Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Is A Yeshiva Education Really Worth The Money?

Sometimes I truly wonder.

Mayer Fertig, over at the Jewish Star has an article about families that are either considering or have already enrolled their children in public school due to the costs involved with a yeshiva education. For years some of these families have scrimped and saved and foregone certain pleasures for the ideal of sending their kids to a yeshiva. And now, with the current economic climate, it seems that some are just no longer able to do so.

An excerpt:

After years of talk about a tuition crisis, many families that scrimped and sacrificed to send children to yeshiva in the past have hit a financial wall.

“Many children will end up in public school as a result of all this,” said Rabbi Shneur Wolowik, director of Chabad of the Five Towns. He says he is inundated with calls for help from parents who simply have run out of options.

“Parents have to choose between having a home foreclosed on or having a Jewish education. It’s a very tough decision,” he acknowledged.

An email he received this week from a woman in the Five Towns outlined her situation: “They have two children, she’s pregnant with a third, they’ve all but canceled the babysitter, have two old cars and a very simple home. She said it’s either tuition or their home and they can’t be homeless. She did the numbers with me and, unfortunately, she’s right.”

The children are now registered in public school.

It must be very disheartening to have to make the choice between a yeshiva education and paying the mortgage.

However, as a consumer of yeshiva education for many years (both as a student and then as a parent), I sometimes wonder if sending our kids to a yeshiva (in it's current incarnation) is really worth it.

I think we have to ask ourselves -- what are we getting for our money when we pay tuition? Most people would answer in one or more of the following categories:

1. Secular education

2. Judaic education (including the positive influence of rabbeim)

3. Removal from the public school environment and/or immersion in the yeshiva environment.

That being said, I think we have to evaluate how well the yeshivos accomplish these tasks.

I think we can agree that in most cases, a secular education in a yeshiva will not equal an academic education in public school. Yes, I am well aware that there are a few academically superior yeshivos out there and I'm also aware that there are a number of public schools that are not offering the education level they should. But pound-for-pound, I'd have to venture that the average level of secular learning in a yeshiva is lower than in a public school.

Keep in mind, however, that that's not necessarily a bad thing. While some parents will choose a yeshiva based on it's secular academic program, the reality is that of the three reasons to send to yeshiva that I mentioned above, this one comes into play the least. That is because a yeshiva, by it's nature cannot offer in a three or four hour period what a public school offers in a six or eight hour period. But that's fine -- the main focus of a yeshiva (IMHO anyway) should be on Judaic studies anyway; which brings us to our second reason.

We send our kids to yeshiva to receive a Torah education. That is certainly an admirable goal and a valid reason. No matter what our kids do in life -- whether they learn in kollel, become doctors, lawyers, santitation workers or whatever -- we want them to be Shomrei Torah U'Mitzvos and, to do that, you have to have some level of Jewish education.

However, I feel that, for a long time, many yeshivos have been missing the goal here too. Yeshivos compete with each other to see who can be the "frummest" or learn the most dafim of gemara in a year. But in reality, this only benefits the elite few that can really take advantage of it. For example, when I was in 7th grade, we learned the first perek of Kiddushin -- 40 pages of gemara over the course of the year. However, for those of us (like myself) who really were not up to that extra learning, the whole year was largely a waste. Maybe one kid in the class was really capable of maintaining the pace and *really* understanding it. The rest of us simply went along as best we could. Did the yeshiva really accomplish the task of teaching me to learn gemara that year? No -- and it affected me throughout the rest of my elementary and high school years. And while this happened quite a while ago, I'm fairly certain that it still happens today. Ask yourself this question: of the twelfth graders who graduated from yeshivos this past June, how many really know how to learn gemara? My guess is the minority - perhaps the vast minority. If that's the case, perhaps less time should be spent in high school on rishonim and more time on basic gemara.

The third reason that most people send their kids to yeshiva is because they don't want them in a public school environment (or, perhaps because they specifically want them in a yeshiva environment). Is a yeshiva really environment better than a public school environment? Well, I suppose it does have it's advanteges:

1. Violent crime in yeshivos is virtually nonexistent. While crime in the public schools is certainly down, it's not as low as in yeshivos.

2. The chances of your son/daughter meeting and being attracted to someone who is not Jewish is virtually nonexistant in a yeshiva setting.

3. There is likely to be little peer pressure to eat nonkosher foods or do things on Shabbos that are otherwise prohibited.

