Relevance in the Age of Affordability

OR:  How Michael Steinhardt is doing it wrong.

I have tremendous respect for Michael Steinhardt.  He has invested a lot of time, thought and money in Jewish education.  If you google “Steinhardt” and “Jewish education”, the first ten hits highlight the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development which has robust degree programs in Jewish Studies and Education. He co-founded Taglit-Birthright Israel.

So he cares.

And that’s wonderful.

So when a Tablet piece came across my feed, reproducing a March 9th speech Steinhardt delivered at the Jack Barrack Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia, I was piqued… but ultimately disappointed.

I was dismayed not because of what Steinhardt asserted. He made a passionate argument for a vision of secular Judaism that could proudly take its place alongside the traditional vision of Judaism-as-religious-tradition.  Secular Jewish Education has been Steinhardt’s thing going back to the late aughts, and it is a compelling idea which has curricular implications as well as cultural ones.

At the same time, Steinhardt has been very critical of liberal Judaism’s (failed) efforts to educate the next generation of Jews.

So with all of this churning away in the background, I thought Steinhardt would drop some science on us, and perhaps (once again) open up a new frontier in Jewish education.  But Make Jewish Education Relevant fell down before it even got rolling.

One cannot have a serious discussion about relevance in Jewish education, about creating learning opportunities that speak to the next generation of Jews and foster viable Jewish identification without addressing the most pressing issue of 21st century Jewish education.


One cannot be alive in 2016, eight years after the 2008 Financial Crisis and two Obama presidencies of tepid recovery, and not be cognizant of the fact that Jewish families, liberal Jewish families, even with the best of intentions, cannot afford to send their children to Jewish day schools.

They cannot get their kids into the room where relevant (or irrelevant) Jewish learning takes place.  Their kids cannot take advantage of the best practices and all the opportunities available in day school settings because their salaries cannot keep up with the increasing cost of day school tuition.

I feel this issue in my bones, my kishkes, and my bank account.  I have three Jewish children.  I even wrote a counterfactual history of Birthright where Steinhardt decided to fund day school education in the same manner as he planned to fund Birthright trips.

So it strikes me as tone deaf when Steinhardt writes:

Most attribute the [declining] results to affordability, but there are more important factors.  Jewish immersion experiences where traditional religious elements define the environment with a certain parochialism have become a foreign proposition to the vast majority of American non-Orthodox Jews.

Really?  More important than affordability?

I could go into a numbers rant here but Michael Steinhardt is a hedge fund guy.   And perhaps he even looked at the numbers.  But I would argue that for every Jewish family who preferred to send their child to a school with a more haimishe view on universalism (say, a Quaker school) than a parochial Jewish day school, there are at least THREE to FIVE Jewish families who would have loved to fill that open spot in the Jewish classroom but simply could not afford it.

Let’s get everyone into the room first.  Once we accomplish that, we can discuss what we should learn and how best to learn it.  And Steinhardt is just the guy to figure out how to achieve both goals, but in their proper order.

FDR said that people who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.  We cannot expect to have a viable Jewish community if vast number of us are ignorant of our history, culture, language and tradition.  This is the stuff of which irrelevance is made… and extinction.


A moral argument for day school affordability

To say that day school tuition is breaking the Jewish middle class is not a contentious assertion.  It is practically axiomatic.  And yet… and yet…

So here is yet another cry for relief and a proposed solution – this time, from Rabbi Aryeh Klapper.

And, like the earlier proposal from Aurora Mendelsohn, it is based on a form of tithing.

Where Rabbi Klapper’s argument differs is not in outcome, but in tone.  His argument in favour is solely a moral one.  We must do something about day school affordability because inaction will destroy the community Jewish day schools are supposed to foster and nurture.

Rabbi Klapper explains:

Imagine that someone proposes a new Jewish practice that would have these consequences:

a. Parents take second jobs, or work longer hours, that deprive them of almost all weekday contact with their children and leave them too exhausted to make Shabbat meaningful.

b. Almost half of households are transformed, for years, from community contributors to charity recipients.

c. Children aspiring to intellectual, creative, or service work, such as teaching (especially Torah) or other helping professions, are told that these are not options because they will not produce enough money to sustain a committed Jewish lifestyle.

d. For economic reasons, families choose to have fewer children.

We would consider such a practice stunningly irresponsible.

Yes we would – and yet, as Rabbi Klapper argues, this is what happens when we weigh down the Jewish middle class with skyrocketing day school costs.

Rabbi Klapper plays out the costs and benefits of the tithing scenario here.  It is very worth reading and considering.

One more point which really kicked me in the kishkes:

The system also undermines the schools’ Jewish effectiveness.  If our children lack Jewish passion, doesn’t that bespeak parental exhaustion?  If they are materialistic, isn’t this related to their being told that their career paths are limited because they are poor?  When they show signs of being “at risk,” doesn’t this reflect lessened parental involvement?  How can children internalize the core Jewish value of human dignity and the spiritual value of financial independence when their schools make them dependent?


I suppose we could continue on this path, arguing that the status quo has its problems but seems to be working just fine as we continue to bankrupt Jewish families and, as Rabbi Klapper argues, the values of the community in the process.

One can almost imagine, if the clamor grew loud enough, a letter from the local federation diplomatically addressing Rabbi Klapper’s argument.  The letter would empathize with the vast middle struggling to pay, agreeing that, in principle, yes, there is some financial distress out there.  (Would the letter also state that families must make sacrifices for Jewish education? – I wonder…) One can also imagine how further down the page, the letter would indicate the unprecedented levels of funding for day schools and how, with decrease in support for federation, funding could not increase any more than current levels.  One can also imagine no reference at all to Rabbi Klapper’s moral argument.

