Let’s talk about Jewish day school fees…writes Becci Krispin

June 12, 2018 by  
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I read Rabbi James Kennard’s response to the Gen17 survey results, published in the Melbourne Jewish Report in May 2018, with some disbelief. 

Becci Krispin

The Gen17 Preliminary Report points to some serious issues in the Australian Jewish community, including intermarriage rates, which are estimated at around 33% (possibly higher according to Kennard), and increasing numbers of Jewish families suffering financial hardship.  Rabbi Kennard’s response includes the following: “Intermarriage implies a failure of education, of sufficiently sharing with the next generation the beauty and meaning of Jewish living and learning before they decide for themselves that it can be diluted”.  He goes on to conclude that “the Jewish education and experiences provided by Jewish Day Schools are at least part of the explanation as to why their graduates show greater Jewish identification than their counterparts at non-Jewish schools”. 

I find these statements difficult to accept from the Principal of, not only the most expensive Jewish Day School (JDS) in Melbourne, but one of the most expensive private schools in Victoria.  It seems unjust to discuss the failure of Jewish education without even mentioning the fact that school fees in the majority of JDSs have become completely unaffordable for a large part of the Jewish population in Melbourne.   If we are concerned about large numbers of Jews disconnecting from community, and Jewish education plays an important role in keeping young Jews connected, don’t we need reconsider the cost of Jewish education?

This year I find myself in a community of hundreds of Jewish parents who have chosen to put their children in public primary schools due to the huge financial burden of JDS fees.   I don’t know the exact number of Victorian Jewish children in government schools, but I do know that our community is missing a valuable opportunity – the chance to educate hundreds of our children in an immersive Jewish environment, and to build a love and connection to Judaism from early childhood.

The preliminary findings of Gen17 support my experience and show a profile of a community where many families simply cannot afford a JDS. A total of 32% of Gen17 respondents said that cost had prevented them from sending a child to a JDS – that is 1 in 3 children (interestingly a very similar statistic to our intermarriage rate).  A further 55% of families with children at a JDS stated that this entails significant or major financial sacrifice.  This is in addition to more than 20% of respondents in the parental age groups in Victoria who described their economic situation as “Just getting along” or poorer (Graham & Markus; 2018).

Now I know there are arguments against my views.  It’s not just about a JDS; Jewish education is more about what happens at home.  Furthermore the Jewish schools provide all kinds of scholarships and fee assistance to help those who can’t afford the fees.  There are also many fine Jewish extra-curricular programs for kids in public schools.  I will discuss these issues further on – but first I will tell you our story.

I attended an orthodox JDS in Melbourne and my husband is from Israel. We are secular, traditional, and highly motivated to bring our children up with a strong sense of Jewish identity, Hebrew language and connection to Israel.  Our children attended a private Jewish kindergarten, which was affordable only because of the government subsidies, and we loved the immersion they received in Judaism, Hebrew and the community.

In the final year of kinder we did a lot of research and agonized over the decision about primary schooling.  After much thought we decided that paying full fees for a private JDS was out of the question.  Our after-tax income simply cannot accommodate a total cost of between $340,000 – $390,000 per child (in fees and levies at four of the main JDSs) plus extras for prep – year 12.  We don’t have grandparents who can afford to pay these fees.  As a family we have many essential expenses, and we also choose not to compromise our basic financial security because of JDS fees (e.g. paying school fees instead of buying a house, or taking out big loans to cover the fees).  We did investigate fee assistance at one Jewish school, but felt that it was an inappropriate invasion of our privacy and dignity, as well as being insecure for our kids as fee deals need to be renegotiated regularly.  Scholarships are a possibility for the future, but these are for a select few and cannot be relied upon.

