Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

June 11, 2013 by

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 I feel that the daily immersion in Jewish texts and a Jewish environment during my formative years 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 to school to have the opportunity to rigorously 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 I became pregnant with and delivered 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 first worked part time and then moved to freelancing, with an extremely flexible schedule. This has enabled me to spend days at home with my children, as well as go on class trips and to doctor appointments, to be with them when they are sick, to be home when the babysitter is sick. It has 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, 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 also acutely aware that the issues I am struggling with now, most women have to struggle with when they have their first child, if they are lucky enough to have any flexibility in their work schedules at all. I am deeply grateful for the five years of flexibility I had.)

So, I went back to work when my baby was four and a half month old. 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, my deep involvement with their schools, my almost-guaranteed presence at every play, trip and pre-Shabbat sing-along, Fridays home to prepare Shabbat meals and to prepare to host company, modeling a creative professional life devoted to social justice, money for college, for 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 possibly also 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?

So now I am left to wrestle with the question, 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?

How do your choices regarding work life and home life align or misalign with the kind of role model you want to be?  How do they align or misalign with your values?  What adjustments have you made along the way?  What frameworks or ways of thinking have you found helpful in thinking this through?

photo credit: silkegb via photopin cc


  • Roseanne Benjamin

    That is an excellent essay. I am so often confounded by the sheer costs of being Jewish (ie. the cost of a room in the synagogue for a bris is $600, and that is before you pay for a mohel or a meal!)

    • Elizabeth Mandel

      Thanks for your comment, Roseanne. There are so many costs associated with living Jewishly, as you note. Synagogue dues, kosher food, I feel like there is a failure in the system, since these affiliations and commitments that are supposed to fortify us communally actually alienate many people for whom the expenses are just too great.

      • smi613

        i’m always astounded by the costs involved in belonging to a conservative or reform (or other) synagogue …. the average orthodox shul charges $300 a year per family ….. and there are still a few (at least in my area) that don’t charge at all ….

    • MarkSoFla

      The cost of a room is an optional cost – we did our brissim in our house. The cost was the mohel, the catering, and the tables+chairs rental.

      We have a saying in our house – “compared to tuition, it’s ‘nothing’” … and that applies to the mortgage as well :-(

      • Roseanne Benjamin

        It’s not optional if you live in a small Manhattan apartment. My living room can fit maybe 6 adults comfortably.

        • MarkSoFla

          That’s for sure! I thought of that a few seconds after posting my comment.

  • Christina

    This is fascinating. I wonder if this is just one of the many reasons American is moving toward a post-familial society? I’ve heard many reasons why people are starting to not have children or have fewer and a resounding one is that many feel they can’t give their children the childhood they had or better – Jewish or otherwise – because of the prohibitive costs of education, healthcare, housing, unsteady retirements, and family elder care for whom.

    • Elizabeth Mandel

      Christina, I do think so. We almost did not have a third child because of the costs of a Jewish education, and some people might say or think that we should not have. In fact, I know many families that have limited the number of children they had specifically because of tuitions. Of course, people limiting the number of children they have because of these prohibitive costs is just one more Jewish cost of Jewish education, since having children is a Jewish value, just as having children is highly valued in so many other communities. So, that might be a solution to the financial challenge of day school, but it does not solve the inherent problem.

  • Jessica

    Beautifully written essay, Elizabeth, with so many wonderful points. I went through Day School and this year had to make the difficult decision not to send our daughters to Jewish school because we didn’t get financial aid. Mind you, we make a decent living (and a good one, by non-NYC standards), but it would have meant giving up every extra penny we have or liquidating all of our life savings. Forget trips to Israel, cross-country travel to see family, and Jewish summer camp. Either Jewish schools are going to have to figure out a way to help out a lot more families (perhaps some major Jewish organizations should move some funding that goes to Israel into investing in American Jewry?) or Hebrew schools around the country are going to need a jolt of inspiration and energy. To be honest, I’m walking away from the process full of disgust at the Jewish community. There has to be a better way than making a Jewish education unattainable for anyone who makes less than $300,000 a year.

