By Mayer Fertig – The Jewish Star
After years of talk about a tuition crisis, many families that scrimped and sacrificed to send children to yeshiva in the past have hit a financial wall.
“Many children will end up in public school as a result of all this,” said Rabbi Shneur Wolowik, director of Chabad of the Five Towns. He says he is inundated with calls for help from parents who simply have run out of options.
“Parents have to choose between having a home foreclosed on or having a Jewish education. It’s a very tough decision,” he acknowledged.
An email he received this week from a woman in the Five Towns outlined her situation: “They have two children, she’s pregnant with a third, they’ve all but canceled the babysitter, have two old cars and a very simple home. She said it’s either tuition or their home and they can’t be homeless. She did the numbers with me and, unfortunately, she’s right.”
The children are now registered in public school.
The mother of a 17 year-old girl told The Jewish Star, “I registered my daughter in public school yesterday… I can’t begin to tell you what that moment was. It was horrific.”
The girl, who lives with her mother in the Five Towns, had gone to yeshiva her whole life. Her father, who is legally obligated to pay tuition according to the terms of a divorce decree, nonetheless elected to stop paying just before her senior year in high school and her mother lacked the means to pay it alone. Yeshiva officials insisted that the tuition must be paid anyway.
“I really understood their point of view,” the mother said , “but there has to be a way.”
In this case, there was.
“When I told my parents I’m not fighting this anymore, I’m just putting [their granddaughter] in public school, they hit the roof,” the mother related.
Her parents “called in all their trump cards,” and exerted enough pressure that the school reversed its decision. An attorney friend will represent the mother at trial to try to force her ex-husband to pay up.
“What if someone doesn’t have the kind of family I have, who can hustle and bustle and make miracles?” she wondered. “I love my children but they’re not worth more than somebody else’s.”
“Rabbi Wolowik described approaching a man on behalf of a family in tuition crisis, who already pays his own hefty tuition bill. The man took out a home equity loan in order to help.”
Most schools contacted by The Jewish Star said they did not know of any students who would attend public school on account of a family’s inability to pay tuition.
Hebrew Academy of Nassau County (HANC) expects “to have a school full of children for this coming year, despite these tough times,” said President Lillian Borofsky. Any family that requires assistance would receive it, she said.
“That’s always been the policy and I would imagine it’s always been the policy in most yeshivot. I mean, come on, that’s the business we’re in.”
But it seems clear that some parents whose backs are to the wall financially are being forced to make nearly impossible decisions.
“I have seen families decide which children are going to remain in yeshiva based on age group,” said Mark Honigsfeld, co-president of Hebrew Academy of Five Towns and Rockaway (HAFTR). “There has been an emphasis on grade school and middle. Parents say, ‘I need my kid to have a foundation.’ You can educate two lower school kids for the price of one high school kid. You get more bang for your buck.”
HAFTR is facing “desperate situations” that in previous years were solved by fund raising. “In the past there were always a couple of families who quietly, lishma [for its own sake], said, ‘O.K., I’ll take care of it,” he said. Now, “it’s like the perfect storm.” Families that always paid full tuition and contributed to the scholarship campaign themselves have lost jobs and are struggling.
“We must take care of those families first,” Honigsfeld said firmly. “Difficult decisions that have never had to be made by the past two generations by HAFTR, on the finance side, must be made. We are, in essence, playing G-d: who is going to stay and who is going to go.”
He couldn’t quantify how many children who otherwise might have attended HAFTR or other yeshivas would instead attend public school, but Honigsfeld said HAFTR is examining the possibility of opening an afternoon Judaic studies program.
“It used to be called Talmud Torah,” he said, referring to the after-school learning program that educated generations of Jews before the advent of yeshivas and day-schools. “We’re exploring it. I don’t know if there’s a need for it. We’ve heard from other yeshivas that they are experiencing similar situations and, although I don’t have direct knowledge from other schools of families that have left, we’ll know in September.” If there’s a true need then a HAFTR afternoon program could be pulled together to begin right after the holidays, he said.
In Merrick, an Orthodox shul, Congregation Ohav Shalom, has operated an afternoon Judaic studies program for many years to service families in the community that send their children to public school. This year more than a dozen new students from the Five Towns, and at least one from West Hempstead — most were yeshiva students — plan to attend.
“Every parent that speaks to me, I tell them, your kid belongs in Yeshiva,” said Dr. Mel Isaacs, the principal of Ohav Shalom’s after-school program, and the former director of education for HANC. “It’s very disheartening that they’re taking them out. On the other hand, you have to provide a service. The kids can’t go into a vacuum. It’s my hope that as soon as this financial crisis winds down they’re going to put their kids back in [yeshiva].”
In the meantime, Isaacs, a Long Beach resident whose after-school program stresses helping children “feel good about their Jewish-ness,” plans to supplement the regular curriculum of Siddur study and the weekly Torah portion. Students newly transferred from yeshivas will be taught Chumash on grade level; fifth and sixth graders will learn Mishna. The school will also participate in the Chidon Tanach competition as it used to do many years ago; once the school fielded a winner who went on to compete in Israel.