But beyond that, yeshivos are not the "holy and safe havens" that they are often made out to be. We've all seen that child molestors can operate in the yeshiva system for years -- in public schools, they wouldn't have contact with kids after the first allegation. Drugs are available in our schools. If you send your kids to school to shield them from the influences of television or movies, you are bound for failure. Even sexual innocence can no longer be guaranteed in yeshivos. A few years ago, a classmate of mine informed me that when we were in high school together, there was a dirty magazine or two hidden in the dorm bathroom -- something that I was not aware of at the time -- and this was in a *very* right-wing yeshiva. I'm sure the same thing happens today (except that today it's no longer magazines -- the medium may have changed, but not the message). Heck, one kid (not mine) told me that in his class, kids have been known to experiment sexually with each other!

So, while I suppose there are some advantages to keeping a kid in a yeshiva environment (as deliniated above), it's not quite the panacea that people expect it to be.

All this being said, I sometimes wonder if a yeshiva is really worth all the money that is spent on it.

The Wolf

(NB: Yes, my kids are enrolled in yeshiva for next year.)


Zach Kessin said...

I'm thinking that in the next 2 years many yeshivot are going to go under. I mean the ones that never pay the staff etc. They can probably get away with not paying the teachers but when they don't pay the mortgage & electric bill they are going to be in a world of trouble.

In this case I expect many parents are going to find themselves making some very hard choices at very bad times.

zach said...

My kids learned their first obscenities in yeshiva (pre-6th grade), saw much bullying that the administration wouldn't do anything about, had money stolen from their desks. Kids were also very exclusionary there. They had decent - but not great - Jewish and secular studies (RZ yeshiva, so they had a full secular education), but the ability to get IEP services was almost non-existent, as were the opportunities for advanced secular studies.

All my kids are now in a top public high school. The academic flexibility and educational opportunities are really quite amazing. It's very ethnically mixed, but there are a lot of Jews and some other frummies as well. A case of bullying (not based on religion) was promptly attended to by the administration and has stopped.

We couldn't be happier. Not to mention (which was not the impetus) saving tens of thousands.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

So I want to look at this from another angle: of all the stuff one has to learn in public school, how much of it is necessary for life?
When was the last time anyone needed to figure out the sin, cos and tan of anything? Does being able to recite the theory of relativity help you in the real word? I'm not talking mathies and physicists. Your average person who's getting by, what percentage of what's in the public school curriculum is there simply because, in truth, you've learned everything the average person will need to know by the time you've hit grade 7 but they're not ready to let you into university for another 7 years?

If that's true (and based on my memories of school, it is), then why can't neighbourhoods with a large frum population strike a deal with their local school board? Instead of Spanish, they'll have a course in Hebrew. Instead of art and gym they'll have gemara and halacha. The school boards could hire the necessary rebbeim and even charge a tuition fee to those parents who want their kids in the "enrichment" program. The kids get a better secular education and they still get their Torah.

ProfK said...

Or perhaps the question should be whether or not yeshivas as constituted right now are worth all the money (and perhaps were they ever worth what parents had to scrimp and save for them.) All of the reasons you give for being in yeshiva are good ones, except, as you mention, the "top" benefits accrued and accrue only to a few students.

Yeshivas back when my kids were in school were first slowly being dragged to the idea that all yiddishe kinderlach were not brilliant and were not without learning/emotional/behavioral/physical problems. They still don't do a good job with the students who are "yotzai min ha'klal" in these areas. The answer has been to create a few "special" yeshivot and move the kids there. But the vast majority of those whose problems are not great enough to require special education schools are more or less warehoused in a regular yeshiva. Yes, some teachers try, as do a few administrators. And yes, I'm a cynic--those administrators try a bit harder when mom and dad are feeding the school extra money.

Yes, I agree, some parents have already made the hard choices about yeshiva, and many more are going to have to. But let's not put all the blame on the economy and on parents. How about putting some of the blame on the yeshivas. Sure, during boom times we might spend money even if we know we're not getting a great deal for the money. During bad times we jut plain can't afford the price.

ProfK said...

One characteristic of a full democracy is that it does not dictate to its citizens what they are going to be "when they grow up." Everyone is free to make those choices at the point they are needed--usually post high school or post college. But to make those choices you need broad exposure up to that point. You don't think that there are plenty of "mathies" out there? How about the necessity for certain mathematical principals to be able to do higher level computer programming, either applications or systems? You really think that 7th grade is the place for someone to have to make the decision as to what they want to be later on?

And just what is an "average" person? Based on what they are like in seventh grade?! Don't tell me that you haven't seen or heard of people who might be called "slow starters," who first got enthusiastic about learning and/or school later in their schooling history. Cutting off basic education as it is now formulated would mean those people will never get anywhere in life.