    • Elizabeth Mandel

      Jessica, thank you so much for your comments. It sounds like we are in very much the same situation. We, too, have counted high on our list of things we could do if we were not paying for day school both trips to Israel and Jewish summer camp (actually, in rereading my own blog I was surprised to see I had not included these two items, which loom so large in our conversations). Aren’t these as important, if not, according to some studies, more important, than day to school for Jewish continuity and enrichment? Another Jewish cost to Jewish education. I also wholeheartedly agree that there has to be a better way, and that somehow we, as a Jewish community, have collectively failed by not finding a solution to this problem.

      • Lesley Gendelman

        How much is too much? What about being offered financial aid but knowing you won’t have any money to do anything or any money to pay for emergencies? It is hard to know what the right thing to do is and how to give your children the Jewish Education they want.

  • Rachel

    I send my kids to public school and never even considered day school, despite the fact that we are committed to leading what I think of as Jewish lives. I think there is value in going to school where you are in the minority, just as in the “real world.” I think the fact that we send the kids to public school may make us more committed to regular shul attendance. I have a problem with what I think of as the insularity of day school… but then again, I am glad someone goes there and is more Jewishly educated that I am, for those are future leaders of the Jewish community. It’s complicated.

    • Elizabeth Mandel

      Rachel, I think this is also a very important element for many families as they consider where to send their children to school. I went to day school through high school, and I did not know ANYONE who was not Jewish (and, for the most part, white, with a few exceptions) socially until I was in college. It’s a very insular way to live, especially for residents of cities (like New York, where we live) that thrive on diversity. This has been a factor for us in our struggle, too.

  • Kara

    Elizabeth,

    This is a beautifully written, thoughtful piece. I admire your commitment to writing here and to giving voice to the complexity of women’s roles in Jewish family life, but your article leaves me with a big question – where is your partner in this? Are our lives so bound to traditional gender roles that you must be the preparer of Shabbat meals and at all the field trips? Can’t he find three hours to cook or to set tables or to be at the zoo?

    I am no stranger to the complicated choices our financial situations put us in – he makes more, so his job automatically becomes paramount – I get that, but don’t you both want to be able to share the parenting work by being “around more frequently” or have the girls “watching [him] me do the work I once did”.

    Maybe this issue isn’t exclusively about the undeniably astronomical cost of parenting jewishly, but also about a loosening of the gendered reigns on doing so?

    • Elizabeth Mandel

      Kara, while I appreciate your point, I would be remiss in not correcting your assumption. My family is blessed with an extraordinary husband and father who not only cooks Shabbat dinner almost every week (as a bonus, he is a terrific and creative cook), but also attends class celebrations at 1:00 in the afternoon, takes our older daughter to the bus and our middle daughter to school most days, packs lunch at least 50% of the time, and is fanatical about keeping the sink dish-free.

      My sense of loss is not in that there is _no_ parent to do the things I list above, but that _I_ want to do them. I took great joy in being available for my children when my work schedule was more flexible, and I miss them.

      In responding to this, though, I realize that I missed an important point about modeling. While I am no longer able to model all the things I list above, I am delighted that with my husband stepping in to the gap I have left, my daughters now have an even stronger model of what to should expect of husbands and fathers — a point on which I think you and I fully agree.

      • exhausted Mom

        Elizabeth, I can completely relate and sympathize to your feeling of missing your children while you work full-time. I also work full-time (so that I can afford day school and for the health insurance benefits) and while I am somewhat comforted knowing that my husband has a flexible schedule that allows him to be there for our 4 children, there is still nothing like the love and nurturing that a mother can provide. My husband does a great job with the food shopping, cooking, dishes, laundry, and other household errands that I just don’t have the time to do, and he is a devoted and responsible father, but I know that he can never be a mother, and it pains me that my children don’t have the warm caring presence that only a mother can provide. I struggle every day with the thought that I am doing my children a disservice by being away from home and away from them for so many hours, even though it means that they can get a great Jewish education.

        But the worst part is not just the many hours that I spend away from them in my very full-time job. The worst part is that I am so exhausted after a work day and a long commute, that I can barely function when I am actually spending time with my children before and after work and on the weekends. As soon as I put the kids to bed, I have to put myself to bed, otherwise I cannot function the next day. And a nap on Shabbos afternoon is obligatory if I want to catch up on sleep , even though I thought I would never be the old fuddy duddy who needs a nap on Shabbos afternoon.
        The other aspect of working full-time that pains me is that I don’t get to model the importance of chessed to my children. I want to get more involved in community organizations and volunteer to help those less fortunate, or even just to make a meal to help a neighbor, but these things are impossible since I can barely function well enough to be there for my own children (charity begins at home).

