“I Can Do Jewish On $40,000 A Year”

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A head of school responds.

A recent blog post in the Times of Israel, written anonymously by “A Jewish Father,” received a lot of attention in the day school world and on social media last week. While many have commented on his tone, motive and politics, the real issue is the pain and frustration that led him to walk away from Jewish day schools, synagogue membership, kosher butchers and more. I do not want to judge his motives or level of commitment, but rather, the complexity of the issue.

To some degree, we have a circular problem. This father cannot afford Jewish day schools for his children because of his high expenses, including but not limited to housing, medical insurance, food and more. Many parents are in the same bind.

Like parents, teachers and school administrators also are confronted with high expenses and need a livable wage. And if you want highly qualified and competent educators, you have to pay them fairly or they will go elsewhere or leave the teaching profession.

Day school is more expensive today than it was decades ago. And, in many cases, wages have not kept pace with increases in the cost of living. At most day schools, 70-80 percent of all expenses go toward salaries and health benefits, and still these teachers make less than their peers in the public or other private sector schools. The author mentions a school where tuition is only $5,000 per year. If that is the case, there is no doubt in my mind that the teachers are not earning a livable wage. The math simply does not work, unless their community is underwriting the tuition.

In today’s expensive world, we make our choices. I am a father of four children. My wife and I sent our children to Jewish day schools and took out loans to get them through college that we are paying back, happily. We made personal sacrifices to send our children to day school. That was our choice. We do not look back for a minute.

And it is not because I am a head of a Jewish day school. It is because we have been committed to what is important to us. Our children are now grown and making their own lives, and not only are we proud, what we “sacrificed” along the way seems insignificant compared to the people they have become.

In the end, what we choose comes down to what we value. This father can make every argument in the book about unaffordability and expenses, but he is making a values choice. I do not judge him for his choice, but let’s just call it what it is. He may regard as unfair his inability to save or to ask grandparents for help — I see it as a choice. Sometimes we have to make choices that feel unfair or existentially unjust.

Our choice was to send our children to day school and to not save for college, but rather, to take out loans instead. So, I chose one path; this father chose another. My grievance with his piece is that he felt the need to justify his choice by writing a scathing opinion piece that squarely lays the blame of Jewish unaffordability on schools, butchers, supermarkets and synagogues, without considering the people who are trying to survive and earn a living in those institutions — most of whom do not make $350,000.

Finally, Jewish life is a communal choice as well. Decades of research clearly demonstrate the long-term success of day schools, Jewish summer camps and trips to Israel. These are the greatest guarantors of a strong and vibrant Jewish future. Because real costs are much higher than decades ago and salaries have generally not kept pace, Jewish communal leaders have to decide how much of their resources will go toward these transformative educational experiences. It really does take a community to ensure our children’s future and Jewish continuity as a whole.

Lastly, our tuition at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit is nearing $20,000; about 16 percent of families pay the full amount. The average tuition paid at Hillel ends up being closer to $11,000 per child. How do we keep our doors open and pay our teachers well, enabling us to attract amazing teachers? Because the sense of communal responsibility in this city is deep and strong.

Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit allocates more than $1 million annually to Hillel and provides generous support to the other day schools in our community. In addition, we have generous philanthropists who give significant sums of money, as well as an ongoing relationship with a local foundation that has made Jewish education a top priority.

The support of these individuals and organizations did not happen accidentally; it is the result of many years of methodical and tenacious education of donors about the importance of day school philanthropy by giants in our community; the late David Hermelin, a former U.S. ambassador to Norway, was foremost among them, and his legacy lives on today.

What happens in Detroit can happen elsewhere. This, too, is a choice: a choice for communities to make every effort for Jewish life and all its components to be affordable for all.

 

Steve Freedman is head of school at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit. Founded in 1958, Hillel inspires a passion for learning, responsibility to self and community, and devotion to Jewish living in a warm, innovative and engaging environment.

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