seemed like anything and everything that tuition assistance families owned was under attack--cars, homes, tv's, jewelry,furnishings etc.. Also under attack was anything that smelled like a vacation, camps for the kids, household help of all stripes etc.. What the comments boiled down to was "How dare these people have X, Y and Z if they are getting tuition assistance!"

Just what is with all the kinah and sinah that is being shown with those comments? Yes, kinah and sinah. Only rarely was a comment heard that mentioned that many of the items being railed about were purchased before some of these parents had fallen on hard times. Never was mentioned that the vast majority of parents on tuition assistance are not gaming the system, are not asking for tuition breaks but still living a "rich" lifestyle with the intention of defrauding the yeshivas. I looked for and found exactly one comment among hundreds, among thousands, that had any pity for those who find themselves having to ask for tuition assistance. No one wondered or cared about how those people must be feeling to have to ask for tzedaka. Basically the comments boiled down to "Let them sell their houses and their cars and their tv's and their wives's engagement rings and let them live poor if they dare to ask for tuition assistance."

But the creme de la creme was the following: "And those people better not be having any meat in their Shabbos cholent!" Whatever credibility that the arguments had (and it was scant credibility) totally flew out the window with this comment.

We are supposed to be an Am Rachamim. We are supposed to consider all those of Klal as our brothers, not metaphorically but literally. We are supposed to be a people concerned about the welfare of our fellow Jews. And then meat and cholent get thrown into the discussion? How far have we fallen that there can be jealousy and hatred over a bite of meat on Shabbos?

Yes, tuition in our yeshivas and day schools is a big problem. Yes, there are people in our communities who cannot pay all of what is being asked in tuition. Yes, the money has to come from somewhere. But just what solutions are going to be possible, what rational approach, what logical thinking, when kinah and sinah are the organizing principles?

During the three weeks introspection is appropriate. We need to make a personal cheshbon and see where our attitudes and actions are not the ones expected of us, required of us. We need to look at our actions and feelings bein adom l'chaveroh. We need to hold ourselves in tight rein and "judge not lest ye be judged."

How sad, and how enraging as well, that we have come down to being angry and jealous about a bite of meat in another man's mouth. Is this who we are?


Anonymous said...

ProfK: I agree that the no meat in the chulent comment was mean-spirited, although it may have been a bit tongue in cheek. What steps do you see as appropriate and feasible for addressing the growing tuition/affordability problems?

Yehuda said...

Anon, even being l'chav z'chus that the comment on the cholent was tongue in cheek, it was still inappropriate even as a joke.

Don't know what the prof is going to suggest about the tuition problem but I'd suggest toning down the venom in the discussions that go on. Everyone is yelling and there's no real suggestions that are being put out.

Lion of Zion said...


"there's no real suggestions that are being put out."

plenty of "real suggestions have been put out." but we continue to reject them because we await

a) the instant panacea that will provide a 100% solution for %100 of the people
b) a solution that will preserve the status quo exactly as we know, with the exception of lowered tuition.

Lion of Zion said...


"there's no real suggestions that are being put out."

plenty of "real suggestions have been put out." but we continue to reject them because we await

a) the panacea that will provide a 100% solution for %100 of the people
b) a solution that will preserve the status quo exactly as we know, with the exception of lowered tuition.

tesyaa said...

It's a mistake to be jealous. If you are on scholarship, you are basically paying everything you have, less living expenses. If you choose to spend your living expenses on meat (or smartphones), that is OK with me. It must be very hard to be on scholarship; you have to give up any savings you have and live hand to mouth. You only do that if you are truly committed to yeshiva education.

That being said, nothing is going to roll tuition back to 1990's levels. The most we can hope for is a reduced rate of tuition increases. Despite the Prof's previous post about "private vs. PRIVATE" schooling, the community can't really afford to provide even modest private schooling to each and every frum kid - especially when large family size is also an important value.

Yehuda said...

There have been plenty of people making suggestions Lion but a suggestion is not necessarily a solution, or a good solution.

One thing that you hear a lot of is using public school as an alternative to yeshiva, with some kind of learning program in the afternoons. No, to me and to a whole lot of people this is not a solution to the problem of yeshiva tuition as it is now. That suggestion avoids even trying to fix the yeshiva system or reformulate it. I'm not going to send my kids to public school for a whole lot of reasons. Let's just leave it that public school is not a fix to what ails the yeshiva system.

Same goes for those quasi private quasi public Hebrew culture schools. If the only hallmark for being an observant Jew was being able to speak Ivrit fluently, then there are a whole lot of Israelis who would now fall in that category, and they are far from being any kind of frum.

