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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Jewish Press Editorial: Our Chelm-like Leadership And The Crisis In Jewish Education

The following editorial was featured in the September 19, 2007 edition of the Jewish Press. The author, George Hanus, is a visionary and I am reprinting his editorial without comment below.

In Yiddish folklore, the real-life Polish town of Chelm was characterized as a legendary community of fools. According to this folkloric tradition, Chelm’s residents were exceedingly proud of their tradition of non-wisdom and convoluted insight into the world’s problems. They viewed themselves as brilliant.

There are many hilarious stories about the backwards logic of Chelm. Even Chelm’s beggars had their own matrix for proper conduct: Shlomo the beggar went every week to solicit money from a wealthy merchant to help feed his family. Each week the merchant gave Shlomo the same amount of money. One week, the merchant gave Shlomo a little less money saying that business was very bad that week. Feeling aggrieved, Shlomo responded with the famous line, “Because you had a bad week, why should I suffer?”

Chelm’s citizens lived with certain basic standards of expected behavior. The “fallen buttered toast rule” was commonly known and generally accepted. When toast was dropped on the floor, it would always fall with the buttered side facing up. One day a woman dropped her toast and it fell with the buttered side facing down. She ran to the Grand Illustrious Council of Wise Men of Chelm for an explanation as to how this unexpected violation of a rule could happen. After much deliberation, fumbling and arguing, the Council determined that she had obviously buttered the toast on the wrong side.

With that stroke of wisdom, the woman and the rest of the town were satisfied and reassured that all was well with the world.

These Chelm stories would be funny if they were confined to fairy tales. But sometimes our current American Jewish leadership act as if they were members of the Grand Illustrious Council of Wise Men of Chelm.

America is a country of many organizations. There are groups to monitor the environment, save the whales, rescue pit bulls, and restore abandoned buildings. The number of non-profit advocacy and charitable organizations ranges in the tens of thousands.

In our community, too, there is a plethora of specialized organizations. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations represents 50 national Jewish agencies from across the political and religious spectrums. There are Jewish organizations that focus on saving trees in Israel, maintaining water levels in the Sea of Galilee and preserving Jewish cemeteries. Everyone is aware of the myriad local Federations and rabbinic organizations.

The list of special interest Jewish organizations is lengthy. All these organizations are very important and do wonderful and magnificent things on behalf of the Jewish people.

But strange as it may seem, there is not one national Jewish fundraising organization whose sole focus is ensuring that every Jewish child has access, if his or her family seeks it, to a quality and affordable Jewish education, irrespective of stream of affiliation or financial resources.

Impossible, some will say. If there is not a national Jewish organization that is solely focused on funding Jewish education for all of our children, then surely the existing national philanthropic Jewish charity chests and Federations and rabbinic organizations have made funding Jewish education their number-one agenda item?

Every year, most organizations hold annual conventions to discuss the issues most relevant to their constituencies. Yet there has not been one national Jewish fundraising organization, lay or rabbinic, that has dedicated its entire annual plenary or general meeting to the crisis of funding Jewish education.

Not one rabbinic organization – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist – has convened its national convention and put communal funding of Jewish day schools at the top of the agenda. One rabbinic organization did find time in 2005 to pass a resolution that opposed the prominent display of the Confederate flag on the front lawn of the South Carolina state capitol.

Assimilation, intermarriage, and general spiritual malaise are dramatically impacting the trajectory of Jewish continuity. It is widely known that there is a direct correlation between increased Jewish education of children and their subsequent involvement in the Jewish community as adults. It is also well documented that many Jewish families would love to send their children to Jewish day schools but can’t afford the high tuition.

The answer is clear: Lower the cost of Jewish day schools so that they are universally affordable (or, better yet, free) and many more kids can attend; increase the quality of the educational experience by dramatically increasing salaries for teachers who can then earn a dignified living wage. This will attract more of the best and the brightest to the profession.

These suggestions, if implemented, would reverse the rapid course of American Jewish assimilation. Logic and self-preservation would dictate that every national Jewish philanthropic and rabbinic organization stop business as usual and hold national emergency meetings to discuss and implement massive funding of Jewish education.

