by Elizabeth Mandel

The Jewish Costs of Jewish Education

My husband and I long ago decided that a Jewish day school education was a top priority for us. I attended Jewish day school from pre-school through high school, and that daily immersion in Jewish texts and a Jewish environment continues to enrich me spiritually and intellectually. My husband attended Hebrew school through his bar mitzvah. He found it stultifying, and he learned little. While he has spent time during his adult life studying, he feels like he can, in his own words, “never catch up,” the way a language learner who begins study in adulthood might feel impossibly behind next to someone who has been speaking a language since the age of three. He envies me the knowledge I wear like a second skin. 

And so, we decided we wanted our children to attend Jewish day school to have the opportunity to delve into the Jewish texts, rich in their nuance and complexity; to be immersed in Jewish traditions, from the laws and rituals to the songs and symbols, surrounded by a love for Israel, steeped in the importance of giving and contributing to society. We wanted them to spend their days as part of the Jewish community. We found a school that reflected our world views, combining a liberal, progressive pedagogy with deep learning and a commitment to religious egalitarianism.

But then we had our third child, and we became engulfed with worry about how we were going to afford tuition for all three girls. My husband and I began to examine the changes that we could make in our lives in order to be able to afford astronomical tuition costs. We already live fairly modest lives, and we knew that the change would have to be something significant, beyond cutting out the occasional dinner delivery. There were only two real places we could make such a change. We could move to the suburbs, where both living costs and tuitions would be less expensive, or I could stop freelancing as a documentary film producer, writer and editor, and go back to work full time. Since the birth of my first child I had first worked part time and then moved to freelancing, with an extremely flexible schedule. This enabled me to spend days at home with my children, go on class trips and to doctor appointments, to be with them if they were sick, to be home when the babysitter was sick. It enriched our family life and our individual lives in many ways—but not financially. 

After much soul-searching, we decided that leaving Manhattan was not the right solution for our family. Among other things, the commute would mean too many hours where we were neither with our children nor working. And so, when my baby was four and a half months old, I went back to work full time. In addition, I moved from a career in the non-profit arts sector, with a focus on social justice, into the private sector. (I want to acknowledge that I was extremely fortunate, in this economy, to find a job at all, and to find a job that I greatly enjoy. I am deeply grateful for the five years of flexibility I did have.)

Now, six months later, I am stepping back to see what we have given up in order to give our children a Jewish education. Here is my shortlist: an extended maternity leave with my new baby, significant time at home with my older kids, a deep involvement with their schools, my almost-guaranteed presence at every play, trip and pre-Shabbat singalong, Fridays home to prepare Shabbat meals and to host company, modeling a creative professional life devoted to social justice, money for trips to Israel, Jewish summer camp, college, retirement, the ability to give the kind of tzedakah we would like to give. (To the last item, it dawned on me recently  that as a recipient of some day school financial aid, I am a recipient of tzedakah; I question whether this is a good use of our community’s limited resources in the face of those with far more urgent needs.)

I am left confronting a great irony. Has organizing our lives around affording day school tuition, so our children can learn Jewish values, turned out to be antithetical to propagating and modeling Jewish values?

Our choices are also possibly having other, less tangible repercussions. Like so many of my peers I have, since becoming a mother, struggled with the dilemma of working vs. parenting. For me, this broader struggle has included trying to figure out what kind of female role model, Jewish female role model, I want to be for my three daughters. What will they learn from how I balance my professional, financial, religious and parenting priorities? How will my choices affect the way they see themselves and their expected roles in society, the workplace, the Jewish community, their own future families? What will my choices—first in following my passions, now in prioritizing paying for day school—mean for them when they make their own career decisions? 

Is day school worth it? Or would my children be better served, and have a greater—or more significant—exposure to Jewish values by having me around more frequently and watching me do  the work I once did, not to mention having time to spend with a far less stressed-out version of me? Would choosing public school, in this way, actually enrich my children’s lives, both Jewishly and otherwise? What are the Jewish costs of a Jewish education?

Motherhood in the “Lean In” Era

The articles in this special section:

  • Cheryl P. Stober

    After years of Jewish preschool, we made the choice not to send our kids to day school for a number of reasons. I still work as I always have, but now the money is spent on being able to live in a “Jewish area” with other Jewish kids in their public school (highly diverse) classrooms, on religious school tuition and active involvement in our synagogue, on Jewish day and overnight camps, giving tzedakah, and this winter, our first family trip to Israel. Yes, a degree of fluency might be lost on my children, but there will be no loss of identity. I hope they are gaining so much from all of these other experiences, too.

  • Jeremy Winaker

    I, humbly, would suggest that making changes in one’s life to afford day school is as strong, if not stronger, a statement about living Jewish values as working in the social justice sector. The current culture of American society is so focused on wealth, celebrity, and materialism that the lesson about budgets and values reverberates more loudly than in previous decades. I applaud your decision, even if you decide later it wasn’t worth it. The conscious choice means so much.
    Admittedly, I say the above as a head of school for a Jewish day school. On the other hand, I am a tuition-paying parent in a family also thinking about my wife working more so that we can afford it.
    I wonder, too, if our larger Jewish community–in addition to helping reduce tuition costs–could help families struggling to meet the costs of Jewish living be uplifted through belonging to communities that reflect our values. I know it is a goal of mine for our school to help do that.

  • Tamara Silberman

    Being a recipient of Zedaka shouldn’t mean that you feel guilty for giving zedaka. If your children attended public school, the cost is borne by the community. If your community is fortunate enough to have parnassim who enable your children to attend Jewish school, than the cost is borne by the Jewish community, not the secular-largely Christian –community. This way you are exercising your freedom of religion, something that has become harder with the decreased amount of discretionary spending that almost all families are facing. Jewish communities have always had parnassim and scholars. The debate should be changed from personal responsibility for tuition, to communal responsibility for inculcating our children with OUR values-not theirs.