Real fixes to the system are going to be hard to come by when everyone is throwing out suggestions that won't/don't appeal to the majority of people and that don't fix anything. Too much splintering going on. What is needed is a concensus that we can't go on this way so let's try ONE new approach and see how it works out. If it doesn't, we tried and we go on to the next approach. If it works, then good for us.

Lion of Zion said...


public/charter school is one solution. you may not like it, but that doesn't make it a bad solution. it's just not the right one for you.

but in any case, plenty of other solutions have been suggested, from home schooling, to moving to a cheaper neighborhood/suburb, to moving out of town, to aliyah, to no frills schools, to commuting to cheaper schools farther away (e.g., for teaneckers to JFS, passaic or monsey), to sending high school kids out of town (or to israel), to financial counseling and famliy planning, to better fundraising, to fighting for more government assistance, to forcing the hands of schools currently patronized to cut spending, to consolidate smaller schools. and so on.

none of these is perfect. certainly none of these is perfect for everyone. but if you sit there and nitpick why each one is objectionable or why each one is not good for everyone, nothing will ever get better for anyone.

you write about concensus. name me one other communal issue on which there is a concensus. you think that on an issue that involves parenting choices, hashkafa and wallets (as well as good old peer pressure) we are suddenly going to reach a concensus? if so this would represent mashiach and then we wouldn't have to worry about tuition anyway :)

but again, i don't think it is necessarily bad there will be no concensus. not needing a conensus can enable a more rapid resolution of the problem. instead of knocking what my neighbor does and worrying that he is going to knock what i do, i together with those who are likeminded should worry about doing what is best for ourselves.

"That suggestion avoids even trying to fix the yeshiva system or reformulate it."

my own impression unless parents are willing to pull their kids en mass, yeshivas have zero incenetive to be "fixed" or "reformulated." but as long there is a waiting list, you are going to convince the schools and communal leaders that there is a problem?

ProfK said...

Sorry, but I've been locked out of blogger comments until just now.

Going to be showing my age here but the problem is not that some of the solutions are so far out in left field that they aren't even in the ball park. The problem resides in the hind quarters of a whole lot of people with children in the system. Even beginning the solutions to some of the problems is going to require getting up and doing--a lot of vocal and physical activism, and unrelenting at that.

The schools have the parents right where they want them--afraid of their shadows. Afraid that the kids won't be accepted into the school, that the kids will be thrown out of the schools, afraid that they'll get a "bad name" in the community if they actually try to do something. And yup, when all else fails there's the old "it will be bad for shidduchim" shtick followed closely by "If you don't follow precisely what we say your children will go off the derech" shtick. Lot's of talk going on but no organized, concerted effort to give control of the schools in some areas back to the parents or to gain control in other areas. If a school should threaten dire consequences if you push them too hard, push even harder. They want to play hard ball? Play harder ball. Where in blazes are the lawyers out there? And the accountants and forensic accountants? Any one taken a school to din Torah lately for threats against parents?

Even small groups of parents will be felt and can make a difference. You don't have to have a full blown case of meningitis to require running to the doctor and getting treated. Sometimes a splinter that only occupies a small area but continuously festers is enough to make you seek a solution.

At this point in the 60s and early 70s there would have been dozens of organized rallies and community meetings. Petitions would have gone around. There would have been plenty of unrelenting pressure put on community leaders and the schools. There would have been law suits and threats of law suits.

Instead, what we have is a reliance on the other person to act, because you are all too busy to do so, or at least that's the story. And since that other person is also relying on you, nothing gets done.

First, lose the fear--it's gaining you nothing. Second, get up off those chairs and move! A revolt or revolution is NOT just lots of talking on the Internet. At some point the talking has to end and the action has to begin.

tesyaa said...

The schools will not change until significant numbers of families pull out. Not just threaten to pull out, actually pull out and stop paying. Since there's no real alternative except public school, and public school is verboten, there is no real solution to today's problems.

You can rally all day long, but if the schools are oversubscribed, they really have no need to cave to public pressure. If WNBC gets the TV cameras out, what's going to happen? Is it big news that middle class people can't afford Jewish private schools?

Lawsuits? Because a private school is too expensive? Who's the defendant?

I don't think anyone can shame the schools into action.

I do agree that today's parents don't want to go to the effort of starting their own grassroots schools in their basements, even though previous generations knew they needed to do this.

Kalman said...

