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Struggling to Finance My Children’s Jewish Education

As a single mother of four, I’m tiring of elitist parents who desire shorter school days and complain about the rising costs of sleepaway camp

Malynnda Littky
June 30, 2015

I live in Israel with my four kids. School lets out at 2 p.m., daycare goes until 4 p.m., and my workday ends between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Now that I am going through a divorce, and we are creating two separate households, my finances and time management skills are being sorely tested—and so is my patience.

Recently, in a popular Internet forum for Jewish mothers, debates have erupted over the costs and necessity of Jewish day school, as well as sleepaway camp for children on summer break. Some parents have voiced displeasure about being asked to cover the rising costs of sending their kids to day school, which would enable children from lesser privileged households to attend via financial aid grants. In related instance, a mother, who was in need of financial support, complained when the financial aid committee from her from child’s Jewish day school treated her desire to send her kids to Jewish sleepaway camp as a frivolous expenditure. To her, this felt like a double standard because she felt it was mandatory to keep her kids in a completely religious environment during the entire year.

In a different case, a mother posted that she was upset the school day was too long: She wished she could have more time with her family. Given her previous posts on Jewish-themed crafts and requests for story time hours at the local library, I presume she would be spending the time baking cookies shaped like Noah’s Ark, and reading stories on the couch under a blanket. Given the reality of my packed schedule, the last thing I need is for someone to lobby for shorter school days. This woman clearly has the luxury of being available for her kids at her own leisure. But some kids need an organized framework all day, either because both parents work, or because they’re being raised by a single parent, like me.

When these women promoted spending small fortunes on summer camps, or cutting the school day to spend extra time—time that I don’t personally have with my children—it made me feel marginalized and inadequate as a parent.

These complaints are manifestations of the stereotypical “Jewish lifestyle” associated with Modern Orthodoxy in America, which breeds elitism by pushing careers as lawyers and accountants with advanced degrees from elite private schools in order to afford these parenting luxuries. But this is a reality only for a select few, and one that I feel is not likely for my family. It creates a gap between Jews with different socioeconomic statuses, and especially in terms of how Modern Orthodoxy interacts with the non-Jewish world. A wall has been erected between the haves and have-nots.

According to the 2013 Pew report on U.S. Jews, one-third of Jews attended an overnight summer camp. In other words, most Jewish American included do not send their kids away to sleepaway camp. And yet summer camp remains a hot button, with Jewish education as a third rail, electrocuting those who point out the unsustainability of a educational system in which tuition fees are skyrocketing (not to mention the rising cost of living).

I support Jewish education. I believe that it the single most effective strategy for promoting a life centered on Judaism. But to have an entire community in which people are supposed to pay anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 a year, per child, on private Jewish school is extreme. After all, Israeli private schools are all subsidized, which is much of the reason why my family made aliyah. (In fact, I have a friend who moved back to America from Israel with little savings and no job. Her discounted tuition was $11,000 total for two kids.)

As a single mother, I feel as though the Modern Orthodox Jewish community is not set up to meet my needs. The Modern Orthodox community is breeding elitism, making it not-so-subtly necessary (or at least highly desirable) for its members to choose professions that can cover these educational expenses. If you love being a lawyer or doctor, that’s great. If not, tough.

Let me clear. I don’t begrudge Jewish parents who can afford to send their kinds, year-round, to private institutions. But when I encounter these parents on the Internet complaining about educational luxuries with a price tag that can average 25% of the median salary in America for an experience lasting a few weeks, it may lead to ill will among lesser-privileged Jews. Modern Orthodox Jewry can do better when it comes to relating to those who have not climbed as far up the ladder of success, whether or not they are coreligionists.

Malynnda Littky moved to Israel from the Detroit area in 2007, and lives with her family in Hadera, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. She currently works as a content manager for a software company.