From the Desk of Zev Eleff
The following post is from Zev Eleff, chief academic officer of the Hebrew Theological College in Chicago, Illinois, and author of Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History (Jewish Publication Society, 2016).
and the Pre-Day School Time-Crunch
In a recent article published in the Atlantic, Emma Green investigated the attraction that so many young people have to Orthodox Judaism. Her test case was Houston, Texas, and its growing Orthodox Jewish community. No doubt, Green is correct that there is much to the “mega churches” and Bible-Belt culture that moves Jews in this area to “actively” consider the rather rigid and religiously conservative lifestyle demanded by Orthodox Judaism. Without question, the Pied Pipers, as my cynical grandfather would have put it, of Houston are on to something. In 2009, the Orthodox Union featured the Houston community in its quarterly and the effective outreach work conducted by Orthodox rabbis and educators. All this explains much about the local impulse that directs Jewish Houstonians toward Orthodoxy. Yet, there is also the drive of young non-Houston Orthodox Jewish residents to consider “Space City” as a viable, earthly destination. To understand this, we must consider the steep economics of an Orthodox lifestyle.
Orthodox Jews discuss the so-called “tuition crisis” with great frequency. They do so with good reason. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, America’s Orthodox Jews tend to bear twice as many children as their non-Orthodox counterparts. The average Orthodox Jewish household includes about four children. And, 81% of Orthodox households contain at least one child enrolled in an Orthodox day school. Since the 1960s, Orthodox Jews have looked to day schools and yeshivas as the one-and-only antidote for assimilation and intermarriage. This form of education is indispensable, nonnegotiable even. In the vast majority of these cases, of course, Orthodox Jews are saddled with multiple sets of day school tuitions. Often, the annual tuition bill reaches beyond $20,000 per child. Throw in summer camp and other important child-rearing expenses and Jewish couples (or single parents) require a per capita income that exceeds $150,000. Then there’s the mortgage, utilities, Internet, food and other essential expenses for daily living, to say nothing about retirement planning.
This renders locales like Houston, Dallas, Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and, to some extent, Chicago, worthy destinations for Orthodox couples that cannot count on inheritances to sustain them. This predicament has something to do with the more affordable tuition in these communities, especially when compared to New York schools. But there is more to consider. Many Orthodox Jews are resigned to the fact that their income is part of a depressing zero-sum middle class existence. Notwithstanding crucial considerations pertaining to behavior and the limitations of differentiated forms of education, Orthodox day schools will accept most prospective students whether their parents can afford the steep tuition bill or not. On the whole, to reject a student, in the minds of educators and lay leaders, is to deprive the youngster of a chance at endogamy and, frankly, an Orthodox future. Schools still need to be paid, of course. The day school will collect W-2s and paystubs to ensure that whatever families do not require for basic living is used for tuition payment. In the end, day schools work hard to ensure that families can still account for mortgages and electricity. They just won’t leave much room for savings and amenities. This often includes putting away funds to purchase a house or condominium.
So it’s a race to the tuition-paying finish line. Many young Orthodox Jews in the United States are transfixed upon a singular mission during their first years of marriage and professional life: to amass the necessary funds to secure a down payment on a home. In Houston, houses are more affordable than, say, the Orthodox Jewish enclaves in New York, Philadelphia or Los Angeles (Orthodox Jews, because they do not drive to synagogue, require housing in specific areas). In effect, day schools cannot demand finances that are already spent.
So this is the rub. Once most Orthodox Jews reach the “tuition period” of their adult lives, they do not hold the earning power to save. That’ll have to wait until children graduate. Owing to the fact that the Orthodox tend to bear children at an earlier stage in their lives, there is a severe time crunch to stockpile funds before day schools absorb the bulk of a family’s salaries. Various cities in Texas, with relatively affordable housing and no state income tax, are intriguing destinations for Orthodox Jews scrambling to amass a modest supply of wealth before it is too late. These Jewish communities also possess a variety of synagogues of different Orthodox stripes and schools and other ritual institutions to satisfy the religious needs of Orthodox adherents. And, as homes in places like Houston increase in value, Orthodox Jews will likely look to other more affordable communities with an Orthodox infrastructure to help make due before the tuition onslaught. It is, admittedly, a quite broken system that frustrates many Orthodox leaders and, of course, the rank-and-file who suffer this burden. In lieu of a smarter sort of remedy, this is an important reason that Orthodox Jews like places like Houston.
Interested in other insights into Modern Orthodox Judaism? Read Eleff’s book, available in July.