She did not intend to become the heretic of the checkout line. But as she watches her food bill skyrocket, Deborah feels compelled to make snarky remarks. "Why bother eating kosher?" she asks those behind her. The patrons tut-tut in agreement and discuss how expensive kosher food has become, and on top of the "tuition crisis" -- the exorbitant expense of Jewish day schools -- how can anyone afford to shop in Glatt markets? But the reality is: the price of kosher is the least of it.
"For the record, most items with a kosher certification are not more expensive," says Menachem Lubinsky, an authority on the kosher food industry, CEO of Lubicom Consulting and Founder of Kosherfest, "What are more costly are the specifically produced kosher foods that require extra kosher certification, particularly in meat and dairy. Prices may be 10 percent to 20 percent higher than non-kosher items." He adds that despite higher fuel and commodity prices in recent times, costs of most kosher ethnic foods have either stayed the same or gone up by no more than 3 percent to 5 percent.
Lubinsky's information confirms that the cost of kosher food is nothing when compared to the exorbitance of Jewish day school tuition.
Deborah is a young mother who is paying $16,000 per year for one of her children to attend a Jewish day school. She asked that I change her name for this article because, as she phrases it, she feels "priced out" of her religion. However, she's determined to figure out this problem because she loves Judaism, she is spiritually connected to every facet of her Modern Orthodox lifestyle, and she should not have to feel this way about costs.
When I ask a tuition-paying friend of mine if she feels stressed by religion, she replies "I don't feel stressed. As a matter of fact, religion is my oasis from stress. The cost of Jewish day school is not a product of our religion, rather a malady of sorts that we as a community need to work together to cure. The Torah tells us that for every illness, the cure is already provided -- we just need to work together to find it."
Rabbi Saul Zucker of the Orthodox Union explains that "the average price of Jewish day school tuition for grades K-12 is $15,000 per year (as compared to the average Catholic school tuition of $3,383, according to NCEA). For four children that would mean $60,000 per year post taxes, which indicates that one would have to earn approximately $200,000 per year (the top 3 percent of earners in this country) just to support their children's education."
Zucker says that Jewish day schools aim to provide the very best possible education, with fine arts curricula, the newest in technology, stellar guidance counseling services, after school programming and other "frills," but that the model is "unsustainable" in the long run. That is why many are seeking other solutions.
Recently, the Shalom Academy (SACS), a Hebrew-immersion charter school, was approved for Englewood and Teaneck, N.J. Some Jewish day school parents have decided that a Hebrew language and culture education (despite it not being a Jewish education) is a great secondary option, and have enrolled their children, who were admitted through a lottery, in SACS for this coming September. Others are outraged that their friends would opt for a "non-Jewish" education, and despite struggling with tuition themselves, they are keeping their kids in yeshiva. Many of them also wonder if they'll ever be able to retire.
And that's only elementary school.
"If you think you're getting off at only 18k per kid with four kids in high school, I have some baaad news for you," says my friend Josh Lipowsky, a former Assistant Editor at The Jewish Standard. "One high school that I looked at had a base tuition of more than 22 grand and after all the building fees and the annual dinner fee, it is well over 25k. The application fee alone is about $800. We're talking about New Jersey. Manhattan is a whole other story." In fact, Manhattan Jewish high schools cost significantly more. One in particular, known for its stellar academic and extracurricular provisions, costs over $30,000.
"Unlike the public schools, the day schools have to raise the majority of their money, Lipowsky explains. "There is very little available from the state -- a few hundred per student for nurses and books, but that's about it. As for the higher costs, it actually costs, according to Agudah N.J., less to educate a day school student than a public school student, but day school parents get the double whammy of paying for both Jewish and secular studies. Starting in the 1970s, day schools began competing not only with each other but with public schools. In order to attract top teachers, they had to offer comparable salaries and benefits. In order to keep students, they had to start offering other services that the public schools offer -- art, music, clubs. And they also had to keep up with the latest in technology in order to compete. You can look at schools with price tags half of other elementary schools but fewer services. They don't have the same number of guidance counselors or music teachers and rely on parental volunteers for special things to keep costs down."
A number of Jewish day schools offer scholarships to families below the middle income bracket, largely based on one's tax returns. Those scholarships are often difficult to obtain and involve a lengthy approval process. It is a wonderful option for those who qualify, but not without risk to the recipients, who report feeling singled out and scrutinized by the rigorous and ongoing investigative process to determine worthiness.
One mother told me that she is always eager to volunteer her time to the school and goes above and beyond to do so, but she once received a letter that strongly advised her, "as a scholarship recipient," to man the help desk at an event. Word quickly spread throughout the parent body about the tone of the letter. "The letter was very specifically addressed to scholarship families," she laments, "but someone blabbed, and once the event rolled around, those of us volunteering felt like 'Hey, see us behind the desk? We're the scholarship families.' I didn't really want to be outed in this manner to other parents. Don't get me wrong -- I love to help the school. I just didn't love being singled out as the 'poor woman.'"
