New group aims to solve day school tuition problem

Mordechai Ben-Dat

TORONTO — Huddled around a small, round table at a Thornhill coffee shop, four members of the newly formed Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education spoke about the urgent need to help parents who can’t afford Jewish education for their children.

“We want to give hope to parents and families that there are people out there who are thinking about… how they are able to send their kids to private school, and pay for a mortgage and not lose their children to another way of life. We want this discussion to get back on the agenda,” said Mordechai Ben-Dat, a former editor of The CJN and current columnist who is one of six founding members of the “think-tank” established to address the issue.

“The increase in the cost of education has been reaching two and three times the rate of inflation over the past 25 years,” said Rabbi Jay Kelman, an educator, accountant and CJN columnist who has written about the cost of tuition and possible solutions. 

Tuition for Jewish day school in Toronto ranges from $11,000 a year in elementary school to as high as $25,000 in high school.

Jeffrey Stutz, a public policy consultant, said that in Toronto, about 30 per cent of Jewish school-age children are enrolled in day schools, but numbers are declining. 

“They say our [community] tuition subsidies [from UJA Federation of Greater Toronto] are the most generous [in North America] at $10 million a year. But it’s been $10 million a year for more than five years, while the costs are moving further and further out of range, so we’re losing ground,” Stutz said.

 “We’re also seeing that Jewish families are smaller because they’re looking into the future and saying, ‘How can I afford to educate three or four children?’”

Rabbi Kelman added that despite the community’s affluence, affordability is still a major problem.

“We are the wealthiest generation in Jewish history, and yet we’re the generation that can least afford Jewish education. There is something wrong with that.” 

Ben-Dat said this venture is not about pointing fingers, rather about “radically changing” the way the community approaches day school funding.

“In the last two decades, there has been a sense of shrugging the shoulders… They say, we have the existing method, we’re doing the best we can, but we can’t make it affordable, so people just won’t go to school,” Ben-Dat said.

“We’re saying we’re not satisfied with that. That is not an option, and if we don’t have traditional answers, we’ll find non-traditional answers.”

Zac Kaye, former executive director of Hillel of Greater Toronto, said there’s a sense of desperation among young middle-class families he’s spoken to. “We have to think out of the box.”

In the past, Rabbi Kelman has proposed that proceeds from life-insurance plans purchased by parents could go to an education fund that subsidizes tuition, but Kaye said the group will look at a range of options, including alternatives to the current day school system.

“It’s not just about looking at financial implications, which is critical, but maybe can we create a no-frills school… we’re looking at what’s affordable,” Kaye said.

“The funding is there in an untapped source, and we want to inspire all sorts of new people to find ways to tap into it, as investors, not donors,” Ben-Dat said.

Daniel Held, executive director of the federation’s Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education in Toronto, said he’s met with the group a number of times and is committed to working with them. “The issue of day school affordability and sustainability are community issues. It is a conversation happening at every Shabbat table, in every parking lot, in every kiddush club, and it should be, because it is critical to the future of our community.”

Stutz said the group will host a public forum in the fall to let interested members of the community get involved.

“This is a solvable problem,” Rabbi Kelman said. “In the Jewish community, we’ve solved problems that were far worse.” 

“No option should be ruled out at this point,” Stutz added.

“Except failure,” Ben-Dat interjected. “We owe it to our children.”

To get involved, emai [email protected]