Jewish institutions have been closed in the short term and may need to be radically reorganized in the long term. Financial resources have been stretched. Some people and organizations may not recover.
At the start of the pandemic, Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz argued that, especially for Modern Orthodox, COVID challenged expectations of the easy ability to observe halakha while having the comfort and access that the community took for granted. Concretely, for many Orthodox Jews, the observance of halakha seemed likely to cause discomfort, even pain.
At the onset of COVID, when it looked like the pandemic would fundamentally reorganize and disrupt the image of modern Orthodoxy, Schwartz asked: what happens when a religious movement that emerges from a moment of abundance and expansion, which experiences material abundance and expansion and develops an ideology to value intellectual and religious expansion, which builds its institutions on an assumption of abundance and expansion, confronts scarcity and lack ?
What happens when we have to prioritize which institutions survive, where resources are allocated, who is allowed to come to the shul? What happens when these questions force us to ration ourselves, to make very hard choices that we didn’t have to make when circumstances allowed us to do both/and?
As someone who has spent more than 20 years as an administrator, researcher and teacher in the field of Jewish secondary and post-secondary education, Schwartz is uniquely qualified to examine the issues facing Jewish day schools, including the tuition cost.
The Horvitz Scholar in Residence Lecture Series, in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston and the United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, will feature Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz live and virtually February 17-20.
Schwartz is scheduled to speak “On Civics and Soda Cans: Towards a Modern Jewish Ethic of Citizenship” on Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. She must present “What is it?” on February 18 at noon.
On February 18 and 19, Schwartz is scheduled to be the UOSH Shabbat Fellow-in-Residence. His live talk topics will include “Being an Ivri in the Smartphone Age” at 11:30 a.m. on Shabbat, and “There’s no such thing as the tuition crisis and it’s a conversation starter.” at 5:20 p.m.
On February 20, she will speak virtually on “Disagreeing Without Delegitimizing” at the Jewish Federation’s Yom Limmud at 9:15 a.m.
Dr. Press Schwartz is Associate Director, General Studies and Co-Director of the Machon Siach Research Institute at SAR High School in Bronx, NY; and as a faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His current research projects include work on substance use among Modern Orthodox adolescents, as well as race, class, and American Jewry. She writes and lectures extensively on issues of contemporary importance to North American Jewry.
To understand modern Orthodoxy, we must consider “Orthodoxy” in its larger social, economic and cultural contexts, Schwartz told JHV.
Since the latter part of the 20th century, the American Modern Orthodox community has enjoyed remarkable success.
Modern Orthodox Jews are the wealthiest subgroup of American Jews. They built a huge communal infrastructure of schools, shuls and institutions. Members of the community are increasingly educated in a Jewish way and have an advanced secular education. They participate in scholarly and popular culture, in public life, in the liberal professions.
They have taken full advantage of the breadth of opportunity afforded to us by American acceptance, material success, and career and educational opportunities.
But the cost of maintaining this infrastructure continues to rise. Take, in particular, the tuition crisis or, more specifically, the cost of sending young people to Jewish day schools. Community observers, both inside and outside, see this as the biggest challenge and threat facing the community.
Schwartz asks: What do we want our day schools to do? Do parents have to bear the tuition fees alone?
“Some critics offer band-aid solutions to reduce the costs of day schools and yeshiva,” Schwartz said. “But, I can tell you that these proposals will not significantly reduce tuition fees. “We spend most of our money hiring people. The people we hire do the work we ask them to do. Eighty percent of the school’s budget is spent on salaries and benefits for our employees. Our schools generally deal with children with emotional needs. I don’t think anyone in our community wants to ignore that.
“Compare this to the US budget deficit. If you ask what we should cut to balance the US budget, people will say “foreign aid”. It’s actually 1% of the budget. The government spends most of its money on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, or the military. So you have to find another way to balance the budget.
“We may need to stop looking at Jewish school tuition through a user fee model. The Jewish community will have to move towards a community model. We need to come to a place where we realize that we are collectively served by an educated Jewish community.
“School psychologists are not superfluous. Religious experiences don’t feel like an extra. People may say we just can’t afford them. We must eliminate them. But a first approach should be to ask: can we provide a solid and meaningful education and not leave the burden to rest solely on the parents whose children attend Jewish schools? »
Schwartz said tuition at the high school where she works costs more than $30,000 a year.
“Yeshiva tuition should cost no more than $30,000 per year,” Schwartz continued. “We know that because in the Haredi world, that’s not the case. The more one goes to the religious right, the lower the tuition fees tend to be. And, while one can name ultra-Orthodox schools with $4,000 tuition, these schools offer no general education training.
“You can also find schools whose tuition fees are one-third or one-half of those of Modern Orthodox schools. But do they offer a solid basic education that adequately prepares students for college?
“The high school I work at costs over $30,000 a year. There are ultra-Orthodox schools that are much cheaper, but provide much less secular education and vocational training. I am not defending the haredi system so much as suggesting that the economics of day school education is not a necessary or inevitable product of a modern Orthodox way of life.
“Modern Orthodoxy does not only want a solid basic education. He wants the full range of academic and extracurricular opportunities that will enrich their children’s lives and get them accepted into the most competitive colleges. He wants the full range of support from school psychologists and learning specialists so that students with varying needs can be supported in our schools. He wants his students to engage meaningfully in their lives as Jews — not just in challenging classes but with personal connections to teachers, in chagigot and Shabbatonim, in programming out and about and in more than the school day.
“Compared to private schools whose academic and college admissions results are supposed to match, their tuition is a relative bargain — and that’s before you factor in a dual curriculum and Friday night tisches. “
According to Schwartz, a good portion of those in the Modern Orthodox world want their children to attend college, especially competitive schools. This means that parents want Jewish day schools to provide the academic training to get them into top-notch universities.
“When you talk about this issue in the abstract, parents accuse you of not appreciating how much they give in to school fees. As an educator, I get frustrated to hear quick fixes for tuition.