Jeopardizing the Jewish future

Graduation time is an appropriate time to focus on the high cost of Jewish education — not just in dollar terms, but in the price we will pay tomorrow for having failed our children today.

We need to be honest: The price of a Jewish education is out of reach for many parents, to our detriment as a community. While day schools and yeshivot have scholarship programs, these often do not go far enough. Too often, they also involve dehumanizing interrogations by panels of skeptical strangers, a procedure some parents just cannot put themselves through.

Parents in our area who want to provide their children with a combined and well-rounded Jewish and secular high school education could find themselves paying upward of $26,000 per child, taking into account tuition and such mandatory additions as extracurricular fees to capital fund and building fund assessments. One area school, for example, requires $7,500 to be paid over five years to its building fund, in addition to tuition-plus of more than $25,000.

Depending on grade and school, elementary school tuition-plus fees ranged from $13,000 to more than $25,000 this year.

Our area costs are slightly higher than elsewhere, but not by that much. Jewish education is costly.

Now consider household income for Jews in the United States. It is true that one in every four Jewish households have gross incomes in excess of $150,000 a year, but one in every five Jewish households have gross incomes below $30,000 a year. Most of the remaining 55 percent fall in the median range—estimated at $99,000 annually. Obviously, net income, meaning the actual household income, is considerably lower in all categories, which means that a family with two children to educate may have to allocate as much as half of its yearly gross income to do so.

As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Judaism agrees.

To be sure, the buck starts with the parents — “And you shall teach them to your children,” and so forth.

The buck, however, does not stop there. A well-rounded Jewish education is a communal responsibility as well. That is why Maimonides, in his code of Jewish law, says bluntly: “If it does not employ teachers, the [community] deserves to be destroyed.”

That is also why Judaism holds teachers in such high regard. In Midrash Rabbah to Lamentations, we read that Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi toured various communities, to see how they handled the education of their children. “They came to a city and said to the people, ‘Bring us the guardians of the city.’ [The people] fetched the captain of the guard and the magistrate. The rabbis exclaimed, ‘These [are not] the guardians of the city! They are its destroyers!’”

The guardians of a town, the rabbis explained, are the teachers of its young and the instructors of its elderly, as it is written (Psalms 127:1), “Except the Lord keep a city, its watchmen rise in vain.”

There are many reasons for why education is regarded as a communal responsibility.

“Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood…,” the Torah decrees in Leviticus 19. “Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt on his account…, [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.”

In Jewish law, “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” means that we must be proactive in looking out for the welfare of everyone in our community.

“Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt on his account” means that when we see that something is wrong next door, or down the street, or even across town, we must not sit back and say it is someone else’s problem. It is our problem, for we may “not stand idly by.”

“[And] you shall love your neighbor as yourself” means that what we would do out of love for our own family, we must do out of love for our neighbor’s family.

Elsewhere (Leviticus 26:37), the Torah tells us, “And they shall fall one upon another.” Explains the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud tractate Shevuot 39a), “this teaches us that all Israel are responsible one for another!”

“Kol Yisrael aray-veen zeh la-zeh.” Everyone in the community is responsible for the morality, the ethics, and the actions of the people of that community.

Elsewhere (BT Shabbat 54b), the Talmud says: “Whoever can turn aside his household [from doing wrong] but does not, is seized for [the crimes of] his household. [If he can prevent] his fellow citizens [from doing wrong, but does not], he is seized for [the crimes of] his fellow citizens. If [he can prevent] the whole world [from doing wrong, but does not], he is seized for [the crimes of] the whole world.”

In each instance, the community or the neighbor is not being punished for what someone else did, but for what it or he or she failed to do. “This is not my concern” was an oft-heard refrain. Yet it is their concern; all Jews are responsible one for the other.

That responsibility begins with educating children. Newborn children are empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge and understanding. They not only acquire that knowledge and understanding from their parents, but from the nature of the society around them, and from the nature of the people who make up that society.

That is why Jewish law requires collective, communal responsibility when someone takes the wrong path. It is because the community, which collectively shared in the upbringing of that person, failed him or her.

For those of us concerned about the Jewish future, educating our children is the most taxing problem of the Jewish present.

There is no room here for sectarian differences. If we want a better Jewish tomorrow, we must act today.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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