In many ways we live in a surreal modern-day Chelm, and our Jewish leadership is reminiscent of the Grand Illustrious Council of Wise Men of Chelm.

Should our contemporary version of the Grand Illustrious Council of Wise Men of Chelm meet in the near future to discuss the problem of exorbitantly high tuitions preventing Jewish kids from receiving day school educations, the first thing they would do, in all likelihood, is convene important sounding committees and blue ribbon commissions to study the issue. If past performance offers any indication, they would, after much self-righteous and tortuous hand wringing, publish a very lengthy report with fancy graphs and charts and then do absolutely nothing.

And after all that they would probably implement the precedent of the “fallen buttered toast rule” and opine that Jewish kids are prevented from receiving a day-school education because their parents are obviously not working to full capacity and not earning enough money to pay tuition.

Chelm is a nice place to hear about in fairy tales. It is an altogether different story in real life. Let’s stop this institutional foolishness and join together to demand that every Jewish child be granted his or her legitimate birthright: communally funded Jewish education.

George Hanus is chairman of the Superfund for Jewish Education andContinuity; Jewish Broadcasting Network; World Jewish Digest; and the JewishEducation Leadership Institute Graduate School of Education at Loyola University. He is chairman emeritus of the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago.


Mo'ah Kemo Efro'ah said...

"Yet there has not been one national Jewish fundraising organization, lay or rabbinic, that has dedicated its entire annual plenary or general meeting to the crisis of funding Jewish education."

leaving out orthdox orgs., i am not sure why this surprises anyone. most american jews don't think a day school is important and they never even consider sending their kids to one. this is obviously going to be reflected in the aims and missions of organized jewish life.

Halfnutcase said...

They included orthodox, because the problem includes the orthodox. We complain a great deal about funding issues, yet never do anything concreate.

However, I would suggest that one thing we could do would be to establish an account with a bank (I forget what they are called) that would donate enourmous sums of money to it, so that the school could live off the intrest (while not touching the principle, even in an emergancy. (or at least, not more in an emergancy than a certain predefined limit, and even then prohibiting access more often than a certain amount)). (maybe we should even assur part of the interest as well, to keep up with inflation.)

This way schools would not have to return to doners year after year for everything they need, and might hopefully be able to defray costs enough to make tuition affordable.

(and hey, that kind of investment aslo helps the economy so...) (and I should not be remiss to mention that much better a safe account with smaller interest than a more risky account that might lose everything.)

Ora said...

My first three reactions

1) If "the leadership" isn't doing it, you do it. How is whining about what existing organizations do or don't do going to help? At some point you have to realize that "the leaders" and "the rabbis" are only human, and perhaps won't always do what they could/should, and so others (such as the writer) will have to step up. (Given that this guy is chairman of the "superfund" it sounds like he is doing something--so there's at least one org working for Jewish education, no?).

2) It's not fair to say "Jewish leaders didn't dedicate themselves to education, but did speak out against the confederate flag." Issuing a brief statement about the flag takes less than an hour, while solving the problem of Jewish education would take years. It's OK to expect leaders to tackle the problem, but it makes no sense to criticize them for doing other things.

3) One of the main problems, IMO, is that a lot of parents are looking for more than a Jewish education. The community could afford to provide each child with several hours of Jewish learning every week. Most parents also want a school with excellent secular subjects. Can we afford to give each child a Jewish education and math, english, science, sports, etc? I don't know. I would assume it's possible, but only if the Jewish community funds education the way the US population as a whole funds education--by taking taxes from everyone, regardless of age or family status, and by keeping standards pretty low in most areas.

This is a problem that keeps being rehashed--the community could take the burden off of parents by taxing everyone, but then what about those who just finished sending their kids through day school and are in debt, or young people saving for their weddings, or those already helping with their grandkids' tuition,etc? In the end, if individuals aren't willing to do everything in their power to help this cause, there's nothing "the leaders/the rabbis" can do.

Mo'ah Kemo Efro'ah said...

1/2 nutcase:

i think you are referring to an endowment, which some schools do have.

"They included orthodox, because the problem includes the orthodox."

what i meant was that my explanation applies to all orgs. except for the ortho ones.

non-ortho parents generally do not send their kids to days schools, thus the national orgs. that represent them don't care about the issue. (and להפך historically some have opposed day schools outright, though i don't know if this is still true today.)

