To Ensure Excellence in Jewish Education, Invest in Jewish Day Schools: A Response to Hillel David Rapp

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Jordan D. Soffer

Hillel David Rapp recently argued in these pages that the source of Jewish day school unaffordability is not “complex.” To impress donors, schools assume unnecessarily high expenses, forcing schools to raise tuition and become more reliant on financial aid. This inflated dependency  increases pressure on the school to assume yet more nonessential expenses as they again attempt to impress donors. Rapp’s solution “is to stop giving money to Jewish schools. Let schools operate like any business and receive direct data from their end users via the most relevant economic signal — price.” People will pay what they can, and we will develop schools that exists within those limitations: “In a non-subsidized market, if there is demand for a no-frills education, a school will find a way to provide a no-frills education at a no-frills price.”

While I applaud Rapp’s creativity, and sympathize with his frustration, I believe that his diagnosis of the problem is inaccurate and his proposed resolution severely misguided. If taken seriously, this would provide a disservice to all learners and completely neglect the most vulnerable learners in our communities. 

The diagnosis is initially compelling, but ultimately unsubstantiated. The author suggests that rather than promote ingenuity and cost-efficient programming, our current paradigm incentivizes frivolous overspending in the hopes of securing major gifts. Educationally unsound decisions are made simply because they will entice donors. As an example, the author describes schools wasting money on hiring “fancy PR teams and professional party planners” in order to secure major gifts. 

These “fancy” expenses, however, are not what is consuming our tuition dollars, and they are not what drive pedagogic decision making. Even SMART Boards and iPads are not what make schools expensive. The single greatest contributor to a high tuition is hiring enough faculty, and the right faculty. As noted by my predecessor Rabbi Yehudah Potok, Stephen Kepher once observed, “If you want lower rates of tuition then you have to have either large class sizes or low faculty salaries.” Yet this is to forego our schools’ greatest assets. Accordingly, Rapp’s calculations are misleading, and his cycle is unsubstantiated.

Where I truly take umbrage, however, is less with his diagnosis and more with his proposed resolution.

No frills is a euphemism for no differentiation. Small class sizes and individualized instruction means more teachers, which means more salaries. Providing the type of support that helps learners of divergent interests and abilities thrive is, simply put, expensive. Students are different, and learn differently, and Jewish day schools have a responsibility to engage each and every student. 

This benefits every single one of our children, and allows us to truly pursue our sacred duty as educators. Beyond small class sizes and individualized attention, if we want to provide speech, OT, special education, or any other resources, we will continue to rely on the donations of our dedicated philanthropists. Similarly, if we want to be able to challenge and serve gifted and talented students, we will rely on these donations. And this is not even to mention such “lavish” expenses such as providing art, physical, or music education. 

Certainly, it is enticing to imagine a model that is economically sustainable and responds to the financial abilities of a given community, but when that model forces us to ignore unique student needs in the name of “no frills,” we have sacrificed our identity on the altar of affordability. 

Though the author never explicitly named these expenses, these are the costs that most often transform surpluses into deficits. We should not apologize for these expenses. In fact, these resources should be our greatest pride, and we should demand that day schools not only continue to provide them, but double down their efforts.

Providing a quality education is expensive. Schools are tasked with helping students to develop the creative skills necessary to engage with an ever-evolving world, while teaching the content knowledge necessary to allow students to pursue their dreams. Jewish education is even more expensive. Jewish day schools are additionally tasked with helping students develop positive character traits and a positive inclination towards Jewish life, while teaching the content knowledge necessary to be a fully participating citizen in the Jewish world. 

The author writes that the source of unaffordability is not complex. That is false; it is extremely complex. Schools are trying to offer a top-notch education while embracing all student needs. It is easy to blame neglectful and haphazard spending for day school costs, but this is not the true source of high day school prices. 

As the inheritors of Torah, and as teachers of our sacred tradition, it is our obligation to provide a top notch education and make space for as many learners as possible. “No frills” will quickly become “no room for differences,” and that is a far greater risk to diaspora Jewry than day school prices. Instead of asking them to redirect their contributions, we must embrace and thank our generous philanthropists for partnering with educators in achieving this mission.

Jordan Soffer is the Head of School at Striar Hebrew Academy in Sharon, MA. Previously, he was the Rabbi-in-Residence of Carmel Academy in Greenwich, Ct. Rabbi Soffer has a BS from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he studied Jewish Education, Hebrew and Semitic Studies, and Religious Studies. He continued his studies at Yeshivat Maaleh Gilboa and the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. He received semikhah from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and a Master’s Degree in education from Yeshiva University. Rabbi Soffer lives in Sharon with his wife, Marti, and their daughter Maayan.