Monday, 18 September 2017

Responding to "I can ‘do Jewish’ on just $40,000 a year"

The Times of Israel blogpost entitled

I can ‘do Jewish’ on just $40,000 a year

seems to have created quite a storm. Almost everyone I run into, if I mention the article, seems to have already read it -- and the response is quite mixed. There are points with which people agree and points with which people disagree. It clearly has touched a nerve in the community -- on many different levels. (In the meantime, the author has since penned another post in response to the many comments he received. That post, entitled A Jewish Father responds to his critics is also on Times of Israel.)

While I could address many of the matters presented in the article -- some voicing agreement and some voicing strong critique -- there was one issue that really hit me -- albeit its subtle underpinning within the context of the presentation. This was the unspoken question of: what was the very need or purpose of Jewish education?  The author states that he spent $80,000 annually on Jewish day school education for his children until he took them out of the day school and put them in a non-Jewish private school at a great saving. But what was the non-monetary cost of this? It seems from the author that there was none or is none. In fact, the implication is that even aside from the financial benefit, the move was good for the kids. The question is not only: what this says about the value of Torah education in the eyes of this person? The greater question is: what does this say about the very perception of the value of Torah education in our world?

The author actually, somehow, addresses this issue and, from the answers he presents, one can see both what he may have personally thought to be the goal of a Jewish education and how society presents the reason. He speaks, for example, of fluency in Hebrew -- challenging the success of day schools in his world in this regard. Is this, though, the purpose of a Torah education? He also addresses the subjects of intermarriage and 'off the derech', two items often presented as important reasons for maintaining a day school education. He wonders, though, if both of these negative consequences are actually overcome with a day school education. The fact is that many kids who completed a day school education still went 'off the derech' so the argument may not actually be as strong as generally indicated. In regard to intermarriage, in fact, when I spoke to a person who was involved in the original research that showed that there was less intermarriage involving day school graduates, the researcher, in response to some of my questions, told me that while there was clearly a correlation between day school attendance and lower intermarriage, the actual causal reason f or this was still unclear. Was is because of the day school education or because the families who would send their kids to a Jewish day school were more personally committed to their Jewish identity and passed this on to their kids at home? Are the reasons for a Jewish education, though, to prevent a negative consequence -- simply to maintain Jewish identity and/or Orthodox identity?

This is to me the most frightening aspect of this article. Education should be about improving one's ability to function in the realm defined by the education. The purpose of a medical education is to teach one how to function and then function better as a doctor -- the better the education, the better the doctor. This author did not seem to see this. Is this because of a failing within our Torah educational system or some mis-perception regarding Jewish education and, as such, Judaism, in the author? I venture to believe the former. For Torah education to truly work -- and its cost to be recognized as having necessary value -- it must be seen as necessary in order for one to fully function, to the best of his/her ability, as a Jew. This means that the education -- all of it, through all the years and beyond -- must be seen as a practical necessity for living as a Jew.  One could only develop an argument to leave Jewish education if one did not believe it to be necessary. Is that a problem in the author of this article -- but then how could someone so involved in Torah observance possibly come to that conclusion? It may be that this author is informing us of something really problematic in present Jewish education as it may not only not be perceived as having practical importance in the totality of our Jewish lives but it actually is missing in this objective.

Torah education is a necessity. It is a problem if it is not seen as such. This must call upon us to make sure that the practical necessity of all the years of Torah education -- and beyond -- is recognized as necessary to live our lives as Jew.

Rabbi Ben Hecht


Sheila Tanenbaum said...

When I saw the headline, my first thought was that his family made aliyah.

sophomorecritic said...

It's a really tragic story for sure that this guy is being priced out of religion and I hope it sparks a dialogue.

Medical school is for people who want to study medicine and they are already 18 and have an idea of where they really want to invest the study of their lives in. K12 shouldn't be the place for such hyperspecific focus anyway. The government here requires that students get education in secular subjects too and studies show Yeshivas are deficient in those areas, so perhaps for those two reasons, Yeshivas aren't really good places in practice. The author of the article alludes to some commercialized incentive to try to sell "Jews" on the value" of Yeshivas and that likely incudes communal pressure that links attending a Yeshiva to being a good Jew, but good on the author and others to see through it.

My understanding from interactions with Yeshiva staff and yeshiva students near where I used to live is that half the day is secular studies and half torah studies, so for cost reasons, I would think that sending a kid to school followed by a pretty thorough Hebrew after school program would probably leve the kid a little behind on torah studies but at least make sure they have more of a base in secular studies.

Perhaps in high school (when hormones are highest), you could transfer them to a yeshiva for four years provided the yeshiva can accommodate a 9th grader at a 9th grade level of study.

Anonymous said...

I'd cut the author a bit more slack, as he noted that he supplemented his kids secular education with Torah education from Chabad, presumably because Chabad has made this accessible and/or affordable.

Further, I wouldn't necessarily lay all the blame on individuals for the current state of affairs. If the community wants to achieve certain things, they need to do more than merely point fingers at individuals who have buckled under the pressures of modern life.

There are a lot of people whose Torah values are deeply felt, but struggle with financial or other survival-level challenges and are forced to make choices that others might be inclined to wag their fingers at. In other words, many do indeed believe that Torah education is necessary, but also believe that pikuach nefesh (eg. saving money to have food and shelter and medical care in the future) is also necessary -- and thus find a compromise so that they may invest, albeit partially, in both.

Ultimately, if the Torah community was genuinely interested in fostering more widespread and complete Torah education, they would find a way to make it affordable, instead of complaining that individuals are failing to meet the community's goals.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

My use of medicine was as a generic example of the very purpose of education at any level. The goal of Jewish education must be similar -- to provide the information necessary for one to live life, to the best of his/her ability, as a Jew. That decision, for one 18+, would be the person's but for a minor, as with all educational decisions applying to someone that age, it is the parent's. My point, though, is what should be the essence of this education; IOW what should be the subject matter of any Jewish education, at any age, given this goal? If one believes that the education provided is not really necessary for one to live life optimally as a Jew, my contention is that there is a problem with this education or with person's perception of what is educationally necessary to meet this standard. Now it may be that, because the practice of Judaism really does demand reason, Jewish education needs to be more intense in the teen years than the elementary years -- but, without answering that question, this is already dealing with the issue. If Jewish education can be so easily dismissed, than what is its value? Similarly, if one can easily arrive at a solution in regard to the proper balancing of Torah and secular education, it is often because the person does not really believe that much of either education is really necessary. The problem really exists when we understand that any limitation in either education is at a cost in the desired accomplishment of the education. Proposals that we can get by with less Jewish education really just implies that this education is not necessary for the desired result of the education. That, to me, is the real issue.