JS said...

"Chelm is a nice place to hear about in fairy tales. It is an altogether different story in real life. Let’s stop this institutional foolishness and join together to demand that every Jewish child be granted his or her legitimate birthright: communally funded Jewish education."

I don't know if it was intentional, but I find use of the word "birthright" interesting. Tens of millions of dollars are being donated to send each and every child to Israel on a 10 day trip (having gone on the trip I think it's a wonderful experience), but if I had to choose what our true birthright is it would be education, not a trip to Israel. It was education that sustained us these many centuries, not visiting a land we were prohibited from visiting for the majority of the same time period.

I wonder how much better off our educational system would be if all that money was diverted to various day schools and even bar/bat mitzvah programs.

Somewhat Anonymous said...

"The answer is clear: Lower the cost of Jewish day schools so that they are universally affordable (or, better yet, free) and many more kids can attend; increase the quality of the educational experience by dramatically increasing salaries for teachers who can then earn a dignified living wage. This will attract more of the best and the brightest to the profession."

I think every child should also get a pony.

Anonymous said...

Good article by George Hanus. I noticed it when it first came out.

We get magazine articles. We get young leadership committees. We government tuition tax credit proposals that will annually save us $65 per child.

What did Hillel say? If not now, When?

Elliot Pasik

Miriam said...

sorry to interrupt, but can I get your take on my lates post?

its about the problem and potential solution to the violrnce on mehadrin buses, tzniut issues, etc. thanks

Ahavah B. said...

We have a storybook of tales from Chelm and it was always my children's favorite. I'm rather fond of it myself, I have to admit.


What needs to happen is that our system of religious schools needs to be run more like a business and less like a slush-fund for the relatives of the Rav. The Yeshiva model simply isn't working for grade-schoolers, and it needs to change.

The only way to equitably fund schools and lessen everyone's cost would be for us to have our own "unified school authority" where all tuition and grants and donations and investments from all schools were collected by a single (non-rabbi) group of experienced business and education leaders (our "school board") who then ran the school systems by contracting for services and supplies centrally, to take advantage of economies of scale, and then distributing the instructional funds among all the schools per student capita. Investments and fundraising would benefit every school, not just the ones in wealthy areas.

Of course, the Ravs are absolutely not going to be willing to give up financial control of the schools and stick to what they're good at - spiritual advice and teaching. That would cause their finances and pay and expenditures to be examined and audited - and they certainly don't want that.


It may be time to instead work on forming home-school cooperatives. Kids of a certain age and grade level would go to a home and be taught as homeschoolers in very small classes, other age/grade groups to other homes - someone would have to act as a coordinator and assign children appropriately to a "class." Parents would pay a very small fee per student for the coordinators.

This model works for separatist protestant groups in other states, and with some tweaking it could work for us, too. The benefit is greatly reduced overhead - all the parents have to buy is the child's books and materials. No one has to pay for buildings and all the utilities and salaries that go with buildings. And even better, Homeschooling actually takes far less time during the day than regular schooling (and there are plenty of set homeschool programs for secular academic studies out there, which provide the workbook pages and teaching materials for every academic subject). Then the kids could have a bochur or rav come in to the class for religious instruction for two or three hours daily (depending on grade level), and then afterward even re-group to attend an orchestra/band or sport/hobby or academic "extra-curricular" club of their choice, all within the time for a normal school day. Most homeschoolers get the academic studies done before noon. That leaves the whole rest of the day for religious and recreational groups.

It's doable. And since tuition is the 1st and largest problem for people who are still living back east, it's an idea should seriously look into borrowing. You don't have to be a PhD to follow the pre-packaged academic programs. They are very easy to follow, and good ones even have a hotline you can call for assistance.

It's worth investigating, at least. And the Ravs won't like it, since it takes away their power and control, but we can't just continue bankrupting ourselves for their unrealistic demands. Homeschooled children have won numerous academic competitions and awards - and their college entrance exams are just as good and often better than conventionally schooled children.