"I didn't grow up around here," one father of Jewish day school children told me, "I feel it's New York and New Jersey that are so expensive."
But those from the tri-state-area are certainly not the only ones feeling the crunch. Naomi Sandberg of Silver Spring, Md., breaks it down for me: "40,000 for two kids in Jewish day school, 5,000+ for two kids in Jewish day camp (who can afford sleep away camp?), 1,000+ synagogue dues, the high price of kosher food, the high price of housing in 'Jewish neighborhoods,' Passover food, Purim baskets, High Holiday seats, 500 for school or synagogue banquet, donations to school, synagogue and mikveh, no vacations (who could afford to pay for one even if one has the time off?), no home improvements, except for critical maintenance."
When I pose the question "Why don't you just send your kids to public school?" Sandberg says "Day school education immerses kids in Jewish tradition, culture, history and literature. Our kids need to learn not just what we do as Jews -- kashrut, shabbat, mitzvot -- they need to learn why. A good day school education integrates Jewish values and history throughout the curriculum. In P.E., students should be learning the importance of physical fitness, sports skills and good sportsmanship -- being a mensch! When studying American History, they need to be looking at what was going on in the American Jewish community as well."
Yitzi Flynn, who I found through the 200K Chump Blog (www.200kchump.blogspot.com) where all sorts of gripes about North Jersey yeshiva tuition are expressed, switched his son from a religious day school to a local public school. He says that his son, who was having difficulty with the fundamentals in reading and comprehension at his former yeshiva, is now thriving in public school. In fact, he recently made honor roll. "The backbone of religiousity and the majority of who the child is comes from the home," Flynn says, explaining that his son prays in the mornings, eats completely kosher, and that teachers and friends' parents bend over backwards to accomodate his religious needs (i.e. kosher food at birthday parties).
"200K Chump," who would not reveal his identity via email, says that he started his blog "to give the thousands of families struggling to pay Yeshiva tuition in Bergen County an outlet to come and discuss how the tuition crisis is affecting their lives and to search for real solutions and alternatives to the overpriced legacy yeshiva institutions." He explains that he is an average day school parent paying full tuition and he "got fed-up with the silly band-aid solutions that people in town would talk about which - even if they were successful - would do nothing to lower the cost of tuition and at best would slow the tuition increases." When one administrator told him that despite tuition being unaffordable to the masses, there were no plans to ever lower it, and the best he could hope for was that tuition increases wouldn't outpace the overall rate of inflation, he "knew that we needed to search for real and radical alternatives to these institutions." That is when he began to blog.
"As far as reaction, it has been a mixed bag. I have been contacted by so many wonderful supporters who applaud me for my efforts and back me and the blog 100%. However, I also have been threatened, chastised, and called every name in the book. I have been compared to such people as Hitler, Stalin and others." Chump has brought the words "Jewish day school tuition" to the blogosphere in a big way. If you simply input that phrase into google today, his blog and the many reactions (ranging from supportive to skeptical) to his posts are what you'll see first. Many members of the North Jersey orthodox Jewish community who I spoke with admitted to "hating to admit" that they read his blog. Some, active in initiatives to combat the crisis, are avid readers as well.
In addition to the Orthodox Union, organizations like UJA Federation and Yeshiva University say they are committed to figuring out a solution to the "tuition crisis." Also, smaller non-profits have formed and are partnering with these larger institutions to help the Jewish day schools. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J., founded Jewish Education for Generations (JEFG): "We regularly have representatives of eight local North Jersey Jewish day schools meet, review budgets and try to figure out how to get things under control," he explains.
One of the first things JEFG did was establish NNJ Kids (Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Jewish Day Schools), a communal fund that raises money for local yeshiva day schools.
"We set up a fund to which anyone and everyone from all the synagogues can contribute to offset tuition needs," Goldin explains. "The money is distributed to the schools for the purpose of scholarship funds and it is spread responsibly. The 'tuition crisis' is a problem that will last past the recession and this fund is something we should have begun working on years ago. Individuals have contributed since we begun, but even $1 million, which sounds like a lot, is a drop in the bucket to tackle this problem."
He says that JEFG is in the process of creating another fund, similar to an endowment, in which money will be raised for the middle income bracket of people who can not get scholarships but are struggling with tuition payments.
Rabbi Goldin calls the tuition situation "overwhelming."
Rabbi Zucker says, "There is no magic bullet."
Both know there is a long way to go, a lot of work to be done and are committed to ensuring that kids stay in Jewish schools.
For her part, Deborah will be sending her older child to Shalom Academy come September, though she is nervous about the social changes involved in switching from a yeshiva to a charter -- not just for her child, who has friends in yeshiva, but for her as she is friendly with their parents. She plans to supplement the Hebrew education her child will receive with daily after-school tutoring in Judaic studies. Socially, the route she has chosen is the "road less traveled by" in her community.
"I'm tired of complaining," she says, "Hopefully, this will make all the difference."