The Tuition Crisis and Disengagement: A Common Denominator

These are hot issues in the Orthoblogs right now. Don't take my word for it; type 'tuition crisis' or 'Gaza disengagement' on Blogdigger and see what turns up. I'm smirking about a whole bunch of the issues that have been raised regarding the tuition crisis, from integration into public schools to comparisons with Israel. A number of my very first posts were critiques of the current state of Jewish education. I wouldn't post my 2 cents about this, except that my 2 cents don't look like anyone else's 2 cents. Here goes:

The integration of Jewish students into public school wouldn't be such a terrible idea because:
  • It will shift primary responsibility of Jewish education from the schools back to where it belongs, namely, upon the parents. Since day-school education has been taken for granted, parents have left more and more of their chindren's education to their teachers (and then complain when the kids 'frum-out' or 'fry-out' or otherwise end up exactly like them). Parents will have no choice but to be actively involved in raising their children. Parents becoming more active in their childrens' schooling, more sensitive to their childrens' needs, paying closer attention to who their childrens' friends are, what values are being absorbed, etc. would be great. IMHO, most parents have totally dropped the ball on this one, assuming that the schools and their tuition dollars is adequate. No more 'You've gotta get through to my kid! What the hell am I paying you 15 grand a year for!?'. If the lion's share of Jewish education is outside of formal schooling, there's a risk of becoming like non-Orthodox synagogue affiliated religious schools - unless the parents are actively involved and reinforce what their kids are learning in these schools.
  • There are two great advantages to Jewish schools: Jewish literacy and a Jewish social setting. The latter, if there are enough students doing it, can be overcome. The former is the major loss, but can also be overcome. And what's to stop public schools from teaching Hebrew language and literature?
  • I've seen way too many students ruined - I'll say that again - R-U-I-N-E-D by the procrustean bed of Jewish Education. It's not always exclusively Jewish education, but that contemporary educational institutions in general ruin too many kids. If they're in public schools, negative school experiences won't be associated with Judaism. In fact, their experience with Jewish education will tend to be more individuated, more emphasis on that particular student's needs and wants, and more enjoyable.
Of course, there are many drawbacks as well. I'm still pretty ambivalent about the whole thing, but I strongly believe that the primary influence should be the parents. I'm pretty pessimistic about what we can expect from formal Jewish education in general, which, for me, means that this issue is pretty minor.

It's hilarious that this proposal is coming out of the Five Towns. Freaking hilarious.

On those who are praising the Israeli system, where there's no tuition crisis:
  • Right. No tuition crisis. Just budget crisis. Underfunded schools and classrooms with 40 kids, where the national system is hijacked by smaller 'independent' school systems which are rife with corruption, and with a national ministry which rewards mediocrity. In short, you get what you pay for. There are some great schools in Israel, but (shocker of all shockers) the quality of the kid's education in Israel usually rises in proportion with the parent's direct involvement in their child's schooling.
  • Israelis pay income tax through. the. nose. That money returns to the average citizen primarily in the form of security, education, and health care. When you're taxed that much, the choice of 'education vs. SUV' is made for you. R' Feivel (and R' Gil) are correct that a stinky priority scale is a major root cause of the 'crisis' on the communal level (but not on the individual level. In other words, nobody says "this SUV is more important than MY kid's education", but they DO say "This SUV is more important than YOUR kid's education"). In Israel, a more responsible priority scale is enforced by the government. Therein lies the difference.
Finally, the common denominator with disengagement:
  • The disengagement crisis traces its roots to the fact that a particular segment of Israeli society, namely, the National-Religious, have, for the past 30+ years turned almost completely inward and created a culture which shares increasingly less with the prevailing 'secular' culture. The alienation of these two worlds from each other has come to a head over disengagement even more than it did over Oslo. Granted, there has been an attempt at rapprochement since the Rabin assassination, and while the first and second generations of Hesder Yeshivot, with very few exceptions (e.g., Ha-Kotel and Kiryat Shmonah) were located either in post-67 territories (e.g., Gush, Otniel, Ma'aleh Adumim, Beit-El, Har Bracha, Shiloh, Shadmot Mecholah, Hitzpin, Sha'albim, etc., etc., etc.) or in some completely isolated part of pre-67 Israel (e.g., KBY, Or Etzion), most Hesder Yeshivot that are now opening are in urban areas (e.g., Petach Tiqwa, Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv, Yerucham) where they are more involved in the fabric of the general culture (Kaspit can tell us how Peter Berger would conceptualize this phenomenon); nevertheless, as R' Medan spelled out in his Ha'aretz interview, this crisis will break the back of N-R culture as an independent culture, and force them to reintegrate with the general culture. I think this is actually a good thing; the N-R have a tremendous amount to offer genreal Israeli culture, which they have been neglecting by isolating themselves on Judean hilltops. The hilltops were necessary for a horribly self-conscious N-R population to discover its own identity and feel its own strength, but it's about time to come down now and share what they've found with the rest of the country.
  • I think the history of Orthodox education in the US follows an amazingly similar trajectory. It's only over the last 10-15 years that Conservative and then Reform finally figured out how powerful a tool day-school education is in rebuilding a tattered identity. Torah U-Mesorah's oases saved American Orthodoxy from certain death in the American desert (wow, it sounds like I ripped that line off of some Agudist propaganda, but it's true). The segregationist attitude of retreat (R' Yosi's position on Shabbat 33b, which I've blogged about) was absolutely necessary for survival. But it came at a tremendous cost, which we don't often think about. It drove a tremendous wedge between Orthodoxy and the rest of American Jewry. It generated communal norms which are oversuspicious of anything coming from outside of its four ells (just read the Godol; he'll tell ya'!). And it created a financial burden which would necessarily have an expiration date; it couldn't go on forever. Perhaps this will force American Orthodoxy out of its shell. It is no longer so small and weak that it needs to circle the wagons and take a position of retreat.
  • I will finish this analsysis with one example of where this has worked well: the Israeli army. For many years, there was a steady religious criticism that the army is a secularizing influence upon religious youth. Through Hesder, mechinot, nachal charedi, etc., this criticism is less and less relevant, and there are even stirring that the opposite it the case, that Tzaha"l is TOO religious. A handful of datla"shim and kippot z'rukot wouldn't have had the muscle to have the top brass reeling over potential refusal of orders. N-R soldiers are known for their morale, camraderie, and willingness to take the tough jobs. Observance may still slip amongst religious soldiers, but hey, it's the ARMY; the Torah knew that observacne slips in the Army. Read Devarim. 'Secular influence' no longer poses a serious threat, at least in the larger combat units toward which religious soldiers gravitate. On the contrary (ADDeRabbah)! It is probably the forum for the most meaningful and successful interface between religious and secular in Israel. If Orthodox Jews would enter en masse into the public school system under the right conditions (i.e., accomodations to their lifestyle, and in a place where the schools aren't downright dangerous) I suspect that the effect wouldn't be the 'watering down' of Orthodox education as much as it would be an unparalleled Kiddush Hashem, go an incredible distance toward rapprochement and mutual understanding between orthodox and heterodox Jews and their communities, and ultimately mark Orthodoxy's re-entry into the public sphere on the communal level after 50 years of retreat (more on this when I continue by exposition of Shabbat 33b-34a, which you'll find the first parts of in the Table of Contents in the sidebar).

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