On the 2nd day of Shavuot the Dr. Simon Lapate panel forum at the Young Israel of Kew Garden Hills once again convened. This year the theme of the forum was about the current challenges to Jewish Orthodoxy. Under the direction and moderation of Rabbi Stuie Varstandig, we had the pleasure of hearing from 3 panelists: Cynthia Zalisky, Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council addressed the concerns of our community from a political standpoint, Rabbi Chaim Schwartz, Executive Director of Yeshivah Chafetz Chaim spoke of our challenges from a religious standpoint and Rabbi Yaakov Adler, Certified and Licensed Social Worker discussed areas for improvement from a social perspective.
Ms. Zalisky educated the gathering of about 150 people of the need for government help for the truly poor elderly and disabled in our community. She explained how the current ‘progressive’ city administration under the guidance of Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito,
operating with an approach that seems to cater only to the urban minorities and is neglecting the truly needy of groups who are not of such minority groups. She told us of hearing often even from government officials how Jews are rich and don’t need government assistance. That leaves the Jewish poor out of the priority list, even though there are segments of the Jewish community who are just as needy as minority poor. The answer, she says, is that we must make our voices heard by doing something that doesn’t cost anything and doesn’t take an inordinate amount of time and that is - to VOTE. Cynthia urged the audience to spread the word that we must become a solid voting block.
Rabbi Schwartz discussed the problem of the yeshiva tuition crisis, relating what he hears from parents in some cases, is actually limiting the size of their families. He quoted from what we recite in our daily davening that what is even more important than honoring one’s parents, acts of kindness, davening morning and night, opening one’s home to visitors, escorting the dead, bringing peace between one and his friend or a man with his wife - all combined - is the study of Torah. Yet people value other things to spend money on, such as lavish vacations and wardrobes and aside from what parents pay for tuition for their own children, there isn’t a great pool of funds from private donations to keep the yeshivas operating at a thriving level. Indeed, he said that there are even times that yeshivas don’t have the money to meet payroll demands.
Rabbi Adler spoke about children at risk and how the behavior of parents who don’t speak with respect to them and don’t walk the walk, takes much blame in the dysfunctionality of such children. His message to the audience was absolutely vital but for the purpose of my article here it doesn’t tie in directly so I will focus on the message of the other two speakers. Basically, as was stated before, even though our community overall is doing financially quite well, B’H, we still have poor in our midst and we still have parents who either can not pay for yeshiva tuition or pay for it with the consideration of limiting the number of children they will have or pay for it with great difficulty. The net result is that yeshivas sometimes don’t even have enough money for payroll. The reason I said that Rabbi Adler’s message doesn’t tie in directly to my overall point here is because while it’s a known phenomenon that when families are stressed financially there is more tension, hence sometimes don’t treat each other with the greatest sensitivity or respect, his conclusion wasn’t a financial solution. Rather it was to treat each other better, period.
When it came to the question and answer period, one woman (whom I later found out was Toby Reich, wife of YI of KGH president, David Reich) made the argument that parents who have grown children or past yeshiva age already paid into the yeshiva system, sometimes after having spent 100’s of thousands of dollars and its unfair to ask that they contribute for the education of other parents’ children. Instead, she asked of Rabbi Schwartz, why the community doesn’t pursue a Hebrew Charter school that would alleviate some of the burden of the yeshivos curriculum and its associated payroll. Rabbi Schwartz answered that a Hebrew Charter only teaches the Hebrew language which is of course not a substitute for leimudai kodesh. He went on to explain that even though a charter could alleviate the secular portion of a yeshiva curriculum, it wouldn’t work out because it wouldn’t be practical to have yeshiva students after their day in charter school begin their religious studies at 4 pm “when they look out the window and see their neighbor’s kid playing ball”.
However, the current reality is that yeshiva high school students finish their day about 6 pm and even beyond that from what I have heard. From the rudimentary research that I have done about charter schools it is feasible and lawful to have a charter start its instruction in the afternoon. Elementary school children are mandated to have 880 hours of instruction per year and high school students are mandated to have 990 hours of classroom instruction per year. The minimum number of days for a charter is 174 but there is no maximum. If the school year is extended to the end of June (which I believe is when yeshivas end their year anyway) that would be a ten month school year. Based on a basic calculation of 20 school days per month, ten months is 200 days.
When there are 200 days the hours per day is reduced to 4.4 hours per day (880 divided by 200) for elementary children and 4.95 hours per day (990 divided by 200) for high school students. If the charter started its day at 1 pm for elementary children it could end it for them by 5:30 pm. If the charter started its day by 1:30 pm for high school kids it could end it for them by 6:30 pm. This is a far cry from starting the yeshiva day at 4 o’clock!
There are other considerations when it comes to applying for a charter school, not the least of which is that out of the 15 charters that applied in last go-around, none got approved! Admittedly, quite a discouraging fact - and it must be due to the public comments and pressure during the public hearings from the UFT (teacher’s union) minions, that such a failure rate takes place. However, I say, that we must try and with a concerted effort (and voting block) put counter pressure on the NYS Education Dept which approves the charters to evaluate the charter applications fairly. After all, according to its own RFP (request for proposal) the number one factor to a charter being renewed (or approved) is the academic performance of the children being taught or that would be taught in the charter. We have to make the case that our children learn their lessons in yeshivas secular classes but that due to financial burdens to the community it would only be fair that the secular portion of the students’ curriculum be borne by the charter school in the district in which the children reside - no less than for other children who attend public school that the state pays for.
If anyone in the community finds viability in this option then we must act quickly in order to qualify for the 2016 school year. The letter of intent is due June 23! The application, which is quite extensive, is due Aug. 11! Perhaps this is much too early for it to be done right but perhaps not. After all, there is no harm in applying because if we do it wrong but there is a legitimate purpose in our application, we would be invited to apply again. We would need at least 5 professionals to fill the board, some of which should be familiar with education, some with finance and others to be a liaison to the community. Anyone interested in pursuing this angle so that we could alleviate some of the burden on our yeshivas?