Reacting to a 1908 complaint from New York City’s police commissioner about young Jewish immigrants’ disproportionately high rate of truancy, Jewish philanthropists and educators reinvigorated Jewish education in New York and reaffirmed its communal—as opposed to family or congregational—underpinnings.
More than a century later, communal responsibility for Jewish education is again in need of revitalization. The problem no longer is truancy but rather the unsustainability of school budgets, particularly in light of a parent body increasingly unable to support the system.
There once was a shtet’l in Europe comprised of two shuls—one wealthy, the other not. Each year on Simchas Torah, the wealthy shul enjoyed ample wine, while its poorer counterpart drank water. Finally, the members of the poor shul, jealous of their wealthier counterparts, decided that they too should have ample wine to enjoy next Simchas Torah.
So they devised a plan: each family would leave over a drop of wine from their weekly havdala cups. On Sunday, the members would bring these drops of wine to a large barrel outside the shul. After a full year of saving drips and drabs, surely there would be enough wine for all to enjoy on Simchas Torah.
A year passed and Simchas Torah arrived again. The members of the poor shul gathered excitedly around the large wooden barrel, and the shamas (beadle) opened its spigot.
Plenty of water streamed out of the barrel, but not a drop of wine.
Apparently, even over the course of an entire year, none of the congregants saved havdala wine and brought it to the barrel. None of them had taken responsibility for the plan or for their fellow congregants, instead leaving others to bring drops of wine while they merely “diluted” it with water. The result of shirking their communal responsibilities? Yet another Simchas Torah with plain old water.
The Torah is unmistakably clear on the essential nature of communal obligations. “The concealed things are the concern of our G-d. And the exposed things, it is for us and for our children forever to observe the words of this Torah” (Devarim 29:28). While we are not responsible for the hidden sins of others—those are for G-d alone to reckon—we are responsible, as a community, for the obligations of others (Rashi ad loc.). Indeed, we bear particular communal responsibility for those matters directly impacting “us and our children,” which is the reason the Torah highlights those words with dots above (Devarim 29:28 and Chofetz Chaim ad loc.).
Even at its core, the paternal responsibility to teach Torah to our children—“and you shall teach them diligently to your children”—includes not only one’s biological children but all children (Devarim 6:7 and Sifri ad loc.; Rambam, Talmud Torah 1:1-3). In due time, this obligation would shift entirely from the parents alone to the community at large.
During the Hasmonean era, R’ Yehoshua ben Gamla noticed that the fathers of his generation lacked the wherewithal to transmit the Torah to their children. What had theretofore been a parental obligation would have to become a communal one, reasoned R’ Yehoshua. So he ordained the institution of teachers for children in every district and town, to be funded by each individual community (Bava Basra 21a and Yad Ramah ad loc.; Rambam, Talmud Torah 2:1; Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Talmud Torah 1:3; see also “Learn Torah, Love Torah, Live Torah,” Rivkah Teitz Blau, pg. 139). R’ Yehoshua’s innovative system of publicly funded elementary education was revolutionary at the time—predating the modern public school system by over 1,500 years—and it earned him a prominent place in the annals of Torah history.
As a matter of law, each community is responsible for the education of its children: “If the fathers of [all] the children cannot afford tuition [for a teacher], the community will have to pay” (Rama, Choshen Mishpat 163:3; Bi’ur HaGra, Choshen Mishpat 163:80 [elementary school funding is both a communal obligation and charity]; Aruch HaShulchan 163:1). Indeed, the funding of Jewish education appears not in the laws of charity or in the laws of Torah learning but in the laws regarding neighbors and communal services.
It happened before Pesach one year that the Satmar elementary schools were unable to make payroll for the teachers due to a funding deficit. The Satmar Rebbe, R’ Yoel Teitelbaum, called a meeting at his house, at which he declared that, despite his strong preference for eating hand-baked matza, he would eat machine-baked matza (which was much less expensive) and direct his entire community of followers to do the same. The difference in cost, he said, would be contributed to the schools’ payrolls. As one can well imagine, the Satmar Rebbe was not the machine-baked matza eating kinda guy, and his declaration shocked those assembled, prompting one wealthy follower to pledge to cover the funding shortfall. By then, however, the Satmar Rebbe already had made clear the unparalleled importance of supporting elementary schools.
