By “Sam Smith”
I want to share a conversation I had with the executive director of a yeshiva about the financial realities of raising and educating a family in the frum world today.
He said that households earning a combined $200,000 or more generally easily meet their financial responsibilities. Households in the $100-150,000 range, on the other hand, were “making it, but not necessarily easily” or were “making it but struggling.” He added he was talking about a typical family with 3-4 kids in yeshiva.
Then, he said, families earning less than $100,000 have “real issues” (including possible “marital” issues). Nevertheless, at his yeshiva, even kollel families, he explained, are required to pay at least $3,000 per child. No exceptions.
What if someone can’t pay?
“We’ll work with them,” he said, “but the board does not authorize me to reduce anyone’s tuition obligation to anything less” than the $3,000 per child. (And that figure doesn’t include lunch, transportation, books, tutors, etc.)
What does “working with them” mean? He wasn’t clear. Will they kick the kid out in the middle of the year if the parents can’t pay? No, he said. Will they forbid them from graduating and moving into the next grade? The conversation didn’t go that far. However, he was clear that the obligations were non-negotiable – even for the families that it might add to their “real issues.”
I thought to myself, Is there something inconsistent here?
In general I became frum to enter a society that valued the spiritual over the material. Yet, the reality is that the demands of this society create an arguably greater need for high-level material accomplishment than the society whose values I left behind. They force a person (without inherited wealth) to stay late at the office, take that second job, send the wife out to work, etc. – not to become wealthy but to pay the bills.
I glanced up at portraits of tzaddikim which stood high on the wall behind the executive director.
What would they think of this situation? What is the real message we are sending kids in yeshiva by painting romantic images of the Chofetz Chaim learning Torah in abject poverty, while at the same time, in effect, demanding parents make that $100,000 plus?
And what is the goal of yeshiva? Is it not to teach our kids the value of the spiritual over the material? Yet, what are we really setting them up for? To follow in our footsteps onto this ever-faster spinning treadmill of material accomplishment and obligation? Where does the cycle stop? How does one get out of the loop?
In my naïve, Baal Teshuvish way of thinking I guess I thought I was breaking this cycle; that my life would not be reduced to worrying about making more money; and even if it was, at least if I lived frugally and worked hard my kids’ yeshivas, if nothing else, would understand and not press me to produce money I didn’t have or make me feel worse about my financial situation than I already did; that they would seek the shortfall from the wealthier benefactors.
On the other hand, I fully understand where they are coming from. They have to pay rabbeim. They have to keep the lights on.
I have no answers. Only questions.