Last Shabbat we read Parshat Miketz. It marked the 10th time we have read this parsha since the fall of 2009, which marked the low point of the Great Recession of 2008. During that time unemployment was close to 10% and the Dow was under 9000. Since that time, unemployment has dropped by almost two-thirds and the Dow has more than tripled.
Parshat Miketz starts with Pharaoh’s dream and its interpretation by Joseph. Joseph boldly interprets the dream as a prediction of Egypt’s economic future. The country will experience seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. He wisely counsels Pharaoh to create reserves during the plentiful years to sustain the country through the famine. As a result of his sage advice, when the seven “bad years” begin, Egypt is not only able to sustain itself, but can use its food reserves to dominate its neighbors.
After a decade of plenty, we need to ask ourselves whether we have heeded the lessons of Miketz. Although not perfect, I strongly believe the day schools are the crown jewels of our community and the key to both who we are as a community and our continued growth. Yet, I believe that we have done very little to improve the finances of our day schools. As a community, we may actually be in a worse position to weather the next economic downturn than we were in 2009.
Everyone talks about the “tuition crisis” in the same resigned tones normally reserved for discussions about the weather. What we have now is not a crisis, it is a chronic condition that imposes a great deal of hardship and that we have done little to improve. However, in the next downturn, this situation could quickly morph into a full-blown crisis. To be clear, it was only because of the relatively quick economic upturn in 2010 that our day school system survived intact. In 2009, the failure of one or two of our day schools was entirely possible.
Winston Churchill may or may not have famously stated: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” However, it is clear that our community “wasted” the most recent financial crisis. I am aware of only two lasting results from the crisis that impact day school affordability. The first is the innovative Yeshivat He’Atid, which introduced a low-cost school model to the community. The second are the stepped-up efforts at legislative lobbying led by the OU for state funding for Jewish day schools. The impact has been impressive, but despite a great deal of effort, the resulting funding is helpful but not transformative.
If the Bergen County community’s first generation focused on building, its second generation must focus on sustainability. The numbers are truly scary. There are roughly 6000 students in our schools. If we assume the cost per student (not tuition) is $15,000 (which is low), we are looking at an annual budget of $90,000,000. Approximately one-third of students receive scholarships that bring down their tuition to, say, $10,000, generating an annual community-wide scholarship budget of $10,000,000. In order to create an endowment that could reliably be able to provide $10,000,000 per year to cover the scholarship need, $200,000,000 would need to be raised.
The good news is that such amounts are not beyond the community’s reach. This is an incredibly charitable community, but the giving is unfocused. Further, the schools have, until now, functioned as charitable islands. While representatives from many worthwhile charities routinely visit our shuls to promote their organizations, when was the last time you can recall a shul highlighting a school’s fundraising efforts? We have seen the community adopt certain causes as community-wide, such as the eruv and mikva: just look at your shul membership dues. We need a similar effort for the schools. They must become community institutions. This transformation will have to be a two-way street. Dramatically increased community funding cannot become an enabler of increased spending. This will have to be funding with “strings attached.”
Putting our day schools on a firm financial footing will be very difficult and require dramatic departures from how our community operates today. The bad news is that we suffer from a communal crisis of decentralization. We are actually not a community but rather a collection of institutions that collaborate on an ad hoc basis. We do not even have a mechanism for communal decision making. I was involved in NNJKIDS, which was formed in early 2009 and sought to address the “tuition crisis.” Very early on, it became clear to me that we have no mechanism for communal decision making. The RCBC focuses on a narrow set of halachic issues. While in some smaller communities, Federation can play this role, for a number of reasons our Federation does not. NNJKIDS was led by a board comprising representatives from the schools, a representative from the RCBC and committed lay members. This was not an ideal board, particularly for decisions that might be difficult for the schools.
Creating a comprehensive plan to attack day school affordability requires a governing body that represents the entire community. While this council should include representatives of the schools, it should also include representatives from a wide range of constituencies. Its activities must be transparent. The goal of this council should be drafting a 10-year strategic plan for day school affordability. The group should break up into committees tasked with developing proposals for the creation of an endowment, identification of other communal funding initiatives, spending guidelines, scholarship guidelines and the creation of a planned-giving process to capture a portion of the unprecedented generational wealth transfer that our community is beginning to experience. A series of town hall meetings should be held to allow public comment on the proposal. At the end of 2020, the council should be ready to announce both the plan and year-one activities.
Unlike Joseph, I have no crystal ball. However, I am very worried about what our community will look like on Shabbat Miketz 2029 if we do not seriously tackle the issue of sustainability and develop a communal leadership structure to lead the charge.
Dror Futter is a startup and technology attorney and a partner at the Rimon PC law firm. He is a long-time Teaneck resident, member of Congregation Keter Torah and proud father of three alumni of Bergen County day schools. Dror was a board member of JEFG/NNJKIDS.