Crawling out from under the rock of day-school tuition

"Now that the economy has crumbled and a critical mass of people are newly broke and worried, I am inspired to “out” myself as a committed Jew who has spent the past quarter century being broke and worried, forced into a state of financial struggle and work-related stress due to the high cost (and high-priced accoutrements) of being Jewish in a major metropolitan area."

So writes publicist Shira Dicker in an opinion piece in The New York Jewish Week.

After watching a friend withdraw her child from a New York day school because she simply could no olonger afford the $30,000 per year tuition, Dicker, who is married to journalist Ari Goldman, says that she is finally emboldened to speak out about the tremendous burden that the day-school system placed upon her own family.

In order to put three children through day school, she writes, the Dicker family made “a commitment that absolved us not of luxury items but of basic necessities":

Yet until this moment I kept my counsel, marveling at how easily so many others seemed to be providing this basic Jewish amenity for their kids, loathe to be dubbed a kvetch or a bad Jew. Nor would I want inadequate salaries for day school educators. So I bit my tongue and signed checks. I bartered when I was able. I took on additional commitments. I deferred the dream I nurtured since childhood and pursued a professional path where I was certain to make a higher income. I put off my plan of returning to graduate school until such a time that my family would be able to do without my income, never mind the cost of my own tuition.

What she describes is a day-school system that was built in a time of affluence that survived on what is in essence a system of financial peer pressure and demeaning scrutiny from schools’ financial aid departments that made it almost shameful to speak out about the high cost of a premium Jewish education system that became cursory in some circles – and only now that the Jewish community is financially stressed does she feel comfortable kvetching.

Fundermentalist’s take: I tend to agree with Dicker… and this is my real concern about the way the Jewish organized world works.

We have great ideas about how to create Jewish continuity and future, great, big, expensive ideas — among them Birthright Israel, Jewish overnight camps, high-end preschools, and the ever growing landscape of niche, boutique Jewishly innovative projects. Most of these projects are well intentioned and have some merit and value.

The problem is that our philanthropic appetite has been much bigger than our wallets could afford, a problem that only now is really coming into the light.

The day-school system is perhaps the best example of this. There is arguably no better way to insure that a Jewish child will grow into a Jewishly aware adult than by sending him or her to a day school. The problem is that the day school system costs $2 billion per year according to some estimates. And of that $2 billion, $500 million is required for financial aid.

Just to put it into perspective, for years there has been pipe dream talk about creating a superfund to build an endowment to provide for day-school tuition assistance. If need for financial aid stayed steady at a half a billion dollars per year — which it clearly will not — the community would need a $10 billion dollar endowment to underwrite the cost, and that is if investors could figure out how to make a five percent return on that $10 billion investment each year, another big assumption.

Even in good times, some observers say, this probably is an unsustainable model. So how is the Jewish community supposed to afford it in a recession?