By Mark Bane
Unaffordable yeshiva tuition often seems like the weather: everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it. Like so many challenges facing our community, we are content to blame the “system,” assuming there is someone both responsible for addressing the concern and equipped to do so. But, despite our kvetching, we rarely provide sufficient resources to find the necessary solutions.
Change, however, is in the air.
Our community is on the verge of realizing that solutions are possible with broad communal involvement, hands-on lay involvement, and a willingness to provide appropriate funding and manpower.
The first step in that direction led to an unprecedented breakthrough in New York State’s recent budget, including funding to partially reimburse yeshivas and other nonpublic schools for the costs of providing education in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Though historic, this achievement is just a step in the right direction. But it’s a pivotal step that teaches us an important lesson: The lay involvement and communal participation that made the STEM program possible can lead to further success in alleviating the tuition burden.
It all started four years ago, when a “tachlis-focused” discussion regarding the tuition challenge was initiated. A group of parents met in my office, together with representatives of numerous day schools and yeshivas and representatives of the Orthodox Union. An impressive spectrum of the community was in the room: yarmulkes of all types; parents and school representatives of both single-gender and co-ed day schools; Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Parents in the Syrian community had played the pivotal leadership role. The differences in the room were substantial, but the unity of purpose was even greater. Thus, Teach NYS was born.
The group recognized that our mission raises the tension of balancing the degree of bitachon (faith) one can have that Gâ€‘d will address the need with the degree of hishtadlus (effort) that is required to justify the bitachon. We understood that reliance on Divine intervention must be preceded by the minimum human effort that could reasonably achieve the goal. The group therefore tasked the OU’s staff with exploring what effort and expenditure the political marketplace would deem necessary to achieve significant results.
The findings were jarring. Focusing on New York State tuition funding alone would require millions of dollars. Our mission required a significant monetary investment, including professional lobbyists and consultants, and extensive lay involvement would be critical. The reports, however, were also encouraging. The political experts advised that with appropriate investment, success was achievable, though certainly not assured. Moreover, there was a consensus that the Jewish community would likely realize a return greater than its investment.
The wheels began to turn. Money was raised from both individuals and participating schools. School principals and shul rabbis joined the effort. Most significantly, lay involvement grew.
While by no means intended as exclusive, the OU initially focused on New York State because the state’s over 140,000 yeshiva students represent more than half of the nation’s yeshiva day-school population. Moreover, while New York State’s nonpublic-school students comprise about 16% of the state’s student population, they receive less than 2% of the state’s education funding. This inequality begs for a solution. The goal was to expand to other states in the near future.
While achieving substantial, long-lasting tuition relief requires continual focus and effort, the Jewish community’s commitment and investment have begun to bear fruit.
Teach NYS’s efforts, along with those of others, have helped increase New York State funding for nonpublic schools at unprecedented levels. Perhaps most significant, however, is that for the first time in any state, New York State has included STEM funding in its budget. This breakthrough allocation is most significant as it creates a predicate for substantial further growth in state funding.
The accomplishments to date are impressive, but merely preliminary. If day-school parents are to realize the relief they deserve, much work lies ahead. The Orthodox Union is ready to continue our work on this effort, but we call on all segments and members of the community to join. We will need to increase available resources, expand community unity, and, perhaps most importantly, grow active lay participation.
These are the hard realities of hishtadlus. But, as our respective contributions each constitute a tefillah (prayer) to Hashem for His intervention, and our communal unity serves as the eternal supplication for hashgachah pratis (Divine Providence) and siyatta d’Shmaya (help of Heaven), we can have bitachon that our pleas will be answered.
Mark (Moishe) Bane is the president of the Orthodox Union and a senior partner at the international law firm of Ropes & Gray, where he is chairman of the firm’s corporate-restructuring department. He has written and lectured extensively on Jewish community issues and is a cofounding editor of the journal Klal Perspectives.