TORONTO — “It’s always a struggle, and it’s always in the back of my mind,” says Ilsa Kamen, a Thornhill mother of five, referring to the cost of Jewish day school tuition.
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“I live my life filling out forms – subsidy forms, scholarship forms,” as well as a variety of other forms for 11-year-old Avi, who has severe autism and is a student at Zareinu Educational Centre, she added.
In September, Ilsa, a legal secretary, and her husband Howard – a part-time bookkeeper, bar mitzvah teacher and Torah reader – were facing day school tuition costs for their five children totalling $61,000, in addition to the cost of their two oldest daughters’ university and college tuition.
The amount included Zareinu arrears of $5,000, Zareinu tuition of $18,000, tuition for two children at the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto totalling $26,000 (less a deposit of $1,000), and TanenbaumCHAT arrears of $13,000.
The total represents 55 per cent of their annual before-tax income, Howard said, referring to his pay, Ilsa’s pay, and income from a trust left by Ilsa’s late father.
Howard said that he and Ilsa also need to save money for Avi’s future. “What is going to happen to Avi when Ilsa and I can no longer care for him?” he asked.
The couple reluctantly enrolled Avi in public school this year, pulling him out at the last minute when four people provided private funding after Howard sent an e-mail to synagogue friends.
The Kamens are stretched financially, emotionally and physically. “We don’t have the energy,” Howard said. Avi wakes up by 5 a.m., and requires full-time care, he explained.
But this year, even given the subsidies the family has been receiving, Ilsa and Howard didn’t think they would be able to continue in the Jewish school system, and had enrolled Avi in public school.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen next year,” Howard said.
Ilsa, an Ottawa native who attended Jewish day school through Grade 8, said she and Howard, also a day school graduate, never considered pulling their children out of Jewish school. “That was my upbringing,” she said softly.
She understands why some parents opt to leave the system because they don’t like the subsidy application process. “It’s not a pleasant grilling every year,” Ilsa said. “The only thing extravagant that we do is send [four of] the kids to camp. To me, that’s as important as their school. They go to Ramah… We don’t take trips.”
Steven Shulman, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s campaign director and counsel, said that the federation provides schools with a standard tuition subsidy form, which each school can customize, as long as they adhere to the criteria on the form.
The federation in Toronto allocates more money to tuition assistance than any other federation (in total dollars, not per capita), said Shulman, the father of two day school students. “You’ve got to look deeper than what can the federation provide. The federation provides a lot, but then you have to look at what other answers might there be. This is a process we’re starting down right now. There’s all kinds of alternatives we’re talking about. We’ve been in dialogue with parents and parent groups. This is certainly a significant issue.”
About four years ago, UJA Federation determined that, given the number of students in the day school system, it would need an endowment of approximately $750 million to cut the costs in half across the board, Shulman said.
“The answer has to be to work with parents in the schools to build on some alternative options,” Shulman said.
Wayne Levin, who in the 1990s was involved in lobbying for government funding for Jewish day schools, has three children, ages 13, 17 and 20, all of whom were pulled out of their Jewish day schools for issues not relating to tuition.
Taking them out was “very painful.
“I wanted them to have a good Jewish grounding, which I didn’t get,” Levin said. However, he added, “Every year the form letter goes out with yet another increase… I can’t say I miss paying.”
Instead of full-day Jewish school, the Levins opted for alternatives such as after-school tutoring and Jewish youth groups, but, he noted, they’re “not ideal.”
Joseph (Yossi) Adler, a lawyer and father of three whose wife is a trustee in bankruptcy, said day school tuition can run to more than $55,000 for three children.
Despite their solid dual incomes, “We find it difficult,” said Adler, who identifies as modern Orthodox and as a “parent activist” on tuition and other communal matters.
As well, he noted, there is – for his family and many others – the cost of eating kosher, paying synagogue dues, sending kids to Jewish summer camp and owning a house in Toronto. “That’s where it becomes prohibitive for a lot of people.”
It’s “a common thing” for parents to refinance their homes, he said.
In the Orthodox world there’s communal pressure to send children to Jewish day school, he added. “There’s a message that’s sent to your friends, relatives and community members that you’re not a committed Jew if you don’t.”
As well, he said, parents want their children to have Jewish friends and a stronger Jewish identity, and even modern Orthodox Jews, not just haredim, are concerned about influences from the outside world at non-Jewish schools.
Tuition has become a form of birth control, he added.
Adler believes high tuition costs will have a detrimental impact on contributions to UJA and other communal organizations. “If our leaders continue to announce to the world that we subsidize Jewish education more than any federation, that alone will not cut it. That does not make an impact on the community.
“If the community doesn’t come up with creative solutions, then parents will make their own decisions,” he warned. “Increasingly, people are thinking about public school as an option.”
Leonard, a father of five grown children who didn’t want his real name used, said he and his wife had “no way around” asking for a subsidy. Over the years, he said, the subsidies started “drying up” and he had to pay an increasing percentage of tuition.
He and his wife made do by using a line of credit and renewing their mortgage. “I didn’t send my kids to school. My house sent the kids to school,” he said, noting that he has no other investments, and the house still has a “sizable” mortgage even though his kids are out of the school system. “Fortunately, property values keep going up. What happens if they go down?… The fact that we still have the debt is kind of unsettling.”
Pulling their children from Jewish day school wasn’t an option for the Orthodox family. “We’re committed to Yiddishkeit. Our kids needed to get a Jewish education.”
He believes that other forms of Jewish education don’t offer “the same kind of Jewish grounding” as day school. That’s the sad part of it… A day school education is something that sticks with people.”
“We don’t live exorbitantly,” said Leonard, who described his salary as “pretty good.” Instead of vacations, he added, “we basically did local stuff.” As well, their kids didn’t attend summer camp, because of the cost, and extracurricular activities were limited.
“It wasn’t until years later that they told us it affected their social life. They weren’t part of the chevra.”
He added: “Most of the people I work with have a cottage, a boat. I think to myself, they invested in that; I invested in my kids. I don’t feel bitter, but I guess I felt the unfairness.
“I’m not angry at the system. I’m very grateful for what we got that helped us get through.”
He said the financial burden for day school parents has grown proportionately larger since his parents’ day.
Leonard, who has served on a tuition committee himself, said “I realized they did the best they could for me, but it still wasn’t enough.”
Sadly, he noted, there are parents “who try to bilk the system… on paper it would look like they earned nothing.”
The ultimate answer, he said, is that the government of Ontario “has to realize the inequity” of day school parents paying taxes for education and not getting any funding in return.