“I Can Do Jewish on $40,000 a Year”: A Head of School Responds

By Steve Freedman

A recent blog post in The Times of Israel, written anonymously by “A Jewish Father” has received a lot of attention in the day school world and on social media this week. While many have commented on his tone, motive and politics, the real issue is the pain and frustration that led him to walk away from Jewish day schools, synagogue membership, kosher butchers and more. I do not want to judge his motives or level of commitment, but rather, the complexity of the issue.

To some degree, we have a circular problem. This father cannot afford Jewish day schools for his children because of his high expenses including, but not limited to housing, medical insurance, food and more. Many parents are in the same bind.

Like parents, teachers and school administrators also are confronted with high expenses, and need a livable wage. And if you want highly qualified and competent educators, you have to pay them fairly, or they will go elsewhere, or leave the teaching profession.

Day school is more expensive today than it was decades ago. And in many cases, wages have not kept pace with increases in the cost of living. At most day schools, 70-80 percent of all expenses go towards salaries and health benefits, and still these teachers make less than their peers in the public or other private sector schools. The author mentions a school where tuition is only $5,000 per year. If that is the case, there is no doubt in my mind that the teachers are not earning a livable wage. The math simply does not work, unless their community is underwriting the tuition.

In today’s expensive world, we make our choices. I am a father of four children. My wife and I sent our children to Jewish day schools, and took out loans to get them through college that we are paying back, happily. We made personal sacrifices to send our children to day school. That was our choice. We do not look back for a minute. And it is not because I am a Head of a Jewish day school. It is because we have been committed to what is important to us. Our children are now grown, and making their own lives, and not only are we proud, what we “sacrificed” along the way seems insignificant compared to the people they have become.

In the end, what we choose comes down to what we value. This father can make every argument in the book about unaffordability and expenses, but he is making a values choice. I do not judge him for his choice but let’s just call it what it is. He may regard as unfair his inability to save, or to ask grandparents for help – I see it as a choice. Sometimes we have to make choices that feel unfair, or existentially unjust.

Our choice was to send our children to day school, and to not save for college, but rather, to take out loans instead. So I chose one path; this father chose another. My grievance with his piece is that he felt the need to justify his choice by writing a scathing opinion piece that squarely lays the blame of Jewish unaffordability on schools, butchers, supermarkets and synagogues, without considering the people who are trying to survive and earn a living in those institutions – most of whom do not make $350,000.

Finally, Jewish life is a communal choice as well. Decades of research clearly demonstrate the long-term success of day schools, Jewish summer camps, and trips to Israel. These are the greatest guarantors of a strong and vibrant Jewish future. Since real costs are much higher than decades ago, and salaries have generally not kept pace, Jewish communal leaders have to decide how much of their resources will go towards  these transformative educational experiences. It really does take a community to ensure our children’s future and Jewish continuity as a whole.

Lastly, our tuition at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit is nearing $20,000; about sixteen percent of families pay the full amount. The average tuition paid at Hillel ends up being closer to $11,000 per child. How do we keep our doors open, and pay our teachers well, enabling us to attract amazing teachers? Because the sense of communal responsibility in this city is deep and strong. Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit allocates more than $1 million dollars annually to Hillel, and provides generous support to the other day schools in our community. In addition, we have generous philanthropists who give significant sums of money, as well as an ongoing relationship with a local foundation that has made Jewish education a top priority. The support of these individuals and organizations did not happen accidentally; it is the result of many years of methodical and tenacious education of donors about the importance of day school philanthropy by giants in our community; David Hermelin z”l, a former U.S. ambassador to Norway, was foremost among them, and his legacy lives on today.

What happens in Detroit can happen elsewhere. This, too, is a choice; a choice for communities to make every effort for Jewish life and all its components to be affordable for all.

Steve Freedman is Head of School at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit. Founded in 1958, Hillel inspires a passion for learning, responsibility to self and community, and devotion to Jewish living in a warm, innovative and engaging environment.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Send to Kindle

12 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I think the writer had some valuable observations. Why is travelling to a hotel for Passover a requirement? Why not eat at home like our forefathers? My family eats meat only on Shabbat and holidays, and chicken occasionally during the week. Most of our weekly meals are vegetarian or dairy. I also don’t see summer camp as a necessity–it is very nice, but it is a luxury.

  • Wow, the idea that not asking grandparents for help funding day school tuition is a choice is remarkably tone-deaf — not everyone has grandparents who are alive, not everyone has grandparents with lots of money, not everyone has close relationships with grandparents, not everyone has grandparents who are Jewish, etc. I’d hope a head of school would realize that family circumstances vary, and asking for family help is not only a privilege, but a privilege that not all have access to.