    • anonymous

      My husband IS my partner, but I work in Jewish education and he works in banking. He makes 10 times my salary. I don’t mind cooking dinner and attending field trips, because in the end, I know his salary will be able to give my children the gift of education. My salary can barely buy school lunch. Gender reigns? He does laundry, he bathed babies and he’s the homework parent, but teaching is still a predominantly female profession and if we had to live on my salary alone, we would barely be above the poverty line. Does being a teacher thrust me into a traditional gender role? Perhaps. Would I change it? Do blame the issues Elizabeth raises on it? Absolutely not.

  • Kerry

    Elizabeth, this was a wonderfully interesting essay to read, especially since my husband and I have been grappling with the same exact issues, except as Catholics — our pre-schooler and first-grader are currently in Catholic school. I attended Catholic school K-12, and my husband attended one for some time as well. We’d love to give the same opportunity to our girls, but as you and your readers have pointed out, to what end? For kicks, when we moved to our current home, we looked at the costs of tuition for the local private high schools — these are prices we’d hope to pay for college-level education for our now 4 and 6-year olds. We’re planning on enrolling our kids into public school within the next year (we’re grateful to have good ones close by – will still require us to move, though). These are tough decisions, for sure. This is a great topic, thanks so much for sharing your insight!

    • Elizabeth Mandel

      Kerry, this is so fascinating to read. There’s a pervasive belief in the Jewish community that no one is ever priced out of Catholic school, that the Church does a much better job of making education available to anyone who wants it than the less-centralized, less-structured Jewish community. I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had on this topic that have ended with someone asking why the Jewish community doesn’t take care of its kids the way the Catholic community does. I wonder where that idea started. I believed it, too, until I read your comment — and I’m so sorry for you and others that it’s not true.

      • Kerry

        Elizabeth, coincidentally, our school recently cut multiple-child discounts (a percentage discount for families with more than one child enrolled in the school) due to low enrollment projected for next year. Yet another blow to those wanting a faith-based education for their children….
        It’s interesting to see your other readers comment about wanting diversity as well — a friend put it to me as the children in her local private school literally being “hand-picked.” Not really the best way to introduce our children to the diversity of life they will face once they enter The Real World….

  • Isaac Shalev

    I’m not sure we have an affordability crisis as much as we have a values crisis. Consider that the poorest Jews are mostly Orthodox, and almost universally attend Jewish day schools. The schools are much more affordable than those of the Conservative or Modern Orthodox movements, or of community day schools. They also don’t generally lead to admissions at selective universities. Students who do go on to college attend city commuter universities, not private campus colleges.

    The differences don’t end there, of course. Houses are furnished with garage-sale finds. Cars are drive for 10 or 15 years. In short, many of the trappings of ‘normal’ life are sacrificed for the sake of providing children with a Jewish education.

    I’m not suggesting that those choices are the right ones for everyone. But I think we do need to acknowledge that choosing to live a Jewish life means sacrificing other wants on needs. Is that so bad? Living a Jewish life is tremendously rewarding, and I wouldn’t give it up to travel more, or even to be home with my kids more. I don’t know of a better way to give the gift of Jewish identity, heritage and community to my children than day school, so I choose it, and the inevitable sacrifices that come with it.

    • Elizabeth Mandel

      Isaac, I was interested to see that you have written extensively about the cost of Jewish education, including suggesting alternative models for funding, on your blog. Would you care to link to that here, or may I?

      • Isaac Shalev

        Sure, feel free to link.

    • Shari Weinberger

      Part of the problem is that you think one has to attend day school in order to live a Jewish life. It is completely possible to live a Jewish life outside of your box.

      • Isaac Shalev

        You mistake me.I have chosen school, but I recognize it is a preference of mine. There are so many types of Jewish lives that can be lived today. But there certainly are some Jewish lives for which day school is required our very helpful, and I have chosen to live one of those.

