Friday, July 10, 2009

a rant on tzedaka

You are probably better off reading a blog like Orthonomics rather than mine for discussions of the financial crisis in the Jewish community, but I want to rant about a recent event in my community which I thought illustrative of some of the larger problems. Two newspaper stories that appeared about a week apart: the first about a Rebbe from Boro Park who was hosted for a fundraising breakfast widely endorsed by askanim and Rabbanim on behalf of his yeshiva, the second about a local girls' high school which the board of directors overseeing it decided this week to shutdown ostensibly because of financial difficulties. Question: how can it be that in one of the wealthiest Jewish communities in the Unites States, a community that has the resources to fund yeshivos far afield of its geographical location, yeshivos which will not have kollelniks saying shiurim in that community, which will not have graduates moving back to that community, will not even have graduates who teach in that community's schools, how can this community allow a high school which services its own to collapse? How does this make sense?

But who am I to dictate how tzedaka should be spend -- who indeed can set such terms? The answer is the Torah can. Is there not a halacha of "aniyei ircha kodmin", that the poor of your city take precedence? Is there not a halacha that when hundreds of boxes are being packed on Thursday night for Tomchei Shabbos because people in the community literally need help putting food on their table and there is a shortage of funds and manpower to make that happen that fixing that need should be a priority vastly more important than insuring that a Rebbe from some other community can keep his yeshiva running? I guess you need to be a semi-anonymous blogger to get away with saying these things.

In my not-humble opinion the primary tzedaka directive of any community should be to make sure people have food and shelter. The second most important tzedaka is to make sure there is a place to daven, a mikvah, and schools. Only when those needs are met should members of the community be pouring funds into outside charities, which I have no doubt are worthy and important, but must take a back seat to the community's own needs.

And when I say needs I mean needs. A shul can get by without stained glass windows and a high school can exist without offering 10 AP courses and having a full gym program. A school cannot function without paying teachers and a shul cannot get by without paying its electric bill.

Just like the meaning of "needs" has been forgotten the meaning of the word "community" has been lost. It would perhaps require a miracle for the directors of a shul to say to a person giving a check for those beautiful stained glass windows, "Thank you, but that yeshiva really needs to make its payroll more than we need that window, so maybe you would like to give your check over there..." It is very hard to do that even if that school is just blocks away from the shul... after all, how many of our mispallelim really send to that school? And doesn't that school have its own supporters? And who is managing the money there? etc. etc. And let's face reality: your name looks really nice in stained glass, but no one really knows who helped the yeshiva make payroll.

Even if the community pooled its resources effectively, institutions need to become leaner and better run. The tuition at one local high school is posted at $24,000. Question: when the average wage in the United States is about $42,000, how does it make sense to expect a parent who may have 2 kids in high school to have $48,000 in excess income just to cover both tuitions? It's just not possible. A more affordable program may require sacrifices in terms of courses offered and extra-curricular programming, but it must be done or that school deserves to fail.

The first steps to remediating issues like these are obvious. How about audits by a community va'ad of rabbanim and professionals, much like annual reports issued by public companies? How about schools sharing resources to garner the savings of economies of scale? How about handling tzedaka through a pool which then is distributed to local institutions based on proven need rather than the whim of individuals? How about reconsidering whether a new shul or new kollel is really needed and can be sustained or whether it amounts to being poreish min hatzibur from existing institutions and robbing them of funding? There are many other good ideas out there which need to be explored.

I'm too cynical to hope discussions about these issues will do much good because the people with deep pockets who have political and financial power will determine their own course of action. We are communally headed off a cliff -- that's the real crisis.


  1. Anonymous12:05 PM

    One oversight in an otherwise incisive article: the $24,000 per child tuition is after-tax income. In the current climate, and particularly in New York, that could require almost double in GTI.

    A comment from a former AP teacher: the AP courses may actually be the most efficient in the school, as successful students get college credits for the course and thus may save thousands in college tuition per AP test successfully passed. This is admittedly a minor quibble in the face of the overwhelming argument you are making.

  2. I only mention APs because they sometimes require hiring additional staff in a specialty (e.g. AP history or English can be covered by regular staff, but AP Psych is harder) for a small # of students who want to pursue the challenge. It's efficient for the students who save the price of the college credit, but harder for the high school.

  3. Anonymous12:18 PM

    I agree. My AP classes in Calculus started with 15+ students every year, most of whom couldn't count past ten without removing their shoes. The year ended, typically, with five to six students, of whom 4 passed the test.

  4. It's interesting to think about a stripped down, back to basics, shorter hours school, with perhaps fewer hours for limudei kodesh than subjects that are necessary to earn a living. The kids can learn the basics, and focus on skills that will enable them to fruitfully be kovei'a ittim while they're working.

    But I'm not sure if I'm saying min'us and deserve to be hanged. I sound like those pests that are always kvetching about those bahnk kvetchers in Kollel. But even in Europe, the misty utopia of shtetl life, the fact is that kids were taught to read, learned the basics about gemara, memorized a few blatt of bava metzia, and were sent out to earn a living at a young age.

  5. Chaim-Can I use this as a guest post?