    • G,

      Thanks for your response. Sorry you read my comment as tone deaf. I was responding to the author of the original blog. I certainly do not assume parents have grandparents or others who can help. If families are fortunate enough to have others who can help, that should not be viewed negatively, that’s all.

      For the record, we had no help. We received some assistance and we chose to live a modest life. No fancy cars, big houses, summer camps, or costly vacations. So I do get it. These were our choices and we never regretted those choices. As I wrote, for most, not all, it comes down to a values proposition.

      • I understand where you’re coming from, but don’t call it a “values choice” and then claim you’re not judging. You clearly are, and you are also just as clearly missing the central critique, which is that the idea that the norm of tuition constituting 40-50% of a Jewish family’s take-home pay in order to afford life with one or two children is not only financially unhealthy; it’s unsustainable in the long run for Modern Orthodoxy to continue this way, and indeed, the evidence shows that this state of affairs is contributing to the death of Modern Orthodoxy in the United States. I’m glad you were able to afford to send your kids to day school and that you had to take out loans only for college. Others aren’t so lucky. And when we raise these concerns, this is always the answer we get. It’s our “values.” We’d rather have a house or college savings or retirement savings. That and a lot of scare tactics about how ***public schools*** (including excellent suburban public schools) are cesspools and that there is no way to raise a properly educated Jewish child and send them to ***public school***.

        The evidence shows that Modern Orthodoxy in the United States is indeed unsustainable. A little-reported factoid from the Pew Study showed that the conventional knowledge about day school tuition acting as a form of birth control had some basis. No group of American Jews – and that includes Conservative and Reform Jews – has a lower percentage of adherents between the ages of 18 and 29 than the Modern Orthodox community. With haredi Jews, it’s 32%, and with Conservative and Reform Jews, it’s 13 and 17% respectively. With MO Jews, it’s 9%. Big MO families often move to Israel, and it’s to avoid this high tuition bill, not just because of ideological reasons. There may be other reasons for this discrepancy, but it’s hard not to conclude that the price of tuition is one reason.

        And I’d challenge the retention rates. What studies have been done on MO retention specifically? I think MO Jews often hide behind the general retention rates for Orthodoxy, which includes the high birthrate haredi and chassidic communities, in order to make the situation seem much better than it is. A recent graduate of a prominent day school in the New York tri-state area suggested to me that a significant percentage of her graduating class of three years ago was still on the derech, and that this was particularly an issue with the girls, who were tired of being told that their education did not qualify them for religious leadership positions in Orthodoxy. I have a feeling that what MO day schools are really doing is providing material for insular communities. And it’s not surprising. Few MO Jews can afford to go into teaching or the rabbinate. They certainly can’t do it if they want to have more than one or two children and send them to school. And that’s why we have relatively few MO teachers and rabbeim in our schools.

        We need a better approach than this, and the idea that in a community as wealthy as ours we can’t find it without essentially forcing everyone to earn an upper-class salary is just extremely unfortunate.

        • To the comment about public schools: you are playing Cesspool Roulette. You are wrong not to fear sending your kids to public schools. If you have had a recent and I mean in the last 20 years, go visit them.
          I made the mistake of living in upstate NY where there was no Orthodox high schools. My daughters went to a very highly regarded suburban high school and I almost lost them. The forces are very seductive. They’re at an age when they question their parents values. There were no restrictions of the kids leaving school grounds to go eat. The kids partied and did drugs and sexual mores were out of control. Maybe your kids will be strong but don’t count on it. My husband and I were away for a weekend and hundreds of kids pushed into my house, drank our liquor and broke crystal. I asked the principal if I could talk to the students about how wrong they were. He told me that they have no responsibility of what students do after school hours, whereupon I asked why do you teach sex education. Is that something they do during school hours? Silence. I called every parent if the kids who broke in. Eventually the mother of the kids who broke my crystal paid me for it.
          I’m not trying to scare you. I’m just trying to tell you that the hippies got their way of imposing a non values value system. Good luck in public school. I give every extra nickel I have for my grandchildren to stay in Jewish schools. Remember the people in Egypt who reached the 50th degree in Tumah never got out of Egypt. The Ethiopian Jews risked being tortured by being hung by their feet and their soles scratched off but their soals were in tact.
          Pinching pennies or borrowing is no comparison. But I agree with one thing, the Jewish community must try to make Jewish education more affordable. I hate to think of the kids who will be cut off.