  • Naomi Jay

    I chose to send my son to Jewish day school, in fact it was so important to me that it was in my prebirth contract with my son’s father (we are an LGBT co-parenting family). I believe strongly in wanting another generation of Jewish kids who can lead a Pesach seder, chant Torah, have access to a deeper level of Jewish texts, and connect to Israel. After 13 years of Jewish day school (he chose to go to the local Jewish community high school), the only reason he can speak Hebrew fluently is because I took him on a sabbatical to Israel in middle school. Hebrew education is a failure – the Neta program adopted by too many school systems in North America is awful and is not serving its stated purpose – the kids hate it and they do not speak Hebrew after 9 or 13 years of it. Further, while I’m grateful we could afford the cost of tuition – it is unattainable for many middle class people who care as I did about Jewish education. The Jewish community needs to recognize that supporting Jewish day school education is an important route to continuity of Jewish leadership and for maintaining an educated Jewish community. We should support our day school systems the way the Catholic Church supports their school system. I am fortunate that my son had the education he received in both elementary and high school, but I fear that we were the minority of people who cared and could afford this.

    • Elizabeth Mandel

      Thank you, Naomi. It’s interesting to hear that even for those who are able to afford it, there are still huge concerns about what the system is delivering. At the same time, it is interesting that your son chose to stay in the system for high school. I would be curious to hear what made him choose to do so, and how you felt about that.

  • anonymous

    This may be the first article I’ve ever felt compelled to comment on, and it’s because this topic is so near and dear to my heart. Every year I have an anxiety attack over whether or not we’ll receive enough financial aid to keep our girls in day school. I second-guess what feels like my financial irresponsibility in regards to choosing day school. Having attended day school myself, I do believe it was the key element in shaping my Jewish identity, however my sister attended public school and is just as Jewishly connected as me. The school my daughters attend is a warm bubble of menchy love, & I do believe it’s the best place for my girls, although I’m often struck by the fact that when I waiver in this stance, it is my non-Jewish husband who speaks of the unparalleled education they’re receiving. I do believe that if he’d cracked, even once, I may have pulled them long ago. The hardest part for me, at times, is that I teach in the day school where my girls attend, so it feels extra harsh that I can hardly afford to send them. Jewish day schools need rock star teachers, and if their very own teachers can’t afford to send their children, well what does that say about the community’s values? Over the years, I’m shocked by the number of people in positions of power who shake their heads at me and declare they wish it were different, but then proceed to do nothing to affect change. As for the comment another made about the Orthodox values & second-hand stuff, I would say the vast majority of the day school families I know live quite modestly, not going out, and not buying new stuff. It’s hard and certainly feels unJewish at times. I applaud Elizabeth Mandel for her honesty, sharing her family’s tough decision, & for giving this issue voice.

    • Elizabeth Mandel

      I am very moved that this touched you so closely. I think you raise a really interesting point about day school teachers not being able to afford the institutions where they teach. Of course there is a larger conversation to be had about how we (both the Jewish community and society at large) value our teachers. In addition, I strongly agree with you about the “we wish it could be different” crowd. I don’t know what the solution is, but it does seem to me that restructuring this model should be an extremely high priority in Jewish donor circles. I know that the Avichai Foundation is experimenting with a model that caps tuition as a proportion of gross adjusted income, no matter how many children a family has; and that there are blended learning schools beginning to crop up around the country. There are also five Hebrew Charter schools funded by the Steinhardt Foundation open or opening around the country, including in our own neighborhood (we have recently decided we are going to try this next year). All these initiatives underscore the urgency of this crisis. It will be interesting to see what succeeds and how deeply.

  • Sidra

    I’m sorry but I am having a hard time being sympathetic. Both my husband and I work full-time and we still wouldn’t be able to afford Jewish day school past pre-K.

    • Elizabeth Mandel

      Thank you for this, Sidra. This perfectly and succinctly sums up the problem–that most families, even when both parents work full time, Jewish day school is unaffordable.

  • Shlomo

    Of course, if you make aliyah you can have Jewish education as well as a flexible lifestyle.

  • Victoria

    Elizabeth this is a great and timely article! I have mixed feelings about day school not only because of the cost but also because of the fact that the schools are virtually all white and mostly privileged. I struggle with whether sending my son in the first place was the right decision (especially because I chose a “progressive” day school over yeshiva and I gave up a lot of limudei kodesh for that although I do feel more comfortable among the parent body and am not embarrassed of the politics like I was growing up in yeshiva) and now I struggle with whether to take him out. It’s not like public school is such an easily accessible option in NYC either.