Several Orthodox families spoke to The Jewish Star about their experiences sending children to public school instead of yeshiva.
“It was a really difficult decision,” said the mother of a 4-year-old boy who required occupational, physical and speech therapies. “We were on the fence pretty much until the day before school started. We enrolled him in both places.”
Her older children are in yeshiva but she was afraid her 4-year-old would “slip through the cracks” in a yeshiva pre-school. She had planned to send him to public school for just one year; he’s registered in yeshiva for September.
A Long Beach family with nine children that moved from Los Angeles in 1994 placed two of the children in public school to obtain special ed services, explained their mother, Debbie Wapniak, in an interview. The older one, now 25, is a married mother of two with a Masters degree in special education; and her brother, 22, attends college and is studying for semicha at Yeshiva Shor Yoshuv in Lawrence.
“I got him tutors in Hebrew. It’s not like he didn’t learn. He was bar mitzvah-ed; we’re shomer Shabbos,” Wapniak said. “But we had to teach him at home until he was able to get a chavrusa [study partner]. There was no Talmud Torah for him to go to. That really ticked me off. There should be a Talmud Torah for kids who can’t go to yeshiva.”
Elaine and Marty Wiener of Woodmere hosted an open house last week for families to learn about the after-school program in Merrick. They were preparing to marry off their daughter Allyson on Tuesday, a day after Elaine spoke briefly with a reporter.
“This is not in lieu of yeshiva,” she stressed. “These are the kids who are forced to go into public school either because of financial reasons or learning reasons.”
“When you’re in a financial bind and your back is against the wall are you going to send your kids to yeshiva or are you going to put chicken on the Shabbos table?” she asked.
The Lawrence school district was “accommodating,” she stressed, rescheduling school events away from Friday nights and providing kosher food, but she also described being in a “no-man’s land.”
“In the Orthodox world we’re looked down upon because ‘How could you take your kids out of yeshiva?’ and in the public school world our kids are wearing tzniusdik [modest] clothing and don’t participate in after-school Friday night programs.”
This year her 10-year-old daughter, Julia, is going into the Lawrence Middle School; her twin 17-year old sons, Charlie and Jeremy, will be seniors at Lawrence High School. Both boys plan to go to Israel next year.
“My biggest fear,” Wiener said, “is that my [younger] daughter didn’t have the chance to have any kind of Jewish education.” She will attend the after-school program in Merrick.
Her older daughter, Allyson, attended HAFTR and HALB but graduated from Lawrence High School after the family suffered severe financial problems. She remained active in NCSY and studied in Israel, “and she came home so to the right,” Wiener said, sounding amused.
“People shouldn’t be afraid,” to send a child to public school, she said, “if they have done the right job in their home … and Allyson is an example of that.”
Rabbi Wolowik was less optimistic.
“There are very few children who will walk out of a public school setting being Shomer Torah and Mitzvos,” he said. “You can’t kid yourself. There is nothing in a public school for a Jewish child.”
“No child likes to go to two schools in one day,” he added. “Some children resent going to one school. At the end of a long day, to start doing Judaic studies — it’s not going to work for long.”
The mother whose high school-aged daughter was accepted back to yeshiva at a reduced tuition agreed: “It’s so hard to keep them on track as it is, in our frum environment — and we have problems too. To put them in [public school in] an environment that would lead them to completely leave frumkeit (Torah observance), for a dollar? They have Bikur Cholim and Hatzalah — there should be just as big a benefit, that big a charity, for tuition, when it’s just as important,” she insisted. In public school, “You’re just setting them up, and you can’t tell me that a frum Jewish soul is worth risking, for money.”
“I look at it as a matter of spiritual life and death, chas v’shalom,” Rabbi Wolowik said. “And it’s not only the parents’ responsibility to give their children a Jewish education. It’s the community’s responsibility to give children a Jewish education. Because the Halacha is even if I have no children to pay tuition for, and let the yeshiva close from my perspective, I have my personal obligation to make sure that every yeshiva stays open and gives an education to every Jewish child.”
He described approaching a man on behalf of a family in tuition crisis, who already pays his own hefty tuition bill. The man took out a home equity loan in order to help, Rabbi Wolowik said.
“This is a cry and a plea to those who have [resources],” Rabbi Wolowik said, “to come over to their rabbis. And if they don’t know a rabbi they can call Chabad [of the Five Towns at 516-295-2478] and I will direct them to a rabbi or a family that is in need of tuition help. Make checks payable to Chabad’s charity fund and 100 percent of the money will go directly to help pay tuitions. For that matter, if they wish, they can direct it to a Jewish institution of their choice.”
“We are all into kiruv, kiruv, kiruv,” Rabbi Wolowik added. “We also have to make sure we hold onto those we already have — those who are getting lost because we don’t have the funds for Jewish education. If we don’t want this child to marry out tomorrow, we have to get them a Jewish education today.”