There are two Jewish schools options in Melbourne which are more affordable, however one is primary only (and still quite expensive) and the other is orthodox and segregated.  We worry that placing our children in a very religious environment, which is too different from our secular/traditional home, could create problems in their Jewish identity and acceptance into the school community.  However we did find that this particular orthodox school has developed a first-rate financial assistance system (CAPS), which addresses many of our problems with JDS fees and makes this school uniquely affordable.  It remains a possible option for our future. More importantly, though, the CAPS system demonstrates to us that it is actually possible for a JDS to be both viable and widely affordable.

In the end we settled on the local public primary school, which has a high percentage of Jewish kids, and adding the “Jewish element” by enrolling in a few of the many wonderful and affordable once-a-week Jewish extra-curricular programs.  We do Shabbat and festivals at home, my husband teaches the kids Hebrew every day before school, and we can afford to visit our family in Israel on a regular basis. We are reasonably happy with this decision, and the kids are doing well.  However we are only in Prep and I have to admit that there is already something missing.

When our children learn a song at school, it’s never a Hebrew or Jewish song.  When they learn about and celebrate festivals at school, they are Christian or secular festivals.  In all of the hours that they spend at school, they are not learning even a tiny bit about their own history, culture, language, community or connection to Israel. This is at that tender age of childhood where they idolize their teachers and absorb everything from their environment and friends.  The Jewish after-school programs are fantastic, but that short 1-2 hours once a week is simply not enough to fully immerse them in the community and build that primal love of their own culture and people.  When I talk to other parents in similar situations, I feel that our story is reflected in many other Jewish households in Melbourne, including families who made similar education decisions for the same reasons during the last forty years.

So what is the solution?  I believe that we as a community need to have an open discussion about JDS fees.  I have no problem with expensive private schools which cater for an elite minority. However we also need to understand that within our community there are now many families who would love to provide a suitable JDS education for their children but cannot afford it.  Some suggestions for a way forward include the following:

 

  • Investigating how other communities in Melbourne provide much more affordable educational options.   By way of comparison:
    • Prep – year 12 in an Islamic private school in Melbourne costs in the range of $26,000 – $56,000 per child (fees and levies);
    • Prep – year 12 in a Catholic private school in Melbourne costs in the range of $42,000 – $66,000 per child (fees and levies).
  • Replicating the CAPS system at one or more of the other JDSs;
  • Opening a pluralistic and/or co-educational stream to cater for children from more secular and/or traditional families at the school which has CAPS;
  • Implementing more extra-curricular Jewish and Hebrew programs where children can attend 2-3 times per week (with a level of continuity which they don’t get from attending multiple once-a-week programs).
  • Finding ways that the community can cooperate to ensure an affordable and suitable JDS education for every child and family that wants it.

 

If we are to really address the problems highlighted by the Gen17 report and ensure the survival of our community into the future, I believe that providing an immersive, affordable and suitable Jewish education for our young children is a good place to start.  We need to open up this discussion in order to start moving towards a viable solution.

Comments

6 Responses to “Let’s talk about Jewish day school fees…writes Becci Krispin”
  1. Ron Jontof-Hutter says:

    There needs to be some dual approach, that also educates the parents. There is little point in sending kids to an expensive Jewish school (often for social reasons)who then return to a home environment that is a contradiction in tradition and even values. It’s essential to ensure that the home and school are consistent and complementary.

  2. Andrew Blitz says:

    Each year millions of dollars get sent from Australia to Israeli charities. One solution to the problem is to have an option of directing some of these donations to a new and dedicated education institution that can source and dispatch Hebrew, Jewish Studies teachers, and shlichim to the Jewish day schools. That would allow for the reinvestment of our own philanthropy into our own community, and help to contain costs for the schools which could provide some level of fee relief.

    • Becci Krispin says:

      Maybe we need to work more like the Jewish community in Sydney. I understand that they have an umbrella body of Jewish communal leaders who are responsible for the allocation of funds and donations to different causes. I agree that we need to channel resources into strengthening our own community. The GEN17 results certainly show indications of current and future weaknesses in the Australian Jewish community. Strong diaspora communities are essential to supporting a strong Israel.

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