When we look to the Torah for guidance in handling challenges in our modern world, our eyes do not usually fall on the agricultural laws detailed in the recent weekly parshah, or Torah portion. But in its teaching of the Jewish laws of the Jubilee year, the Torah offers both a model and an imperative that can help us re-envision the landscape of Jewish education.
This parshah tell us that in this 50th-year, all debts are cancelled. If a person finds himself in financial straits, even in year 49 of a 50-year cycle, the loaner is obligated to help his fellow man. (Leviticus 25:25)
At first glance, this might not seem fair. Why should one be obligated to give a loan to someone knowing the loan will never be repaid? But such communal obligations are the foundation of our just society. That's why we call it tzedakah, and not "your Jewish community bill." That's justice according to Jewish tradition.
Who are these people in need of help? In our community, in addition to those with serious concerns of food security and affordable housing, many families struggle to pay for the Jewish education of their children.
To create well-rounded, passionate, committed Jewish children and young adults, we have to send them to Jewish day schools, camps, youth groups and more. But the costs of these commitments are growing prohibitive for local families.
In the big picture of the cost of raising Jewish children, the tuition at day schools and Jewish camps is unaffordable even for many families earning more than $200,000 per year.
So how can the Torah guide us to make these institutions possible for more children? Many "out of the box" models are being created nationwide. Of note is a new model for setting tuition at the Solomon Schechter School of Greater Boston.
According to Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, the Schechter School set tuition "as either a fixed percentage of income — say, 15 percent, with small
adjustments for the number of children in the school — or a relatively high set amount per student, which high-income families can use if they wish to pay a lower percentage of their income. On the other end of the spectrum, families unable to pay even the 15 percent could, as now, apply for financial aid."
Such a plan makes the tuition-setting process more predictable for families, lessens the burdens for those who apply for financial aid and, most importantly, changes our perception of a Jewish education to a "public good" to be supported by all the families who use it, as opposed to an "individual good" paid for by each family.
At first glance, it sounds like some kind of new-age, crazy idea that would never work. Until you read that it came from this past week's parshah, Behar-Bechukotai. Suddenly, it is not so new.
Our institutions need to create balanced budgets while setting tuitions that do not price ourselves out of the market. Currently, both the institutions and the families struggle to make this work. Most local schools and camps have had to "cut all the fat" from their robust programs, and then some.
Yet when families cannot afford tuition, the attendance at local schools, camps and youth group activities suffers.
To continue providing a quality formal and experiential Jewish education for our children, we need to look at models such as the Boston Schechter idea for inspiration. Doing so helps us think about our work as guardians of tzedakah to also be guardians of tzedakah — righteousness and justice.
As we celebrate Shavuot, the giving of the Torah, this weekend, let's take the opportunity to look more closely at the core values it imparts. Jewish education is a public good for which we are all responsible.
Please encourage the leaders of our educational institutions to consider models of tuition that are based on tzedek, as defined by our tradition. In doing so, we can bring kedushah, holiness, into the way we make financial decisions, and in all the things that we do.
Rabbi Todd Zeff is the director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos.