By “Sam Smith”
In retrospect, I’m not surprised that my first article on “Financial Realities in the Frum World” received such an overwhelming response (currently, 240 responses, plus a direct-offshoot article, “Suggestions to Address the Tuition Crisis” of 61 responses). I knew I was touching a raw nerve, because this topic has touched a raw nerve in me.
In trying to understand the reason for the raw nerve I’ve wavered between righteous indignation and guilt. I am outraged at some of the uncompromising positions the whole tuition business corners us into – as individual tuition-payers and as a community — while at the same time feeling guilty that I am outraged by it. The yeshivos are only trying to collect money for teaching our kids Torah, and paying less-than-ideal salaries to usually dedicated teachers. That’s why I feel guilty, because I love Torah, I love the ideals, I love the idealists in our midst. But I hate… I hate…
I had been having a hard time trying to put my finger on exactly what I hate. What do I hate about this situation and why do I hate it and do I have a right to hate it? Then, the other night, I came upon the answer as I was pondering a contract one of my children’s yeshivos had sent me and asked me to sign. And that answer is the “unwritten contract.”
The Unwritten Contract
When I became a baal teshuva I had certain expectations, whether I was conscious of them or not. These expectations were based on the ideals I was attracted to, and the assumption that if I followed through on the ideals, then the community I was becoming part of would follow through on the ideals too. This, in effect, became an “Unwritten Contract” — in my mind at least. The part I hate, or that at least incenses me, is the perception that the community – or, in this case at least, one specific yeshiva – is not following through on its part.
Let me explain myself.
My side of the “contract” was that if I did my best to raise my kids in Torah and be responsible about making hishtadlus in the world (i.e. doing my best to earn a living), while at the same time living as frugally as I could, then the institutions representing Torah would be understanding. That means they would accept my kids and do their best to teach them even if I simply did not have the money to pay full or partial or even any tuition (if I truly did not have the money).
What I didn’t expect, but what I have experienced, from one institution in particular, is this: We will not accept your child in the doors in the first place if you do not sign a contract to pay what we say you need to pay. We expect you to be grateful that we are giving you a reduction in our outlandishly high tuition and other fees. And thou shalt feel grateful even if that reduction is still more than you can afford, even if it causes you to go into serious debt. We will even send you a letter threatening to expel your kids, if you fall behind or become unable to pay what we said you need to pay.
Now, in all fairness, this describes only one of the yeshivos I send my kids to (two kids to the same institution). Others want their pound of flesh, too, but are not going about it in the same aggressive, and, frankly, highly un-Torah-like (IMO) way. It is quite enough to ruin one’s rosy state of mind. Practically speaking, I can’t switch my kids out of this institution now because they are good students, have friends and are happy. We managed to pay partial tuition in years past by going into outrageous credit card debt, which is now an unacceptable and untenable alternative.
In any event, the brutal truth is that, especially now that I have older kids, I am simply overwhelmed by all the expenses, unable to carry all my accumulated debt, and even the partial tuitions I am paying have pushed me to and over the edge of financial ruin. There is no retirement plan in my life, no hidden stocks, no wealthy parents, in-laws or uncles ready to leave me their fortune and rescue me.
After many years and many tuitions I simply didn’t make it financially, at least in contemporary, North American Orthodox-community terms. I didn’t become a doctor or lawyer or businessman. I didn’t marry into wealth.
In my darkest moments, it’s all a great communal hypocrisy. Some people simply can’t pay… even a portion of the partial tuition. Yet some yeshivos, while teaching kids wonderful, beautiful ideals like living austerely for Torah as did the Chofetz Chaim (including large pictures throughout the halls), make their parents feel like shmattas for not earning more than $100-150,000!
This is my “righteous indignation” side.
But then the guilt kicks in: They are only trying to keep the lights on, pay their rabbeim and teachers, overcome their own financial deficits, etc.
I don’t want to be fighting them, to feel that they are the “enemy.” But that’s the corner this situation paints me – and them – into. Parents and yeshivos become adversaries, rather than advocates. It’s a crime. And the toll – the spiritual toll: on parents, children and generations — is incalculable. There has to be a different way of doing this.