Are we free to learn? The cost of Jewish education

The cost of Jewish day school education is a recurring topic of conversation within the Jewish community. Despite the basic Torah laws of teaching our children, we are faced with a simple fact, tuition is expensive. There is a strong understanding and belief that day school education is a critical component of Jewish communal survival. Sending our children to Jewish schools has proven effective in producing engaged, knowledgeable, and non-assimilated adult participants in the Jewish community. However, the financial cost is in many cases prohibitive.

Families are legitimately weighing the cost of Jewish day school against other expenses. Mortgages, health insurance, vacation and college tuition are all taken into account when we try and secure our future and that of our children. When we add education, many parents considering the costs are opting out of Jewish schools. However, the price of Jewish education is not just financial, we have long known that without some form of Jewish continuity, we trigger an even greater problem: religious assimilation.

Each generation should be given the opportunity to decide for itself whether and how to hold on to our life-sustaining heirloom, our Jewish Knowledge. We need to teach our children in order to enable them, so the future Jewish generations are secured. No one should take the educational choice of Jewish learning away from our young generation.  By depriving them of available Jewish education, we reduce their ability to lead a fully committed Jewish life. Without this knowledge, it becomes harder for their choices to be based upon meaningful and substantive Torah learning.

Moreover, being in a Jewish school makes us feel connected to Judaism and Israel. Even for those students who don’t come from a religious background, the exposure and knowledge gained will enable them to identify as Jews, feeling an undying sense of Jewish pride. When going to college, we encounter people who don’t support Israel or who are anti-Semitic. So it becomes critical that Jewish teenagers know who they are and what they represent.

Even throughout times of hardship and persecution, Judaism has survived because Jewish schools and institutions have always provided us with Torah knowledge and an infinite sense of Jewish character and pride. Living with the challenges of modern society, our history gives us roots and stability. However, today, American Jews are faced with the question of whether or not they can afford Jewish education for their children.

Unfortunately “no” seems to be a common answer, and the harm of that response is presented in the Pew survey. Jews are losing their sense of identity, belief and Torah knowledge. We need to make Jewish education affordable because otherwise, the numbers of assimilated and unidentified Jews will continue to grow.

I myself attended Jewish day schools growing up in the UK and while at elementary school along with my peers we also attended cheder (part-time religious school) twice a week after school. As a parent, the paradigm had changed, my older kids all started in Jewish schools and were not then expected to attend a part-time religious school. The cost of Jewish schools in the United Kingdom is minuscule in comparison with the United States and the ability to give our children a Jewish education at cost is one of the main reasons cited for Aliyah. So how do we address the issue of Jewish education in the United States? How do we give our children their birthright, their Jewish inheritance?

We must not underestimate the importance and value of community life. Regardless of your religious affiliation, belonging to a synagogue, attending communal events and sending your children to religious school twice a week maintains the thread of Jewish continuity. Jewish camps are another successful model for our future. All is not lost.

But regardless of your choices and what you are able to give your children we must remember, the basic aim of Judaism is to educate children in the way of the Torah. Pharaoh himself realized that the future of Judaism lies with the young, which is why he decreed that every Jewish son born should be throw into the Nile (Exodus 1:22).

Unfortunately, as we know, the financial costs of Jewish education have grown too expensive, for too many families. Finding a way to teach our children, to make Jewish education accessible and affordable, is a critical priority facing Jewish communities in the Diaspora. The best, though not the only way to instill this knowledge, is through education.

About the Author
Abi Taylor-Abt is an outstanding Jewish Educator and Curriculum Developer who has worked in the field of Jewish Primary and Secondary Educational Curriculum Development for over twenty years. She is the author of Lessons in Jewish Learning - a grab and go curriculum for communities and Jewish schools. Originally from London, Abi spent time living in Israel, South Africa, England and the United States. After working in Boise, Idaho, Abi spent 5 years in Israel for the second time whilst her children served in the army. She is currently Director of Education for Yachad a combined educational endeavour between the conservative congregation of Beth Shalom and the reform community of Temple Emanu-El in Michigan, USA. A 2018 recipient of the Klein/Grinspoon Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, Abi is also awaiting the video version of her recent ELI Talk Detroit Speaker Fellowship.