Jonathan Muskat

Dear Jewish Father Who Can ‘Do Jewish’ on Just $40,000 a Year

Over 23,000 people shared a post from an anonymous Jewish father about how he can ‘do Jewish’ on just $40,000 a year, demonstrating how the high cost of Orthodox living is of major concern to so many of us as we haven’t seemed to find a way to solve this issue. The author of this article describes the impossible situation in the Modern Orthodox community where Orthodox families with four children must pay $80,000 per year for tuition, $20,000 per year for Jewish camps, $12,000 per year on specifically kosher food, thousands of dollars for Pesach, and a total of almost $150,000 to be Jewish. Therefore, he argues that we need to cut certain costs of Jewish living to make Orthodox Jewish living more affordable.

I agree that we need to work harder to do this. In practice, I would like to see national organizations like the Orthodox Union which has the resources work on researching and developing best practices for organizational structures of schools, tuition assistance formulas that are applied equitably and improved sources of funding for schools. I would then like to have our communities push existing yeshiva day schools to adopt these standards. I would also like to see more research on how to create a low cost “no-frills” Yeshiva day school and whether there is indeed a market for it in our communities for those who cannot currently afford yeshiva day school tuition.

However, the sad reality is that both the way that this Jewish father dealt with this seemingly impossible situation by pulling his children out of a Jewish day school and his feeling that this is the number one threat to American Orthodox Jewry result from another seemingly impossible situation in the Modern Orthodox community which I believe is an even greater threat to the future of American Orthodox Jewry and that is a lack of religious commitment. Our community is trying to embrace the outside world in all of its complexity through the prism of Torah and we think we are doing well. After all, we have a thriving educational system, we have yeshiva day schools, we have vibrant shuls, and we have vibrant Jewish communities.

But I am very concerned. I am concerned when people, like the author of this post, believes that there is no real qualitative advantage to attending a yeshiva as opposed to sending a child to a private school.  In a subsequent post, he wrote that we can send to schools where we can get “math, science, reading and social studies. Maybe some music or Spanish. Sounds OK by me. Jewish could be done in afterschool heders on the side, like my grandparents did in the old days.  And they still married Jews.”

Another article was published this past week in the Forward by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, entitled, “The Orthodox Explosion Is Not about Numbers — It’s about Our Values” and this article was a response to an article by sociologist Steven Cohen that concluded that in 40 years far fewer American Jews will identify as Conservative and Reform and far more will identify as Orthodoxy. The reason for this, Ms. Chizkhik suggested, is that continuity is constantly on the minds of the Orthodox. She writes that we are “a community that is committed to marriage, to family and to immersive Jewish education. And we have been often derided by our liberal peers for our insularity and for our conservative values: for making conversion such a rigorous process, for the culture of obsessing over marriage and children, for the (at times, prohibitive) expense of Jewish day school tuition.” These are our core values and our numbers are the result. Orthodoxy is growing, but it requires more than simply exposure to Jewish ritual and education. It requires immersive Jewish education and passionate commitment.

Rabbi Michael Rosensweig, rosh yeshiva at RIETS, delivered an opening shiur for the investiture of Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman as president of Yeshiva University last Sunday. During the shiur, he pointed out that in the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, there is a dual, interconnected requirement of “lilmod” and “l’lamed,” of both studying and teaching.  As an example, in the Rambam’s title to the laws of Talmud Torah, he writes that there is a mitzvah to study Torah but in the very first halacha, he writes that the mitzvah is to teach our children. Rabbi Rosensweig suggested that, according the Rambam, the “kiyum hamitzvah,” the fulfillment of the mitzvah, as indicated by the title of the laws of Talmud Torah, is through studying because through studying we achieve yediat Hashem, we understand and we identify with God.  However, the “maaseh hamitzvah,” the methodology to achieve this goal, is through teaching.  Why is this so?  If we are forced to teach that which we learn, we truly have to know the material. Additionally, if we must transmit it to someone else, we must be passionate about the Torah so that the listener will be interested.  Moreover, through teaching we create a special bond between rebbe and student such that the Gemara refers to students as biological children. In short, the requirement of Torah study is more than simply exposure to Torah or gaining mastery of a certain knowledge base. It requires immersion, passion, engagement and a strong relationship between rebbe and student.

Why do so many people in our community think that we need to create a charter school option or a Hebrew school option for our students which can be qualitatively just as good as our yeshiva day schools?  Unfortunately, many of our children who graduate from yeshiva high school after attending yeshiva day schools for 12-plus years aren’t so observant or passionate about Judaism so many parents wonder why they should pay so much money and get this result when they can save a lot of money, essentially achieve the same result and send their child to a charter school or an after school Hebrew program.

Very often, the reason for this is that just as it seems financially impossible for many to live in the Modern Orthodox world, it also seems religiously impossible for many to live in the Modern Orthodox world. To live in this world and do it right so that there wouldn’t even be a thought of pulling our children out of a completely immersive Jewish environment requires parents to live a life of “lilmod u’l’lamed.” It requires parents to sacrifice not just to be able to financially afford yeshiva, but it requires something much greater. It requires parents to sacrifice to go to minyan when at all possible. It requires parents to sacrifice to go to shiurim and study Torah when at all possible.  It requires parents to sacrifice to make the Shabbat table a spiritually rich invigorating environment. It requires parents to sacrifice to follow the minutiae of halacha. It requires parents to sacrifice to live a completely Torah immersive life so that children will see both from their parents and their school one consistent, singular message of “lilmod u’l’lamed,” one singular message of more than exposure to Judaism, but immersive Jewish education and true yediat Hashem. Imagine if our modern orthodox community can create this kind of partnership between school and home. We would still need to try to tackle the high cost of orthodox living, but the solution would not include a solution outside the yeshiva day school system.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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