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A Priceless Battle for Survival

Shimmy Blum

It is every Yid’s nightmare: their child’s yeshivah is fighting for its financial survival and announces deep cuts in programs. With America’s deep economic crisis showing no sign of fading, the hanhalah of Lakewood’s Yeshivah Bais HaTorah sent shock waves throughout the chinuch world when it announced that it could not continue to operate. A community-wide campaign has been launched to reverse these dire tidings, but this story is symptomatic of the reality that is facing many communities worldwide.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

One day last week, Reb Heshy Weisz, a resident of Lakewood, New Jersey, approached his eight-year-old son Moshe to deliver some distressing news: he may be unable to return to his yeshivah for the upcoming school year. Moshe’s yeshivah is fighting for its financial survival. “My son was very hurt,” Reb Heshy recounts. “He loves his yeshivah. Then, with tears in his eyes, he asked me, ‘Would I at least be able to be with some of my old classmates in the new yeshivah?’ ”

With the myriad external chinuch challenges facing children today, having financial problems obstruct their quest for Torah is a particularly disturbing reality to ponder. Young Moshe’s innocent tears symbolize the spiritual pain suffered by countless frum boys and girls across America.

“I’ve been in hanhalah for twenty-seven years, and this is the toughest financial situation I’ve ever seen,” says Rabbi Kalman Baumann, principal of Yeshivah Toras Emes in Miami Beach, Florida. “Some children may not be consciously feeling the pain, but most have lost out on precious chinuch opportunities as a result of the crisis.”


The Depths of Debt

The Weisz family’s predicament was shared by hundreds of families in Torah community of Lakewood, when word spread last week that a popular local cheder, Yeshivah Bais HaTorah, was closing indefinitely. The yeshivah, which was founded in 1999, boasts nearly 400 talmidim and is noted for its adaptation of the unique method of learning utilized in the “Zilberman cheder” in the Old City of Jerusalem. Described in Pirkei Avos and reiterated by both the Maharal and the Vilna Gaon, the Zilberman curriculum generally calls for starting with Chumash and Navi at age five, proceeding to Mishnah at around age ten, and only beginning Gemara at a later age.

Unfortunately, Bais HaTorah has experienced a continuous financial struggle. Last year, some of its rebbeim taught outside the yeshivah for several weeks when Bais Hatorah fell drastically behind in its payroll.

As the upcoming school year rapidly approaches, its rebbeim are owed roughly $500,000 in salaries, in addition to the roughly $300,000 in debt outstanding to vendors and other service providers. The yeshivah’s directors, parents, and Lakewood askanim have been working feverishly to try to restore the yeshivah’s financial health and enable it to open its doors once again to hundreds of eager tinokos shel beis rabban. The Lakewood rosh yeshivah, Rav Malkiel Kotler, shlita, and the mashgiach, Rav Mattisyahu Salamon, shlita — himself a grandparent at the yeshivah — have been actively involved in the process.

Between exhaustive meetings, Rabbi Binyamin Heinemann, Yeshivah Bais HaTorah’s founder and executive director, told Mishpacha: “We are working on several fronts to map out our future, but have yet to come up with a rock-solid plan to put the issues to rest. We are dealing with a crisis that all schools are suffering from. People have less money these days, and they are giving less.”

A National Dilemma

Lakewood is somewhat unique in its heavy concentration of kollel yungeleit and mechanchim, which represent a particularly large demographic in Yeshivah Bais Hatorah’s parent body. Such families, in general, have less wherewithal to pay full tuition. But school financial woes are not confined to Lakewood. Hanhalos in diverse communities across the United States are grappling with similar issues.

“I don’t have any statistics, but my impression is that there are few yeshivos or day schools in America that haven’t fallen behind in payroll during the past year,” says Rabbi Baumann.

At first glance, it might seem as though there are great disparities between the financial plight of chareidi schools in well-establised frum communities such as Lakewood, Boro Park, and Flatbush, and that of yeshivos or day schools in Modern Orthodox and out-of-town communities. The cost per student in chareidi, in-town schools generally tops out at the $6,000-$7,000 range, and the tuition rate is usually even lower. By contrast, tuition rates in day schools and out-of-town mosdos can easily run in the $15,000 range, with the actual cost per student exceeding that.  Understandably, median income, average family size, and other cultural and demographic factors vary greatly from community to community. School employee salaries and the extent of secular studies and extracurricular activities help account for the higher costs at out-of-town or Modern Orthodox schools, and the prevalence of very large schools in established chareidi communities greatly reduces the per-student costs for administration and other overhead.  

But the surprising commonality of the respective communities’ struggles indicates that blaming the problem on cultures and “systems” unique to an individual community is simplistic, and does little, if anything, to address a very fundamental problem.

Rabbi Moshe Possick, director of school supervision and the bureau of personnel resources for Torah Umesorah, explains, “Mosdos hachinuch have been in debt since their existence, but have always somehow managed to survive. Today, we have nothing short of a tuition crisis. The rebbeim aren’t being paid enough. The mosdos are struggling greatly and so are the parents. Think about it: can a breadwinner with three school-age children can pay over $40,000 a year in tuition out of their after-tax income? Can everyone afford that?”


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