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Priced in: Taking charge of Jewish education

When doing Jewish is too expensive -- here's one way you can do it yourself

In September of 2017, I hosted a conversation at my apartment about the article “I can ‘do Jewish’ for $40,000 a year.” It’s a well-known fact that the cost of Modern Orthodox and Orthodox life in the US can be prohibitively high, and op-eds come out every so often assessing the claim, kvetching and occasionally providing tenable, or less tenable, solutions.

The participants in our discussion mainly focused on education, which our group of single and married people mostly in their 20s, 30s, and 40s felt was the most important, but financially challenging, element to living a Jewish life. At the time our son was almost a year old, and we wanted to provide him with a quality education, so it was top of mind for me and my husband too.

As an outgrowth of that discussion, I decided to start Olam Katan, a bilingual “drop off playgroup” with a preschool curriculum. Less than a year later, in September 2018, the first group of one-and-a-half to three year-old kids began attending Olam Katan. I’m sharing this because creating this program was doable, and as much as it’s been great for our family and the families with kids attending, the model is replicable and can help others who are inclined to access Jewish education affordably.

In our Lower East Side/East Village neighborhood in Manhattan, there are pedagogically sound part-time programs in nice facilities that offer no or nominal Jewish content for between $20,000 and $25,000 per year, and there is a loving Jewish program for a more reasonable amount, but it lacks other elements such as a modern space and Hebrew. Other options in Manhattan or Brooklyn are either cost-prohibitive, or too far away, or both.

Our salon group explored the possibilities of attending public school and having tutors for the Jewish content – maybe just for elementary school, or just for high school; we talked about the pros and cons of relying on Chabad the way the author of the “I can do Jewish…” article did; and we talked about the burden of not being able to save (or save much) for college, retirement, and other priorities. We mused about how it would be ideal to get a group of families together and pay a tutor a decent salary to teach a group of kids. That’s where the idea of this program was born.

I thought to myself, it couldn’t be that hard to make it happen, right?

The answer is, actually and surprisingly, no. With determination and under the right set of circumstances, it was manageable, and very worthwhile.

The following is an outline of the steps I took to take the program from an idea we tossed around to a reality for my son and other kids in our neighborhood.

Olam Katan is a part-time drop-off (meaning parents leave children there) program with a preschool curriculum; it meets two mornings a week from 8:30 – 12:00 at our synagogue. This fall was our first semester. We started with five kids, and we will have more in the spring. It costs $2,900.

We teach tefila, Shabbat, the parasha, holidays, Jewish themes and values, and use Hebrew and English. Our teachers sing and incorporate lots of music and movement. The program is play-based, and our kids do activities, crafts, and spend time outdoors at our local community garden. We provide kosher snacks and lunch.

Although I am not a professional educator, I run an education foundation, so I am familiar with various pedagogies, and the ins and outs of creating new programs. The details about Olam Katan’s philosophy and curriculum are for another time, but I can tell you that it was very important to me to use the best early childhood pedagogies and to make this school distinctly Jewish, including all of the elements above and more in age appropriate ways.

Of course, this is the way I created our program. Different people will have different approaches, resources and priorities, so this Idea can and should be tailored. There are also many good reasons to utilize existing educational paths as well. However, for those considering forging their own, here is one template and our story.

The first step was to take a leap of faith. In the beginning, I didn’t know whether it would look more like a tutor or a baby and me group or a part-time preschool, but I decided that’s where my son would be learning Hebrew and Jewish concepts in 2018/2019. Socialization was part of the plan from the beginning, so of course I wanted other kids to be involved, but I felt I could provide something better aligned with my values for less money than similar programs in the area even if no one else joined.

My plan was to create the bones for a program worth attending, do the work, then I would find a few pioneering parents to send their kids and split the cost. I think some people get tripped up hoping to collaborate with others; that can work, but only if everyone is extremely dedicated and reliable. Most people, despite their best intentions, are busy and pulled in other directions, so they are neither.

I definitely didn’t expect to tell people about my idea or write a think-piece (or ask my small, under-resourced synagogue) and have others make it happen. I rolled up my sleeves.

Second, I went into deep-research mode and learned as much as I could. I started with a cousin who runs a Jewish tutoring company. I wanted her perspective on the program idea, and she gave me a lot of good advice, including how to keep multiple toddlers engaged for more than an hour, the optimal number of children as we were getting started (four), and some leads on teachers. I spoke with early childhood educators at Jewish and non-Jewish schools, and I did research on regulations and curriculums online. It turns out there are lots of helpful resources for homeschooling preschoolers – not exactly what I was doing, but analogous in many ways. At this stage, I learned about (1) creating a Jewish preschool curriculum, (2) managing a “classroom” of toddlers, and (3) different ways of hiring and paying employees.

Fourth and fifth, I started talking to parents and conceptualizing the schedule and curriculum at about the same time. I knew about 10-12 families with kids our son’s age in the general area. Some parents had already signed their kids up for other programs. In New York, most twos and threes preschool programs require applications and deposits nine months to a year in advance, so when I was talking to families in May, the ones who were considering Olam Katan for September had not yet made final plans for every day of the week in the year ahead. If we’d started earlier, some of those kids might have joined. The schedule was based on what the parents who seemed most interested said would be helpful for them.