Jews are an eminently charitable people: giving generously is part of our ethos, which is why we remain at the forefront of the world’s philanthropic community. And we don’t need to be sold on the importance of yeshiva elementary school education. Yet our schools barely eke by.
Is this a new problem? You bet it is.
Historically, Jewish communities in Europe never had school budget crises. Most created funds to underwrite communal infrastructure and services, which included, among many others, the costs of elementary education. What resulted was an elementary school system funded by each and every member of the community.
As Jews arrived in this country and moved from religious observance towards a secular, Torah-gutted version of Judaism, they retained a transmogrified notion of charity that prioritized humanitarian and secular causes over basic communal infrastructure. They also balked at the notion that their charitable giving could (and should) be guided by the Torah or the antediluvian, old world rabbis. So they began to donate untold sums to hospitals, libraries, universities, philharmonics, the arts, the environment, and other humanitarian and social welfare causes—all while shirking their communal responsibilities. This is the sort of ilk that now invokes such lofty notions as “tikkun olam”—for the uninitiated, that’s code for “do whatever makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside”—while advocating for more Israel tree plantings.
Even among the Torah observant population, this flawed trend lives on today through the prioritization of unmistakably worthy causes over essential local community infrastructure. The result is that Jewish elementary schools—the institutions that guarantee our survival and continuity—have become the neglected stepchildren of Jewish philanthropy.
I say: plant roots, not trees. Invest in strengthening the roots planted in your own backyard.
Jewish elementary school education is not a consumer product, like detergent; it is basic communal infrastructure, and it takes priority over voluntary charity. What we have, then, is not really an elementary school sustainability crisis but a Torah value crisis—we don’t support our elementary schools because we don’t value Torah education as an end unto itself. We have come to regard Orthodox elementary school as nothing but an alternative to public school or secular private school, when it in fact is the conduit for the transmission of our heritage and wisdom to the next generation.
The community’s role in supporting elementary schools is an easy one to abdicate. Elementary schools typically lack the close connection to graduates necessary to garner broad-based alumni support. Empty-nesters and seniors argue that they’ve already paid their share. And besides, some ask, shouldn’t the parents be fully responsible for paying for the education of their children?
The short answer is: that system simply doesn’t work. While education is a basic need, the vast majority of families simply cannot afford it. Society at large recognizes the societal benefits from an educated citizenry, and it therefore funds public school education through taxes. Should our community be any different, especially when our very existence depends upon the next generation?
Of course not.
But that requires communal support.
Now imagine if the community redirected just a portion of its annual giving—not away from other important communal infrastructure causes, but from relative outsiders—and instead gave a portion of that money to local elementary schools. Would there still be challenges? Sure. But there’d be no crisis.
Let’s face it: paying for elementary school education is the equivalent of a second mortgage, as the cost of providing this dual-curriculum education has skyrocketed. To their eternal credit, many parents are more than willing to make sacrifices for this education. But even with increased parental financial participation, elementary schools require outside support to meet even their basic obligations.
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We believe that the world endures only for the sake of schoolchildren, and any town in which there are no schoolchildren is subject to destruction (Shabbos 119b). Yet we seem to prefer splashy, stylish social welfare and humanitarian causes over “ho-hum” community obligations.
Don’t get me wrong: social welfare charities do untold good, and they can and should be supported. But not at the expense of educating our community’s children and raising within our community the next generation of proud, educated Jews.
So the next time you donate money to some unquestionably worthy cause benefitting those in far-flung places, ask yourself this question: have you satisfied your obligations to your own community? And instead of worrying about planting trees in Israel, consider planting roots right here in Queens, New York.