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Charity Begins at Home
The Chinuch of our Children -- Commodity or Communal Responsibility?
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
Publication: Mishpacha Magazine

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10/10/08

Dear Readers:

After a long layoff, I resumed my Mishpacha series of columns. I hope to get back to parenting Q&A right after Yom Tov.

With so few days left to our Project YES benefit concert -- many of them Shabbosos or Yomim Tovim, please place your ticket orders and/or inform us of your consideration of a sponsorship by calling (718)758-3131 ASAP.

Thanks and best wishes for a gutten Shabbos,

Yakov

Charity Begins at Home

Imagine that one of your married sons recently lost his job or is working hard and just not making ends meet. He and your daughter-in-law are struggling to pay for groceries for your grandchildren. As a caring parent, you have been assisting the couple with whatever discretionary money you can send to them. One Sunday afternoon, you get a call from a friend who is collecting funds for a needy family overseas.

You:

a) Politely decline to participate and explain that you have more pressing needs closer to home at this moment.

b) Offer a small donation and continue to direct the bulk of your assistance to your children and grandchildren.

c) Give a large donation to the overseas family and suspend supporting your children.

I assume that you answered choice ‘A’ or ‘B’, depending on your ability to participate in a small way to the other worthwhile cause. But choice ‘C’ would seem to be rather unusual behavior. Even a casual reading of halachic sources would indicate that your obligation to your close family members supersedes those of non-relatives. If fact, halacha – and common sense – informs us to draw concentric circles, like the ripples of a stone tossed in a pond, with our primary responsibilities beginning with the innermost ring. The Rambam clearly states (Hilchos Matnos Aniyim 7:13) that our initial duty is to our family members, followed by the poor of our neighborhood, and then the needs of those far away.

I would strongly suggest that we apply this logical thread to our overall ‘tzedakah portfolios’ and examine the amount that that we invest in the chinuch of the children of our community. Discounting the ever-rising tuition costs incurred by Yeshiva parents, and the resources donated to the galaxy of fundraisers that are also mostly supported by the parent body of these schools, there is sadly not much communal support for Jewish Education nowadays. Other, more ‘glamorous’ tzedakos are successfully competing for – and receiving – our tzedakah dollars, while our schools are underfunded and our rebbeim, moros and teachers underpaid.

So using the ‘concentric rings’ model that I noted above, I believe it is fair to pose the question, “Where do our children who are currently in yeshivos and day schools fit in the equation? And, if I may be so bold, how do their needs – and the needs of those who we entrust their chinuch to – stack up against other charities?

To loosely quote Dr. Marvin Schick – who has been a tireless voice in the wilderness advocating for enhanced communal support for Jewish Education for several decades – chinuch nowadays is viewed by most members of our kehila as a commodity like a bottle of milk whose cost should be underwritten by the consumers (parents). This is a historic departure from our tradition of public support for the chinuch of our young children.

Even if your children are grown and your tuition-paying years are over (although more than a few grandparents nowadays are helping with the tuitions of their grandchildren), you simply cannot turn this page and feel that this issue does not affect you significantly. For the necessary and perhaps uncomfortable discussion about school tuition, teacher compensation and retention, teacher training, charity priorities and school affordability should be and must become a high-profile matter on our collective agenda – especially with the downturn in the economy and the inevitable shrinking pool of our charity funds. Parents of school-age children are staggering under the burden of paying tuitions and at the same time our schools are understaffed and underfunded. It is simply naive for us to think that we are not paying the price for this neglect – individually and collectively.

If you are unconvinced that this is the case, I suggest that you conduct your own informal assessment of the facts on the ground by asking the head of an elementary school the following two questions:

1. In your estimation, what percentage of your time is spent fundraising for your school and what portion is devoted to the chinuch of your students?

2. If the finances of your school were more manageable, what programs would you implement to assist those who are ‘falling through the cracks?’

Having served as the Director of (and fundraiser for) a high-profile at-risk program, Project Y.E.S., I can hardly be accused of insensitivity to valuable non-Yeshiva causes. But as the Dean of an elementary school and an advocate for our children who are simply not making it in our school system, I must pose these uncomfortable questions:

  • Should it be a higher priority – and much wiser – to invest in our school-age children rather than spending far more to ‘bring them back’ once they have failed in our schools that are operating on a shoestring budget?
  • Should keeping our own kids on the path to success come before our noble quest to enroll public school children in yeshivos?
  • Should kiruv rechokim (outreach) be getting a larger share of our tzedakah attention than kiruv kerovim (reaching out to assist our own schools and the children they serve)?

From my vantage point, educating and raising children is far more challenging today than at any time in recent memory. With that in mind, the discussion about our charity priorities and the funding of our chinuch system is one that is long overdue.



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