  • I think the “Jewish Father’ is telling it like it is. Tuition need not be an either-or situation where either a teacher in a day school can make a living or consumers can’t afford it. We as a community have not yet figured out a way to provide livable wages (and benefits) for those in Jewish service AND lowering tuition where it is no longer obscene.

    Also, I’d consider again, Mr. Freedman (and this attitude is prevalent) when you bring the day school choice down to values. No question this plays a big part but shaming families for their financial anxiety and subsequent decisions gets us nowhere. There is great sacrifice on many fronts to send kids to day school and it’s not just a matter of eliminating vacations and upper middle class extras. People are truly struggling and if their decision is to find another similarly effective venue for Jewish education it does not indicate weak Jewish commitment. We can feel superior and question values or we can use some compassion, communal muscle and financial acuity to work toward a better solution.

    • Thank you for your comments, Susan. No shaming intended. I was one of those people who faced the financial anxiety year after year for several years, so I have great compassion for all those who truly struggle. Thank you for agreeing that value choices play a big part – that was my point. It does not negate the anxiety it causes.

      As for a communal response – that is exactly what I wrote in the blog above. It will require the will of the community so that teachers earn a livable wage and the typical family will not have to give up everything. It is true that the real costs of day schools are higher than decades ago – mostly because income has not kept up.

  • “Lastly, our tuition at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit is nearing $20,000; about sixteen percent of families pay the full amount.”

    What is the actual cost to educate per student per year?

  • More argument for the unsustainable status quo. Pretty sad. I too read last week’s anonymous blog post about staying Jewish on $40k. It resonated with my wife and I. The angry denunciations that followed reinforced the guy’s points. Demands for his identity reinforced the points others made about public shaming. So far I haven’t read one thing to persuade me that anonymous father is wrong. We have three kids, we live in a small community, and we’ve still fought to hold it all together. More empathy if not sympathetic changes would be right. But not arguing for the failing status quo. Please, no.

  • It’s confusing to me that no one discusses the role of generational wealth in upper middle class Jewish communities. Everyone talks about income and assets but no one mentions the transfer of wealth through down payments, payment for college and graduate school, paying for camp, preschool, weddings, bar mitzvahs, vacations. It’s wonderful that Jewish families are willing to help establish their adult children and to pass their wealth down during their lifetimes. But these invisible transfers are rarely fully accounted for in tuition calculations.

    If I make the same income as Person A but Person A has no debt and Person A’s parents are helping to pay for preschool and Person A also received a down payment from her grandparents and Person A expects help with college tuition for her kids and to inherit substantial wealth by the time Person A retires, Person A has a lot of invisible assets that are not on the form. I may make the same income and have the same housing cost as Person A but we are not in the same class.

    Truly middle class people pay for everything they need and their children need from their salaries. There is no expected help from outside sources — you’re it. It’s up to you to create and earn everything you need and everything you want to give your child.

    If day school means that neither Person A nor I will have much extra money, that’s actually fine for Person A because if the car breaks down, it will be taken care of, if there is a medical emergency, it will be taken care of, and if the kids need anything, it will be taken care of. If a lot of money were unexpectedly needed, some stock or real estate held by the extended family can always be sold. Person A may not have thousands of dollars in her savings account but her extended family has access to tens of thousands of dollars for the right kinds of expenses.

    In contrast, I have to save for my children’s college and pay for the bar mitzvah on my own and for summer camp and for orthodontia and for everything else my children might need. If I can’t save because I give almost all of my extra income to the day school, then I am passing down my class problems to the next generation instead of building wealth so that my child might someday be more like Person A. Most responsible middle class people still have debt. Financial aid calculations assume that you will make minimum payments on your debt. If I do that, how will I ever get out of debt?

    So let’s talk about values. Does it make sense for me to put myself into a situation of ongoing financial instability simply because I really want to give my child an intensive Jewish environment? Shouldn’t I really be saving my extra income and then paying the dentist and the mechanic and getting ready for the bar mitzvah and for college? Isn’t that exactly how Person A’s family became the people that can now afford to help Person A? I mean … most Jews are not descended from European royalty or slave traders.

    Maybe day schools — even with financial aid — are an elite experience that is really meant for the children and grandchildren of someone who made it, regardless of the income on the form. Those of us descended from the Jews who never really made it should perhaps be trying harder to improve our lives economically instead of trying harder to fit in with the Jews who already have.

    Basic rules of getting ahead: work hard, save money, don’t buy things you can’t afford. Jewish life has become a very expensive commodity. Maybe those of us who can’t afford it should create our own communities instead of continuing to use other people’s resources in an unsustainable way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.