Confronting The Enormous Cost Of Jewish Education

This piece is part of the series, “Readers Take Over Hevria.”  Salvador Litvak was asked to write about “The high cost of giving our children a Jewish education and ideas for solutions.”

Giving our children a Jewish education is terrifyingly expensive. In her forthright article, Deanna Sussman suggests a family earning less than $125,000/year shouldn’t even consider it.

This is chilling because Judaism without Jewish knowledge doesn’t work very well. One need not attend a Jewish day school to be a vibrant Jew, but the earlier one starts acquiring Jewish wisdom, tradition, and analytical skills, the better.

Our Sages say:

One who studies Torah as a child, to what is he compared? To ink written on fresh paper. And one who studies Torah as an old man, to what is he compared? To ink written on blotted paper. (Avot 4:24)

Good, creative ideas have been put forth for making Jewish education more accessible. Ari Segal suggests an innovative arrangement for home-owning parents, linked to the equity in their dwellings.

Noting the moral costs of incurring debt and other negative behaviors associated with overspending, Aryeh Klapper suggests a flat, proportional cost tied to income.

My friend Rabbi Mark Blazer has harnessed the charter school system to create the Albert Einstein public schools. Einstein students don’t get a religious education, but they learn Hebrew, which goes a long way.

Another parental strategy is to work full- or part-time at a day school, in order to offset the cost. I teach film at Camp Ramah for the same reason.

My kids do attend a day school, and it’s often a struggle for us. In addition to the high cost, we wonder if they’re getting the kind of diversity they need. And having a dual curriculum also means the school day is long, thus curtailing other activities.

We think it’s worthwhile, however, because Jewish education is so important. Our tribal heritage is not the kind of enterprise one experiences just by calling oneself a Jew. To really connect with it, as well as with God and each other, takes commitment. And as our Sages note above, the earlier one starts the better. A solid foundation enables one to plumb greater depths in text, and ascend to greater heights in liturgy.

Now I’d like to add a new idea to the discussion. Day schools are great, as are religious schools, learning conferences, and summer camps. Real Jewish education, however, begins at home.

Investing in all these resources for our kids, and then modeling a different kind of behavior for ourselves, is a recipe for failure. If we’re not excited to learn and keep learning, our kids won’t be excited either.

I didn’t have a day school education. My brain struggles to understand many Talmudic concepts, I often get lost when I join an unfamiliar prayer service, and my Hebrew stinks. Every bit of learning I acquire gets scribbled onto very blotted paper, and it’s painful to recognize how much, and how quickly, I forget.

Yet I keep trying, and my kids see me trying. My wife works at it just as hard, if not harder. We take classes, and we cover each other’s responsibilities whenever there’s a learning opportunity.

We try to bring Torah to the dinner table and extract more than one-syllable answers from our kids. Admittedly, there are times we grow pedantic, and we can’t blame our kids for being a little bored after they spend hours learning Torah at school, only to get cornered by more at dinner.

There are other times, however, when we see the fruits of this labor. In a random conversation, they’ll make a Torah reference that shows both sophistication and absorption of disparate subjects. At those moments, we kvell hard. ☺

As my daughter’s bat mitzvah approaches, we’re also sharing something special by studying her Torah portion together. We started a year before the big date, reading the Hebrew carefully and following leads from many different commentators. Meeting once a week, I’ve come to anticipate these sessions with great joy. I’m learning a lot from my daughter, and I know our guests at the big event will too.

Empowering her to teach others makes a big difference in giving her a meaningful connection with our tradition.

In short, there is no magic bullet for making Jewish education universally available and affordable. Prioritizing it, however, for both our kids and ourselves, is vital in crafting the solutions that will preserve our heritage amid rising costs, and rising indifference.

Sal shares a bit of Jewish wisdom at Facebook.com/accidentaltalmudistMore pieces like this at accidentaltalmudist.org.

Image by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii as part of his work to document the Russian Empire from 1909 to 1915.