And certainly if the protestants can do it, so can we. I would like to think problem-solving is our strong point, after all. We just need to be willing to take some control and do what's best for us and our families, regardless of who doesn't like it.

Halfnutcase said...

why don't we just get a group of mildly entreprenuial men to start a school board (for which they will not be paid) and a school to go with it (to which all board members children will go), and hire rabbis and teachers based on their experience and skill and just boot strap it, and see what happens?

Perhaps the yeshiva will turn out a better quality of school, and then all other parents will start sending their kids to this school seeing how happy the kids are etc, and then as the school grows it will squeeze out the other schools, and you can absorb their competant teachers, and get rid of the rest, and then hopefully as you have to open new branches, you'll eventualy take control whether the rabbeyim in the schools like it or not. (and perhaps as the dayan or local community rav's help in locating good knowledgable rebbeim, and possibly get him to sign off on the communal school and lecture to the students from time to time.)

I can bet you that if the tuition ends up being less than local schools, especialy if you turn out a higher quality student, then you will get plenty of students, if for no other reason than the families cannot afford the current yeshiva's tuition.

Anonymous said...

Ahava B's analysis of the problem, and potential solution, is on the money.

Elliot Pasik

twinsmommy said...

Ahava, do you know what the hoops have been like for the separatist protestant groups? (hoops through which they've had to jump with regard to charter school people claiming it's too much like a charter school and they need to go through charter school preparations before even attempting to open the school on a part time homeschool level?

And then it can have no religion if it has to go through the charter school stuff, no?

Having done very little research on the charter school phenomenon, it would seem that they'd be very protective of their mode of operation and be wary of anyone attempting to copy parts of it without having to jump through similar hoops.

When does a homeschool go from one mom sitting with her own children and filing her own paperwork with the state.... to a semi legal charter school knock off with other kids coming over and organizing as a private school in a private home?

I don't know--- I've asked these questions on this blog before but I've never seen a real answer.... ??

Ahavah B. said...

"Charter" schools have buildings and receive state funding. They are loosely affiliated with the public school system and are overseen by them. Homeschool cooperatives take place in people's homes and are fully self-funded. They are private schools, not "charter" schools. There is no overlap.

As for "attempting to copy" - on the contrary, there is a national homeschooling associations which offers help and gives out info for free - they, like us, don't trust public schools. There are also strictly Jewish homeschooling sites. Here are some URLs:

There is no law that says a homeschool can only school their own children. A cooperative is not any different than a single-family homeschool. You agree on a program of academic study and all the parents buy the materials. It is not strictly necessary to separate kids by age or grade, either - single family homeschools don't, after all - but if enough people join it will be more convenient eventually to do so.

I'm sensing hostility in your reply, I apologize if I am reading it wrongly. Are you afraid of the authorities? Why? They have left Jewish private schools and homeschools alone and don't seem inclined to change. Is this just away to have something to harp on to deflect from a fear of dealing with Rabbis who won't approve? That is something that is going to be an issue, no doubt.

Basically, you have these choices:

1. You can try and wrest control of the existing schools away from the incompetent people running them (after all, catholic schools only cost parents a fraction of what Jewish schools cost - why is that?) - ok, good luck with that.

2. You can continue with the status quo and get deeper and deeper into debt until either your kids are kicked out of their school due to your inability to pay - or you lose your house and have wages garnished, etc., when credit card debts and home equity loans get out of hand trying to keep up.

3. You can opt out of the game and either homeschool yourself or homeschool with others in a cooperative.

If you have some other idea, now's the time. You have every right to be angry about this situation - it stinks. But claiming that nothing can be done is not only not true, it's not an option. Something HAS to change. For the great majority of families, things CANNOT go on the way they are.

And dumping the kids in public school is simply not an option for most families. That only leaves two alternatives: radically change the way the schools are run and funded NOW, or opt out. Time is up. People are broke. There is no magic bracha to wave and make a solution fall from the sky - it is the PARENTS who have to put their foot down and decide how to put a stop to the bleeding red ink.

Scary? You bet. But it has to be done.

SephardiLady said...

TwinsMommy-I really don't understand what issue the local public school district would or could have with parents who homeschool, but do so in a co-op fashion with other homeschooling parents. My friends who "homeschool" all share resources with each other and do get togethers for field trips and science experiments.

