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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Problem: Yeshiva tuition is just too expensive. I’ve heard this refrain many times over countless Shabbos tables. Day school tuition is unaffordable for many people without financial aid from schools, extended family or the larger community. For most, there is little disposable income remaining for other things: camp, vacation, creature comforts etc.

The Solution: I’ve heard a number of ideas that attempt to solve this problem including community-wide school obligation, large donations from the relative few, raising tuition for those who can afford it (think tax bracket-tiered tuition) and pulling children out of yeshivot in favor of public school education supplemented with afternoon Torah-learning programs. These are all ideas that have been suggested and many have their merits but are highly disruptive and require more radical changes both structurally and financially. In short, there is no agreed-upon answer.

The Purpose: While I love the idea of solving the tuition crisis over the following few paragraphs, the answer still proves to be elusive and I honestly don’t have any better ideas myself. The goal of this article is to offer a small, though not insignificant, method of alleviating some of the financial burden.

The Proposal: I suggest we move winter break to the end of December to coincide with most schools’ and businesses’ breaks.

The Rationale: Most employers provide some form of paid time off (PTO). As it is, Orthodox employees use virtually all their PTO for Yom Tovim throughout the year, leaving very few, if any, vacation days for vacation. For those parents who are self-employed or are hourly workers, the time off in January usually results in a much larger loss of income because work is often much busier at the end of January than the end of December. Consequently, it is very difficult for most parents to take time off for winter break in January when their kids are out of school. If they are able to take off they are likely burning their last remaining vacation days and need to explain to their employers why they are taking a vacation so soon after their time off in December. If parents are unable to take off, they need to pay extra money for babysitters, winter break day camps, or rely on friends, neighbors and family for childcare. Not only is this expensive, but it is extremely stressful to coordinate. It is also difficult for those children whose parents cannot take off, even for a staycation, because they may be spending their break with a babysitter instead of with their family.

Moving winter break provides several benefits to these problems. The first and foremost is financial. Most employers give 12/25 and 1/1 off and many more offices add the additional 12/24 and 12/31. Therefore, if a parent takes the last week of December off they are saving at least two and possibly four vacation days. Vacation days are not typically viewed as compensation but they most certainly are. If a parent need only use three PTO days (or even one!) rather than five, the extra days can be saved for Chol Hamoed, Chanukah, Purim or an actual sick day. For those who are self-employed, fee for service or hourly, this is a time of year when business is usually much slower and the loss of income from taking a day off work is considerably less. Just consider what you would miss at work at the end of December versus the end of January. Consequently, moving winter break to the end of December saves parents money, either through saved PTO or a much-reduced loss of income, without costing the schools a dime.

Speaking of school costs, though I am not privy to this information, it seems obvious that any non-Jewish employee, whether teacher, security or maintenance must be paid considerably more to work on 12/25 or 1/1. Having winter break at the end of December would save the schools from these extra costs. Additionally, for those towns with bussing, school buses do not run on 12/25 and 1/1, requiring parents to coordinate carpools, which would be unnecessary if winter break were moved. Finally, many schools have difficulty finding substitutes for non-Jewish teachers, maintenance and security staff who are taking off on these days.

Pre-empting the skeptics: I am confident that there will be many detractors to this idea but they will likely focus on three main issues:

1. Travel and vacationing at the end of January is much cheaper than at the end of December. Why not help families save money on their vacations by having winter break during an off-peak travel week? This is a valid but flawed question. Yes, flights will likely be cheaper and vacation spots less crowded if Orthodox families are vacationing at the end of January (though I’m fairly certain that airlines and popular Jewish destinations have picked up on the yeshiva-week vacation situation). However, this issue is only relevant for the families who can already afford to fly and vacation out of town. Many, if not most, families cannot afford these expensive vacations and if changes are focused on making yeshiva tuition more affordable, these families are not the target audience because they may not need the type of help (or as much help) that this proposal is offering. The purpose is to assist those in need of assistance! Therefore, I’m guessing that anyone who typically travels during yeshiva week will probably not like this idea.

2. These built-in days off (12/25 and 1/1) from work are a good opportunity for parents to take a day for themselves while their children are still in school. This idea sounds attractive but is also flawed for at least two reasons. One, there is no bussing for children on these days, which usually have an early dismissal, and parents need to coordinate drop-off and pick-up, taking away from that personal day off. Second, many, if not most, day-care/pre-schools employ non-Jewish staff and are closed on these days. Therefore, parents with very young children still need to manage childcare. This is not a personal day for most parents, even if you really love your toddlers.

3. December 25 and January 1 are not Jewish holidays and we should not be “celebrating” them by taking off school and taking off Torah learning. This point is probably the most significant and I understand why. There is a feeling that Orthodox Jews should not even appear to be observing Christmas or the secular new year and that doing so would be unsavory and inappropriate. It’s something we do not want to be teaching our children. While this is definitely valid, there are two ways of approaching it. One, we can recognize that it is not an ideal situation, but if it could provide some relief for families, then it’s worth it. Two, schools can elect to make 12/25 and 1/1 special parent-child Torah learning days at school. There can be breakfast and perks for those who attend (for which schools can likely find sponsors) and we send a message to the children that even non-Jewish holidays can be Torah-learning days.

As mentioned above there is no perfect solution to any problem and it is clear that this winter-break proposal is not without its downsides. However, these downsides seem worth the cost given the suggestions made above.

A final note: This change would be hard. Many individuals or schools may look at this proposal and think, “Great idea, but there is no way it’s gonna happen.” It’s true that it would require the coordination of Bergen County schools (and beyond) and would not be easy. In fact, it would be difficult! People might throw their hands in the air in exasperation and give up without trying. But think about what we are dealing with here: lightening the burden of Jewish education. We all know that nothing good comes easily. Isn’t saving parents money without adding costs to our schools worth the effort?

Where we go from here: Perhaps you’ve read this piece and agree with this idea. Perhaps you may even be energized by this possibility. What can you do now before interest wanes and apathy grows? The first step is raising your hand in agreement. Maybe we’ll have some significant numbers to help encourage schools to work together to make this happen. If you agree, please raise your hand by filling out a form at bit.ly/2F84AY6 (sorry for the random url). If you can’t fill out this form now, set the article aside until you are able. Please, don’t let the opportunity for action pass you by.


Jon Lamm, Ph.D is a Clinical Psychologist, practicing in both New York and Bergen County. He lives with his wife and three children in Fair Lawn, NJ where he serves as the Co-President of Congregation Darchei Noam. All of his children attend Bergen County yeshivot. He can be reached at [email protected]