All the parents wanted to know two things: who else was signing up, and cost. Of course, before any kids were signed up, I didn’t know the answer to either question. The idea was to divide the cost of the program between families. I felt we could comfortably accommodate three to five children for our trial semester. There was some economy of scale, so if we had more kids, it would have cost less, however we also needed toys and supplies. There was also an added variable: what would I pay for our son’s participation? I was willing to pay more than my fair share because in my eyes, anything less than what I would pay for a time-equivalent program (two mornings a week) would be a savings. However, I also wanted to take into account that this was going to be a second job for me, devouring many nights and weekends, and that I would be responsible for the program once it began.

I used a little bit of salesmanship, but that is easy when you believe in what you’re doing. In addition to the obvious benefits – affordable Jewish and Hebrew early childhood program – I emphasized the desirability of a small group, excellent child to adult ratios, and that we had limited space – all true, but I made sure to frame it in a positive way, as opposed to saying “who knows if anyone wants to do this” or “we’d be lucky to get even one kid in addition to mine!” I excitedly told parents about plans for the curriculum, which is essential, and our lunches and outdoor space, which are added bonuses (I make all the food, based on the kids needs and preferences and bought a membership to our beautiful local community garden).

Once we had our first families signed up, more quickly became interested. I asked for deposits of 50% of the cost of the program to reserve spots; this encouraged buy-in and discouraged last minute changes of heart that would leave me scrambling.

I figured that some parents might want input, so I had left the curriculum open while I looked for students. It turns out I was mostly wrong. Our first group of parents were happy for me to keep the reins. However, having the early conversations helped me understand what different families were looking for; some parents prioritized Hebrew language, and others were attracted to the more religious aspects of the school, particularly learning the parasha.

Next, having a few families along for the ride, the most critical piece of the process was hiring a top-quality educator. Our teacher is excellent with this age group; she has an entrepreneurial streak, a sense of adventure, and a beautiful voice. Although I polled my contacts for recommendations, placed a few ads, and interviewed many people, I found our teacher through the 14th Street Y, and contacted her myself. She was teaching a Hebrew music class there and elsewhere with a colleague. For early childhood, singing is key, and here was someone with a track record of working with very young kids, and singing in Hebrew. So, I found a way to contact her. When we met, we clicked immediately; she had great ideas, and she was excited about this project. Hiring her and our assistant teacher, a college student with tons of camp and babysitting experience, at competitive rates, were the most important decisions I made as I was starting the program. Not everyone has the charisma, patience, and a nurturing disposition to be able to work with toddlers. And it takes special people to commit to an experimental program.

Together, our teacher and I mapped out what each class would look like. We made a regular structure that each day followed. In addition to our free play, tefila, Hebrew music time, and lunch, we planned three additional activities each day. We made learning goals, a class outline, and began gathering materials. Our teacher made most of the materials for our activities in advance. I also paid her separately for her work on the curriculum. I did this for a few reasons. First being prepared is always good, and second, in case she quit (God forbid), I could replace her with minimal disruption, having everything made and mapped out.

Finally, I asked two local synagogues where I have connections (full disclosure: my husband is the rabbi at one of them), and both were generously willing to let me use their space for Olam Katan. This wouldn’t have worked so well if I were not so involved that those in charge knew me well and trusted me, and of course, neither of the synagogues already had preschool programs. That said, if neither of those spaces worked out, I was planning to have Olam Katan meet in my living room. It would have changed the character of the class (and convenience for me, a working mother with a newborn) considerably, but it wouldn’t have stopped me. We are very fortunate to be meeting at the Stanton Street Synagogue.

I believe Jewish education should be accessible for all, and that two years old is too young to start paying day school tuition, but it is just right to provide formative Jewish social and educational experiences outside of the home and shul.

Of course, it’s not all about money, either: my son is having a wonderful first “school” experience. My barely two year-old knows the Mode Ani, Ma Tovu, the first paragraph of the Shema, Oseh Shalom Bimromav, Shalom Aleichem, some brachot achronot, and tons of Hebrew because of his time at Olam Katan. He talks about his teachers and classmates lovingly, and occasionally surprises us with facts about the parasha.

Our discussion group ended on a rather depressing note; costs are high and while we have choices, they are bad ones. If you are truly committed to living an Orthodox life, the reluctant consensus was, the costs are just part of the picture, and you need to arrange your life accordingly. Alternatives should exist, but don’t.

Well, now one alternative does exist. I don’t claim to know how to fix the greater cost of living issues facing the Jewish (and specifically modern Orthodox) community, but I do know that I saved upwards of twenty-thousand dollars this year and that my son and his friends are learning and happy. So am I.

About the Author
Lindsey has over 10 years experience leading a Jewish foundation and working in nonprofits. She is a rebbetzin, an attorney, and the mother of two under two.
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