Personally, I love the idea of a co-op. Sharing the work and sharing your own skills takes a lot of pressure off of parents. I think the difficult part is getting together the right mix of people to capitalize on their skill sets.

Twinsmommy said...

No hostility at all. Just trying to understand. My twins are only 9 months old -- I'd be very open to putting them in a homeschool co-op 5 years from now if indeed it's legal and moral, etc etc.

So you can do ANYTHING you want as a homeschooler/unschooler as long as you don't ask for money? I'm not afraid of the authorities--- I am, however, afraid of the slippery slope that creates.

Ahavah B. said...

In our municipality, you go to the school board and get a packet with the state laws and a form to register your home school. Here, you submit the children's year-end report cards. The kids also are required to take the same standardized test to get their high school diploma that public school kids must take. They also still need to take the ACT and/or SAT to apply for college. The law may differ in your state - not all states require tests for elementary, middle or high school graduation. If yours doesn't, there are "testing centers" that will give kids a standardized test from your state for a reasonable fee, so you can see how your child is doing. The California Test of Basic Skills for your child's grade level is a popular option.

Some homeschool programs will take care of all the paperwork - you mail the children's work in every week and they grade it and send out report cards. Those programs cost more, of course. Some have DVD's or CD's for instruction in subject you're weak on. Some have subjects that can be done as computer exercises. The reason you can choose any program or combination of programs is because each child has unique needs and learning styles. That's what makes homeschooling far and away better than public school for many kids - their learning style simply isn't note-taking and sitting still for hours on end.

The cooperative can set standards for how often/what grade levels to administer or go to a center to have administered for you a standardized test.

The cooperative can meet with representatives of various home school programs to select the academic portion of the kid's day. If even that is too expensive, you can buy used books from your local schools - then all you would need to order is the corresponding workbooks. Ditto for the religious instruction. The whole idea of the cooperative is that you WOULDN'T be doing all this alone, having to make decisions in a vacuum, and nobody could "slack off" or the other parents will notice.

S. Keptic said...

Anybody have any comments about how the homeschooled idea will play out in the Shidduch parsha?

(call to reference#9)
caller: do you mean that his/her 5,7,9 & 10 year old siblings all don't go to school?

ref: no, no, no. They go to school in their neigbor's homeschool.

ora said...

s. keptic--
Presumably, anyone narrow-minded enough to reject a potential bashert because of the school that they/their siblings attended would be likely to reject a home-schooled shidduch. At some point there comes a time to say "so what." Allowing your family to sink tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt in order to impress a potential narrow-minded future shidduch is NOT a good lesson for the kids.

SephardiLady said...

I think it is bad policy to live one's life in fear of shidduchim.

Anonymous said...

"I think it is bad policy to live one's life in fear of shidduchim."

I've harbored this thought for some time.

One who fears man too much does not fear G-d enough.

Elliot Pasik

twinsmommy said...

ahava, helpful answers, thanks! Do you homeschool your children?

JS said...

I'm curious how grades work and how colleges view homeschooling. Do children receive a report card or a GPA? Do colleges think this means anything when a child is homeschooled and mommy is giving the grade? I've always been very intrigued by the idea but wouldn't want my child adversely affected by not being viewed seriously by good colleges.

SephardiLady said...

JS-Do a search on homeschoolers and college. I've read plenty of general press on the subject and it appears that homeschoolers not only have no problems getting into college, but have been accepted into top schools like MIT.

For those who will consider alternatives such as homeschooling, I think it is important to remember that you don't have to "marry" the idea until death do we part. I know families that homeschooled up until high school, families that have homeschooled a year here and a year there, etc.

There was also an interesting article in the Wall Street journal about parents that telecommute and homeschool. Fascinating stuff and definitely on my list for a future post.

Anonymous said...

I think, Friends of Efrat is the best Jewish charity around. It simultaneously achieves major religious and political aims. I found it here and donated that same day which is sort of unusual for me.

Mindy said...

Just an FYI, this article was printed originally in the World Jewish Digest, not the Jewsh Press. They reprinted it, obviously, and I hope they credited WJD properly.

Anonymous said...

nice posting.. thanks for sharing.