We have seen letters like this in the past and they are wholly besides the point.

Rabbi Klapper is not talking about philanthropy.  He is talking about fairness and equality – two consummate Jewish values. He is making the same argument that Occupy Wall Street made in Zuccotti Park (which was later adopted by Barack Obama under the guise of the “Buffett Rule”) and François Holland proferred during his run for the French presidency: Those with more need to pay their fair share – which means more.

If we are to have a community (and having one is another one of those pesky Jewish values), then we must ask ourselves what kind of community it will be if the price of admission ultimately turns away more people than it attracts.

In these difficult financial times, a radical proposal for fiscal fluidity!

According to the TorahWikipedia:

naming rights are a financial transaction whereby a corporation or other entity purchases the right to name a facility, typically for a defined period of time. For properties like a multi-purpose arena, performing arts venue or an athletic field, the term ranges from three to 20 years. Longer terms are more common for higher profile venues such as a professional sports facility.

The distinctive characteristic for this type of naming rights is that the buyer gets a marketing property to promote products and services, promote customer retention and or increase market share.

And so, in the spirit of these difficult financial times in which we all live, a radical proposal for fiscal fluidity:  Selling the naming rights to the remaining Chagim in 5772 and the High Holydays of 5773.   This branding opportunity is a once in a millennium chance where a donor or corporation can really high-profile his or her name (‘cuz corporations are people, my friend) in the popular consciousness and make a tremendous impact on the lives of individual Jews and the Jewish community worldwide.

The Festival of Freedom is brought to you by Home Depot - More Savings, More Doing, No Chametz.

Imagine… now that Purim is over, we can all look forward to, say, the Home Depot Pesach™ with the additional possibility to option the name-rights for the First Seder AS WELL AS the Second Seder (for the more observant or those not averse to anticlimactic family get-togethers).  And it goes without saying that exposure potential will be leveraged while Jews the world over gather to study together at the Microsoft Tikkun Leil Shavuot™ with blintzes generously provided by Coca Cola™.

Of course, the Jewish year experiences a bit of a lull during the summer months (but there are surely some avenues to explore for further branding in the camp world) – but fear not as the calendar builds up to the High Holydays.  (They are not called “HIGH” for nothing.)  Pom-Wonderful™ Shofar blowing and Disney™ Kol Nidre are but two of many marquee events in the Jewish year – and provide unrivaled access to Jewish people of all demographics.

With the revenues from all these naming rights and subsidiary sponsorships, the Jewish Community™ should be able to weather the Great Recession and emerge stronger, more resolute and fiscally viable as it confronts the challenges of the Coming Century™ and the inevitable increase in Day School Tuition.

Again, the “A” word

Okay, I am burying the lead here a little but bear with me…

Deborah Fishman believes the most vexing nut to crack in Jewish education is personnel.  Channeling John Lennon, she waxes blue-sky about the revolutionary potential of finding and retaining capable and passionate Jewish educators:

Imagine if day schools could reach multitudes of aspiring teachers passionate about education and young Jews passionate about disseminating Jewish identity and knowledge – and deploy their talents and energies to solve the burning problems such as those listed above. Imagine if these aspiring teachers could not only solve these existing problems – but also impact generations of young Jews to be knowledgeable ambassadors of and contributors to the Jewish people. In doing so, they might even revolutionize day school education in ways we can’t even conceive of yet.

I believe that this all can happen – through connecting day school educators with their fellow day school educators and enabling them to dream and grow together into new opportunities. Just as importantly, they can provide an invaluable support network for one another during the challenging times, and help each other toward potential solutions.

Though networks might help retain the dedicated, what she does not address and researchers do not dig too deep into the numbers to tease out is why about 12% of teachers leave the profession within the first three years.  (You can download the piece with that statistic here.)  As discussed in an earlier blogpost, teachers (and other non-profit types) chafe at the profession for reasons that generally have little to do with money.

Perhaps 12% seems like acceptable collateral damage… especially when one considers that the numbers in the public system are so much higher…?

Then again, there’s all this talk and infrastructure dedicated now to mentoring so perhaps that 12% number might have declined since 2004.   And with Fishman’s call for networks, perhaps this problem might be small enough to drown in a pickle jar.

A problem that is somewhat bigger than a pickle jar is the first on her list of crises – the “A” word.  (Hint: It’s not ‘Apartheid’, silly.)  But even after a third re-read, I am still trying to figure out how happy teachers will remedy or even tangentially address the vexing problem of AFFORDABILITY.

And I wonder how happy these teachers will continue to be when they consider sending their kids to the schools in which they teach and, realize, suddenly, that money (which was not such an issue before) will be determine if their children can benefit from all the years of schooling, training and effort they now dedicate to the education of children of those others who chose not to pursue educating the Jewish future but something more lucrative instead…

Is this english?

My intention, therefore, is not to weigh that prejudicial question, that dry, necessary, and somewhat facile question of right, against the power and efficacy of the positive researches which we may witness today.

Step One:

Read the piece at ejewishphilanthropy by Sandy Edwards and Miriam Prum Hess about yet another scheme to make day school education affordable.

Step Two:

Read the title of this post and answer the question regarding the ejewishphilantropy piece.

Step Three:

If your answer is yes, please explain in the comment section below that the author is trying to express.

If your answer is no, please explain in the comment section what the author is trying to express.

Thank you.