Here’s the Starr family’s weekday routine: I wake up, get my kids dressed and run them off to school (for the older ones) and daycare at our local Y (for the baby). I then head off to work in Manhattan, as does my wife. My wife, after finishing work, drives to the Y and picks up the three kids (the oldest two from the Y after school program, the baby from daycare at the same Y) and brings them home. An hour or two later I come home from work in the city in time (hopefully!) to put the kids to bed!
Sound familiar? While schedules and job responsibilities differ, the reality for most Modern Orthodox households these days is a dual-income, multi-child household, with both parents holding jobs of moderate to high intensity. While the desire of parents to pursue careers certainly plays a role in this arrangement, without question the pressures of paying for day school tuition is often a significant factor in the choice for both parents to work (for our family, it’s a mix of both considerations). Recent surveys have confirmed this observation. As the Nishma Research Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews found, 89% of respondents indicated that the cost of Jewish schooling was a serious problem facing the Jewish community, a far higher percentage than any other issue. To address this pressure, many Modern Orthodox households choose to be dual income in order to better afford day school tuition for their children.
But day school families that can effectively balance well-paying careers and caring for their children do not spring out of a vacuum. As any dual working day school family can tell you, having access to high quality, affordable and reliable child care that is delivered in a Jewish setting (or is at least accommodating of Jewish practices and values) is essential to a manageable work-life balance. What does this child care look like? It has long hours to accommodate parents who need to commute to Manhattan (where many jobs, and especially better-paying jobs, are located). It is affordable, so that both parents will find it economically worthwhile to continue their careers while sending their children to daycare. It is safe, nurturing and enriching, so that parents do not feel that they are sacrificing their child’s happiness and optimal development by choosing to pursue careers. And it is accessible, relatively easy to enroll in and can accommodate large numbers of children. It is available when parents need to work—meaning summers, Chol Hamoed, erev chag, and late on erev Shabbos. And yet it is also Jewish, with kosher food, Jewish values, education about holidays and rituals and sensitivity to the needs of observant families.
But where can you find this kind of child care? There have been efforts to pressure our day schools to recognize that, in addition to their roles in educating our children, they have a secondary (yet also important) role in providing child care so that parents are able to work. This point has merit and, while there is still a ways to go, our day schools have made strides in providing more robust coverage with longer hours to enable parents to work. But, fundamentally, day schools do not view their role as providing child care, and there are limits—both practical and philosophical—to how far they will go in providing child care for working families.
For example, it is rare to find a day school that is willing and qualified to care for infants and toddlers. And while parents may be able to find in-home caretakers or for-profit daycare facilities, those options are often expensive, difficult to arrange and do not have Jewish content. A parent could take time out of the workforce to care for infant children. But for Modern Orthodox families with a number of children, the decision to stay home with young children could mean years of lost pay. In addition, the financial toll of staying at home goes well beyond lost pay. For example, in a 2016 study published in the American Sociological Review, author Paula England of NYU found that highly skilled and highly paid women lost an average of 10% in their wages per child because of lost raises while out of the workforce due to caring for a new child (on top of lost pay for time taken off work!). And beyond daycare, dual income families where both parents work during the summer need day camps for their young children to attend.
The institutions in our communities that are best equipped to provide the child care and summer camps needed to support dual working families are, without question, our Ys and JCCs. Unlike day schools, these institutions can stay open on erev Yom Tov and Chol Hamoed (days when the need for childcare and youth programming is even greater because parents will be missing work for the holiday) and fast days, and can stay open late on erev Shabbos. They are open during the gaps in the calendar (winter break and the time before and after camp begins) to provide care for older children when school is closed, camp is not available and parents still need to work. They are licensed and qualified to provide care for infants and toddlers, something that most schools are unable to do. And they view these purposes not as secondary to their mission, as a day school might, but as a core part of the services that they perform for the community.
But in the three-legged stool of Jewish community institutions—day school, synagogue and Jewish community centers—the Ys and JCCs often fall to the bottom of the list, are viewed as dispensable or are forgotten altogether. We rightfully view our shuls and schools as essential, but we often forget that—while we may not go to it every Shabbos, and while it may not educate our children during the school year—a Y/JCC is just as indispensable as a school and a shul (for reasons of supporting dual income households and many others) to the development of a vibrant and thriving Jewish community.
Rather than viewing support as an either/or between shul/school and everything else (and in particular, Ys and JCCs), we need to recognize the symbiotic relationship between our Ys/JCCs and our schools, particularly when it comes to supporting dual income households. Every dollar that goes to a Y/JCC in charitable giving is not a dollar that is lost to a school or shul, but is rather two to three dollars in additional parent earnings that are available to be put back into the school rather than handed out in scholarships. By skipping over our JCCs and Ys in our charitable giving, we are handicapping day school families from earning the money that they need to pay their tuition bills, in addition to undermining all the other vital functions that these Ys/JCCs provide to the community.
So what can you do to address this problem? Support your local Y/JCC! But not just financially. Give it your energy, your engagement and your enthusiasm. Take ownership of it and enable it to be the best that it can be. And if that sounds like a tall order for you, then I have an easy first step for you to take. For those readers in Union County (and other readers who want to make the trip!), the YM-YWHA of Union County is having a casino night fundraiser on Sunday, July 28, at 7 p.m. at 501 Green Lane in Union, with food, fun and great prizes (like tickets for two to see the hit Broadway play “Hamilton!”). See you there!
Special offer for readers of the Jewish Link: sign up Saturday night or Sunday at www.uniony.org for casino night and get admission for $36 per person instead of the regular rate of $50.
By Steven Starr
Steven Starr lives in Hillside, with his wife Keshet and children Ellie, Moshe and Meira. He is on the board of directors of the YM-YWHA of Union County. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only and not of the YM-YWHA of Union County, its board of directors or its staff.