    • Elizabeth Mandel

      Victoria, as you will see in my response to Rachel, we struggle with the diversity element, too. In addition, in a similar vein to you, we decided that an egalitarian school was a priority for us. Throughout the application process, as we got to know the different choices, we worried that we were going to end up with a less rigorous Jewish education than I had at my modern-Orthodox schools. As it turns out, we ended up at a school that felt as robust as the schools I went to. But it’s just one more element in the decisionmaking process. To put it in the barest terms, “I’m spending all this money, am I getting what I think I’m paying for?”

  • Pingback: My Response to the Lilith Article on Affording Jewish Day School

  • Momto4

    We never considered day school (beyond the amazing Chabad preschool my little ones love) and we never will. There are a couple big reasons and several little ones:

    1. I would never pay half a million dollars for a subpar education in subpar facilities, which is what I’ve seen at almost every Orthodox day school. The kids are way behind in secular studies and they don’t even speak Hebrew after 12 years of study! They have no access to art, music, IT, or p.e. programs.

    2. The complete and utter failure of Jewish day schools to educate or help special needs students is repugnant to me and I would never support a school that won’t accept all of my kids and that has “counseled out” other kids with special needs. How many Jewish day schools have speech or occupational therapists? How many have special ed. teachers who can help kids with ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, etc.? Almost none, in my experience.

    Those are my big two. The lack of diversity, the unwillingness to adapt to changing times, and the lack of financial transparency are on the list, too.

  • Sara R.

    Why is this family the face of the tuition crisis in the Jewish community? Her husband is a banker, she is a documentary filmmaker who freelanced for five years and then chose to go back to work full time to afford tuition. They live in Manhattan with three kids. This should not be the face of the tuition crisis in my opinion.

    My husband and I both work full time because we have to. I am pregnant with our first child and am already worried about the cost of Jewish day school in the New York area. We have committed to a modern Orthodox lifestyle, looking for a day school that achieves high in both secular and religious studies. We want our future children to aim high, attend good colleges, graduate school if they want and have good jobs on which they can raise their families. We worry how many children we will be able to have considering the cost of housing (we don’t live in Manhattan and couldn’t afford it even now), school tuition, summer camp, sports, music lessons (all the things a well rounded childhood has) on top of the necessities, food, clothing, shelter, etc.
    We balance day school education against things like buying a home to raise our family. Knowing our parents will get older and likely begin to require care from us in the ensuing years. Although our first child has not yet been born we are already cognizant of the issues at hand and are beginning to take steps now to reign ourselves in financially, pay off debt (student loans) and working with a financial planner to start saving for day school costs and retirement as well. There are loans for college, but not for kindergarten.

  • Miriam

    I think you should take a trip to Israel, read the Chumash and go to a Shabbat service once. I promise you if you do, the answer you seek will reveal itself.

  • Dana

    Thank you for this thoughtful, sensitive, honest essay. I am right this minute torn up about this issue. As a single, Orthodox mom, I am struggling with the decision over whether I can afford the (more expensive) Modern Orthodox school that would be tremendous for my child (I can’t) or putting her in public school for the first time. It would change our entire life dynamic. The ultra-Orthodox schools are not an option – their values are not compatible. It is a difficult choice. In my experience, as much good as Orthodox Jewish day schools accomplish, they also do much damage. It seems that we’ve encountered more anti-Jewish, non-Torah like sentiments at ultra-Orthodox schools than I could have ever imagined. No school will ever be perfect but this excellent MO school is like a dream…but a dream I might be shy of achieving. I just do not know how my somewhat sheltered child will adapt in a public school setting. She would much rather go to the MO school – but she understands I”m doing my best…Jewish education, the right school, the affordability, tuition’s effect on the family, are complicated and painful issues for many Jewish parents.

  • Shayna Elliott

    Thank you so much for this post.
    This struggle is real for so many. Our family, after much discussion, has decided that we sending our boys to Jewish preschool to give them the foundation but financially think its best to use public school from then on.
    We plan on using the extra funds we will have for trips to Israel as well and other places in the world for a well rounded, worldly educated rearing.
    Also, Jewish camp is a great tool and a much easier pill to swallow financially.

    We also are planting ourselves in a strong modern Jewish community.

    This will be our compromise. I wanted to send our children to Jewish day school but just can’t come to grips with the prices, even for the extra hours. . .