Sunday, July 24, 2011

Aliyah and a Free Jewish Education

YNet recently ran a story about people who it says are making aliyah in order to save money on Jewish education. The subhead reads, "With Jewish school tuition fees per child reaching $20,000 a year, many families prefer to make aliyah and get free education. We met some of them onboard Nefesh B'Nefesh flight carrying 250 new olim to Israel."
I'm not sure that the headline is totally accurate. When you actually read the piece, you see that people didn't really make aliyah just to save money on day school tuition, which is smart, as I will explain. Rather, they say that it's one of many factors which push them to finally make the decision to come on aliyah. I notice this phenomenon a lot in the press - headlines that are designed to draw attention, which turn out to be less than accurate. I get the feeling that they're getting tired of writing the same "Nefesh B'nefesh Brings Jews to Israel" article five times a summer, and just needed a new angle. But I digress...
I often think about committed Orthodox American Jews who really struggle to meet the suffocating demands of day school tuition. I wonder how they do it. Just in my own family, my sister and brother-in-law both have great jobs, work hard, make decent salaries, and literally live hand to mouth. True, they have over the years built a nice home. But they certainly don't live high off the hog. They're paying for day school, seminary, yeshivot, and also trying to save for (God willing) weddings as well. It just seems crazy that they work as hard as they do, and have so little savings to show for it.
From this vantage point, aliyah seems like a sensible alternative. After all, isn't public school education in Israel free?
Let's set the record straight: It's not free, at least not for us. And while the prices would seem like a joke to Americans paying U.S. tuition prices, they're not as simple as they seem.
Basic public school in Israel really is free. It's public school, and I get a certain degree of pleasure just knowing that my children learn chumash, tefillah, dinim, and all the other regular, normal Jewish subject in public school. But...
1. There are fees for trips, books and other things that are not included, for which we pay.
2. The school in Yad Binyamin is what's called a ממלכתי דתי תורני - or for short, a ממ"ד תורני - "Mamad Torani" - a Torah-oriented public school. Our children have several more hours in Torah than regular public school kids, and someone's got to pay for those hours. The local Moatzah pays some (because our mayor feels that it's in the municipality's interest to have an "upgraded" school - to which I agree), but we pay the rest. It comes out to about 1,500 shekel for a grade-school age child per year. Yes, I know it's not a lot. That's the good part.
3. Once your child hits seventh grade, the hours in school shoot way, way up. Someone's got to pay for those hours, and that someone is basically you. Tuition for my son going into seventh grade is about 7,000 shekel for the year, not including the lunch program.
4. In high school, it goes even higher. We kept our oldest son local, but the yeshiva insists that all students dorm twice a week and stay in the yeshiva for Shabbat once a month. Total cost, about 11,000 shekel per year, and 14,000 at least if you don't live in the Moatzah. If you live in the States, I know what you're thinking: 11 thousand divided by 3.5 shekel per dollar comes to...about $3,000 dollars for high school tuition per YEAR? That's nothing! True, it might be if we were earning an American salary. But we're not. We earn Israeli salaries.
That's not to say that it's undoable. Thank God, I'm pretty sure that we're OK for next year. The schools also help people out if they can't meet the tuition needs, and I don't think that the scholarship process is nearly as draconian as it is in the States now. But it's not free. (Health care, on the other hand, which is really quite good here, is actually next to free. But that's a totally different post.)
Let me be clear. I'm very much in favor of aliyah. I even did it myself. Contrary to what many people said (and perhaps think and hear) about the education system in Israel, while it has problems, I think that our kids' education thus far has been excellent. Truly.
But there are far better reasons to move to Israel than to save money on day school tuition. Like the fact that God wants all the Jews to live here. Like the fact that it's really a Jewish country, which caters to the unique way of life that the Torah demands. Like the fact that there are many, many more kosher restaurants here than even in Teaneck (although Teaneck does indeed have some good ones). Did I mention that God wants the Jews to live in Israel?
But I wouldn't make aliyah to do better financially. It's not simple here, and people really do struggle to make ends meet.
In the end, though, if you're going to struggle to make ends meet and keep your kids in Jewish Day school - which it seems like most Orthodox Jews in Amerca do, isn't it better to do struggle in the Land of Israel?