I didn't buy into that claptrap that "everything you'll ever need to know you learned in kindergarten" and I don't buy into "everything you'll ever need to know you will learn by seventh grade" either.

Zach Kessin said...

When was the last time anyone needed to figure out the sin, cos and tan of anything?

Ever think of being an Engineer, how about a programmer, I assure you that some basic trig (or not so basic) is rather important.

As for teaching Gamara in public school it wouldn't fly. Though you could teach Hebrew.

Anonymous said...

You don't need to know 80% of what you learn, the problem is you don't find out till much later what the 20% you need is.

BTW imho the most important thing are role models and peers to learn from
Joel Rich

Anonymous said...

There are more choices than public school or yeshiva. There is also the homeschooling option, and if enough people become interested, cooperative schooling.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

There are some places where they're trying to work out Charter Schools.

zach said...

Garnel - I wish that yeshivot striking a deal with public schools were an option. After all, the parents are still paying for public school via taxes. Why should the former be in the business of hiring teachers for secular subjects (almost always at below public school wages, therefore usually with resultant lower quality)? It seems that this would also lower the cost of yeshivot, give needed support services to more kids, etc. Of course, this wouldn't do anything for the financial burden of those parents who would never think of exposing their kids to "goyish influences", but that would be their choice.

Regardless, this doesn't seem to be an option for various policy reasons.

Anonymous said...

ProfK: in response to your first comment, that's why I have boys in public school. I didn't want them warehoused. And as I commented on your public school post, we have been able to deal with public-school related issues pretty easily.

Anonymous said...

There is a great new charter school in Brooklyn that is starting this Fall that focuses on teaching Hebrew. It has a great curriculum with certified teachers. I know many modern orthodox jewish people are sending their children to it because they are digusted with the yeshivos and their low quality teachers and curriculum. Enough is enough. And now there is at least a choice of schools to go to. There is no reason to put up with these yeshivos.

Bob Miller said...

The high mortgage outlay comes from living in very high-priced areas. There are more than a few Jewishly acceptable alternatives (assuming job availability) elsewhere in the US.

Woodrow/Conservadox said...

This is not rocket science. If your first priority is your children being Jewish and marrying Jewish (and even more so, ESPECIALLY if your first priority is them keeping kosher/shabbat/etc) sell the house, move to an apartment and send them to a Jewish day school of some sort (whether that be a "Yeshiva" in the sense that is used above, or a MO/Conservative day school). Period. Otherwise, your child is likely to at best be much less frum than you, and at worst will "marry out."

BUT...if you primarily care about them being safe and well educated, and don't care so much about religion, a Jewish education isn't worth the money. Its really just that simple.

Zach Kessin said...

So you can have your children safe and well educated or Jewish but not both? I find that a little odd.

Also the move somewhere cheaper is not a solution. After all there is always next year's tuition too.

Anonymous said...

"There is a great new charter school in Brooklyn that is starting this Fall that focuses on teaching Hebrew. It has a great curriculum with certified teachers."

Please post the name and phone number of this school. We have to apply soon for my son for next year, but I am not happy with any school that I know of.

Unknown said...

If you want to learn Eruvim or many other areas of talmud, you need to understand Geometry and some trig...

mlevin said...


1. Here are the types of maths being taught in schools after 7th grades. They are algebra, geometry, trig, statistics and etc. LEARNING MATH IS THE BEST WAY TO DEVELOPE ONE'S LOGICAL THINKING. So, even if you never need to use math beyond 7th grade level (ie you are some low level blue color worker) you still need to apply logic towards your everyday decisions. (Oh, I forgot, as a superfrummie, you don't make any decisions, you simply ask your rabbi and do whatever he says without question).

2. Theory of relativity was never recited nor never will. One needs to understand it, not recite it. There are no requirements of the recital of theory of relativity in any educational enviroment anywhere in the world.

3. You cannot substitute art and gym with Gemora. They are not compatible. Art teaches you how to use your imagination and appreciate hashem's beautiful creation of this world. Gym makes one a healthy adult, extends one's lifespan and makes children/future adults happier. In addition it provides an outlet during the day to release the build up energy.

4.Teaching gemorah in PS is against the law. There is a separation of church and state in this country. If you implement gemorah learning you would also have to implement teaching of the Christian Bible, Quran, Mormon book, budhism, hinduism, paganism and etc. Many of these religions are assur in Judaism, because they are literally teaching idol worshipping.