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Don’t skip out on Jewish day school this year. It’s an ethical issue

Great yeshiva education is the key to our thriving communities: Without registration, received tuition, and the hiring of teachers, our schools will fail

Back in early March, when our school was one of the first in the United States to shift to virtual learning in response to coronavirus, we could not possibly have anticipated the dramatic changes that we would undergo as a school community. Physically separated, we came together in ways that we never had before. About 700 families – sometimes as many as 2,000 people — joined virtually to celebrate Purim, to make havdalah each week for months, and to participate in town hall meetings where we shared plans, asked questions and heard from experts.

Entering our sixth month of these turbulent times, we, in partnership with our fellow yeshivot, have been feverishly planning to welcome our students back to school in September. While there will be changes to our setting, we will continue to provide the excellent, creative, spirited and inspiring education that makes our yeshiva day school system so powerful.

Still, over these months, many have understandably expressed concern regarding the high cost of day school tuition, already teetering at the brink of crisis even before the pandemic. This worry became further complicated by looming doubt regarding the type of education our children would receive. Would classes be on Zoom or in person? Will the teachers be present? Will it be safe for our children to attend?

It is fair and reasonable for a parent or a family to raise these questions. Our communal response to such questions must be — and has been — clear and emphatic: our schools will open! We will open them carefully and safely, and we will commit to providing our children with an outstanding Jewish education, even under trying conditions.

Our yeshiva communities have invested significant resources over these months to translate those ideals into reality. Our schools have done exceptional work in developing and communicating their “return to school” plans for a safe and healthy return to school. Educational and communal leaders have made extraordinary investments of time, energy and resources to make this happen. But there is more to be done. By all of us.

In the short term, our priority is to bring our children back to school in September. Taking the long view, we are working to preserve the achievements of generations of American Jewry who have built a system of outstanding Jewish education that is truly the heartbeat of the American Jewish community. We are raising children who are proud of their Judaism and confident in their ability to make a difference in the world. Great schools are the key to our proud, thriving communities. We must keep our system strong. And during these challenging times, we need broad, unwavering communal support for our Jewish educational system. Each of us — every family — must help preserve and even strengthen that infrastructure during these perilous times. We must ensure that our community continues to thrive long after we have a vaccine and the pandemic is a story that we tell the next generation of children.

How does each of us help make that happen? The educational and lay leadership of schools must rework class sizes, school schedules, and health and hygiene protocols. Teachers are working to redesign classes and provide for the social and emotional well being of our kids. But parents are vitally important. Parents will keep schools strong by registering their children in yeshiva for the fall. And herein lies the broad communal challenge.

Registration in some day schools in the New York area and beyond has declined for the coming year, some to an unsettling degree. High cost, lower employment and an uncertain product have combined to create serious uncertainty about the value of tuition investment. We must tackle each of those elements.

School leadership and staff are doing their part to make the product strong. Recognizing the financial strain, schools must prepare for additional scholarship funding during this time, including — importantly — waiving tuition for those parents who have lost their jobs. And parents must do all that they can to continue sending their children to yeshiva, and to continue to support the yeshiva even if their children will not attend.

I have heard of some parents who are planning to take their children out of yeshiva — or even out of the community — for the coming school year, with plans to return to the school community after a vaccine is available. While I do not presume to tell parents how to make their decisions, I can tell them that the business of running a school depends on registration, received tuition, and the hiring of teachers. Without tuitions, schools will fail.

Over decades, yeshivot have worked to make Jewish education a more attractive and respected profession, developed enhanced curricula, expanded facilities, and made school a beloved place of learning for our children. But the system is fragile. And we must not let it falter during these uncertain times.

COVID-19 was not in anyone’s budget or plan, and the challenges are very real. But our schools must be funded, and it is vital that tuition revenue remain high during these turbulent times. It is unfair for parents to withdraw their children for a year while others keep the school in session, only for these parents to return after a year with the expectation that all will be the same — quality education, strong faculty and rich programming. It is ethically problematic for parents to enroll their children in public school while hiring a rebbe from the local day school to study Torah with their children.

I understand and respect that parents will and should do what they feel they must to provide for the good health and welfare of their children. But, while providing for our own, we must do all that we can to keep the heartbeat of our community and our schools strong. In that spirit, I call on parents to re-register their children in yeshiva as we navigate this crisis together.

For centuries, the Jewish people have confronted physical danger, spiritual threat, economic challenge. Through it all, the Jewish people have championed Jewish education, even in the most dangerous of times. It is now our turn. We must take a stand for Jewish education. These great communities, our schools, and their leaders have worked so hard for so long to provide children with the Jewish education that we have come to love and respect. We are all in it together to preserve our day school system. We must do all that we can to keep it strong for a post-COVID world.

About the Author
Jack Bendheim is president of SAR Academy & SAR High School in Riverdale New York.
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