TAKING my cue from Sam Lipski’s eye-opening column of two weeks ago, I decided to take stock and put the reflection cards on the table.
It’s a safe bet that the most pressing issue on the horizon is the prohibitive and intimidating cost of Jewish education. While our Jewish schools are a constant source of pride, I have spoken to many families who have tearfully decided that it is financially impossible to send their children to Jewish schools.
And there are numerous families who never even contemplate a Jewish education for their kids because of the financial crunch and because school fees will be the greatest single cost they’ll incur.
It’s not unreasonable to predict that in coming years, a sizeable number of children will be removed from Jewish schools. Families cannot be asked to mortgage their future in order to get their children into the Jewish education system.
This is not a looming crisis, but a deepening crisis. Rising school fees are an increasingly uneatable situation.
Over the last few years, fees have risen at a rate that’s higher than the annual rate of inflation. The high cost is now beyond the means of most families, resulting in more Jewish kids in the public school system. And when a Jewish child is starved for Jewish education, this is a ticking time bomb for the community.
As one friend told me, “I make a lot of money, but after school fees, I don’t have a lot of money.” There are others whose house has never been painted, who drive 13-year-old cars, whose living room is unfurnished, who have not taken a vacation since they got married, who for them going to the movies is a “special” occasion, and who carry huge debts in loans.
Once you add up the mortgage, house costs, food (kosher or not), clothing, music and swimming lessons, other lessons, bar and bat mitzvahs, etc., there is little or no money left for anything. In fact, any extra money is zapped away by the schools.
And so, many parents are forced to lower their standards of living to pay for their kids’ education. These mums and dads are making sacrifices because they truly believe a positive Jewish education will help their child build a strong identity and a connection to a Jewish way of life.
A woman I went to school with, and who has three kids in a Jewish day school, said, “Every time I think of a major purchase, my husband reminds me of the school fees.” Another told me, “I can handle this year’s increase, but what about next year and the year after?”
Remember: the tens of thousands of dollars we spend a year are paid for with after-tax income.
In the main, the high cost of Jewish education impacts the middle class more than anyone else. Low-income families usually qualify for subsidies, while the most wealthy are not affected.
As one commentator put it, “Without major action, the Jewish day schools will be made up of people who are poor and the rich. Those in the middle, earning professional salaries, will be squeezed out”.
I believe that the only sure way to fight assimilation and perpetuate our heritage is to get more kids into Jewish schools. And yes, I have a dream: the creation of a free Jewish high school system.
Study after study tells us that Jewish education is the key for battling assimilation since children cannot be expected to identify with something they don’t know very much about. Only in a Jewish school environment do kids understand what it means to be a people. They speak Hebrew, study, share, dance, sing and celebrate Judaism.
There is no one remedy for out-of-reach school fees. A variety of strategies, pursued in conjunction with each other, must be devised so costs are reduced or capped.
One plan is for a superfund for Jewish education. Another solution touted in the past is that a percentage of campaign funds earmarked for Israel be used to support Jewish day schools. And yes, in a way this would mean that Israel was underwriting Diaspora education. But having just returned from Israel, I can tell you that 100 per cent of the Israelis I spoke to liked the idea. A lot.
Another proposal is to explore enhanced government funding. And still another idea is for greater collaboration between schools to maximise resources and reduce overheads.
There is no issue more important for the long-term future, vibrancy and wellbeing of our community.
Whatever our ideological and religious differences, we are all committed to the idea that Jewish education should be made accessible and affordable.
After all, Jewish education is a communal responsibility.
Dvir Abramovich, the Jan Randa lecturer in Jewish Studies, is the director of the Centre for Jewish history and Culture at the University of Melbourne.