According to whom are the schools oversubscribed Tesyaa? The schools? As long as the books remain closed all we have are the school's word for enrollment and for costs. Some schools have 10-15 students in a class? And if they would put in 18-20? Would the schools still claim over subscription? Yes, there are some suits that could be brought--not saying of every type. Just the fact that a suit might be filed or has been filed might get some yeshivas to be more forthcoming. Just the fact that some government regulatory agency might be coming to take a look at what is going on might be enough.

Re your significant number of parents pulling out, that significant number could be a lot smaller than you think. 20 sets of parents can represent anywhere from 20-100 students in a school. If those parents are full tuition paying or pay a significant part of their tuition you are talking real dollars. And if it were only 10 sets of parents? That's still 10-50 kids whose tuition money is lost. Now pull out that many kids each year for three years and you get a real problem for the school.

And re those public protests--don't kid yourself that the schools would do a lot to avoid that publicity. They love working in the dark and they want no one to look too closely. Focus a public spotlight on them and they are going to be pissed as hell but they are also going to do what they have to do to avoid that spotlight, even if that means having to give on some issues that bother parents.

And here's a thought. Those schools exist within communities. They are there to serve the communities, not the reverse, although that's how many of them think because no one has challenged them. I think that the Prof is right that communities need to get themselves organized and flex some muscle. The only way to deal with bullies like the schools is to out bully them, to stand up and fight back. Those schools aren't really any different from any kosher store that opens in a community or any shul. If those places don't offer what a community wants or needs the community is not going to cave in and patronize them anyway.

tesyaa said...

If 20 sets of parents put their kids in public school for 3 years, yes, that would have an impact on many schools. Now just where are you going to find those parents?

The reason the schools stay in business is because people keep sending in their registration packets and signing their tuition contracts, year after year after year. Tuition contract dates are coming up - the drop-dead date, as I like to call it. Just how many families are going to think twice and enroll the kids in public school?

Anonymous said...

Prof, you're assuming a lot about those parents with kids in yeshiva but you're basing it on what your (and my)generation would have done. This group of parents wasn't raised the same way we were and the situations are different. Yeshivas have gotten a power--darned if I know how--that they didn't have in our day. I think you're right that they use fear as a tactic to keep the parents in line. This group of parents never had to fight to get any other thing so they have no practice. A real shame, but there you have it.

Mike S. said...

1) Market economics works for yeshivas too. A yeshiva that can't find enough paying customers will either change it's approach or go out of business. Just like any other business. If they can find enough paying customers even if some people pull their kids out than, yes, they are oversubscribed. Whatever you think of their class sizes. If you think you can make ends meet running a yeshiva in a different way than the ones in your area, start a new one running it your way, either on your own or with like minded families, and see if you're right. You'll find out one way or another real fast. So will they.

2) And if a yeshivah is struggling to pay the bills then, yes, they will respond to a handful of parents who will really pull their kids out; of course, they have gotten used to parents bluffing, so they may try to call your bluff. Don't bother if you aren't prepared to do it. If you haven't got the stomach to play hardball, don't be surprised if things don't go your way.

3) Also, if what you are asking for is impossible, they can't give it to you no matter what. Let's be serious for a minute: you can't get a quality education, with good teachers, up-to-date facilities and small classes for $5,000 per kid. You'd be happy with larger classes and more run down facilities? OK, and if there are enough people who agree with you someone will make a living providing such a school. Just understand that there are plenty of parents who can and will pay more for small classes and nice facilities. And schools will respond to that market as much as they will to yours--even better if they are as many as you.

4) If you can't stand the thought of doing something different from your neighbors, don't be surprised if you aren't happy with the outcome. Sheep never get things to go their way.

Orthonomics said...

Exactly what damages should parents be bringing the schools to Beit Din/Court on? I don't understand where you are going with that. Barring cases of damage against children, the threats we are talking about are matters of opinion and not a cause for lawsuit. Where there are actual damages, certainly parents should be taking action.

I'm not afraid of my shadow. We've pretty much done what we believe is best for our children despite popular opinion of other parents, family, educators, and administrators. That said, I really don't feel like organizing "a lot of vocal and physical activism, and unrelenting at that." Maybe if there was organized activism, some of the things we would like to see would happen and tuition would go down a bit, but it isn't whimpy to be practical. For us at least, it just seems more practical to simply return our registration with a polite note that the tuition increasese are not longer affordable, or what have you, and seek an alternative without great fanfare.

I'm not afraid of disapproval (I've raised a few eyebrows and will probably continue to raise more from now until my kids marry), but there are major downsides to angering those that you might need as allies in the future. When parents can no longer make tuition work (and most people I know see that day coming), they will have to figure out their next step and Yeshivot/Day Schools will have no choice but to react to the market, just as any other business.