Many middle-income households must ask for ‘handouts’ for kids’ Jewish education
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Sticker shock

Many middle-income households must ask for ‘handouts’ for kids’ Jewish education

Sending 3 children to summer camp -- or one to day school -- costs the same as a new car, forcing US Jewish organizations to band together to make religious life more affordable

An illustrative photo of students at a Jewish day school. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images via JTA)
An illustrative photo of students at a Jewish day school. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images via JTA)

NEW YORK — Meira always knew her children would spend summertime at Surprise Lake Camp in Cold Spring, New York. She went there and it was — and still is — one of her favorite childhood experiences. But when the time came to send her oldest, she looked up the tuition for one month.

To put it mildly, there was a bit of sticker shock.

“It was about $4,200. I thought, ‘Wow that’s high, but I guess that’s what it costs. So his first year we suffered through,” Meira told The Times of Israel.

The family scrimped and saved for the second season, cutting their annual vacation, among other things. But by the time the third year rolled around, she decided to apply for financial aid. And while asking for help didn’t come naturally for the New York native, “there was no way we were taking camp away from him. It had become his favorite thing,” she said.

This year they’ll send their 9-year-old twins along with their oldest to camp. Once again she will fill out financial aid forms.

“The thought of $15,000 for 26 days. It’s not even a month! That’s the price of a car. There is just no way we can swing that,” she said.

“Thankfully camp has been so helpful. They make it really easy. I’m not asking for a handout, I have a pretty good life — but we’re stuck in that crossroads where my husband and I both went to college, have careers and it’s still not enough,” she lamented.

Campers at a Jewish summer camp. (Foundation for Jewish Camp)

For many Jewish families, summer camp and day school are key components of living a Jewish life. Yet, as salaries remain flat while tuition continues to rise an average of three percent a year, those two expenditures are taking an ever-larger bite out of an ever-shrinking pie.

Ironically, what counts as upper middle class and wealthy in much of the country, doesn’t go as far in high cost of living regions.

Speaking with parents, educators, and representatives from various foundations, a common thread emerges: It’s clear the question isn’t whether to keep their children in day school or summer camp. Rather, it’s how to make more accessible and more affordable these experiences that many view as essential to forming a strong sense of Jewish identity.

“Affordability is a pressing concern for the North American community, and it’s not just camp and school — it’s synagogue dues, keeping kosher, High Holy Day tickets. So we don’t want price to be a barrier for any family, especially when it comes to education,” said Jeremy Fingerman, CEO for the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC).

Day school tuition averages $16,000 per student annually and can go as high as $35,000 at some high schools in New York and Los Angeles. Camp tuition averages $1,100 per camper a week, or close to $4,000 a session, according to the FJC. Since most families have more than one child enrolled in a given school or camp at any time, this translates into tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Courtesy: Foundation for Jewish Camp.

“There is an affordability crisis,” said Daniel Perla, senior director for financial vitality at Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools. “Nine years of seeing your income stay about the same, but tuition go from $10,000 to almost $15,000 means you can’t afford the extra tuition. It’s a crisis that has forced many middle income families into the scholarship bucket.”

Indeed, 50% of day school families receive some sort of scholarship, Perla said. Many of these are middle income families, or those households earning $150,00-$275,000 a year.

“Donors are funding scholarships, but the need is increasing faster than fundraising can keep up. People are surprised to learn scholarship needs are increasing if the economy is doing better,” Perla said.

Trending up

In spite of the situation, overall enrollments for both day school and summer camp are increasing.

According to the Avi Chai Foundation, which releases a census of Jewish day schools every five years, enrollment rose 12% for the 2013-2014 academic year since its 2008-2009 census.

Likewise, for the 150 overnight camps affiliated with FJC, enrollment increased 22% from 2007 through 2016, Fingerman said.

Illustrative: Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. (Uriel Heilman/JTA)

The reason? Schools and camps understand they must look for ways to help cash-strapped families, whether through scholarship, space sharing, or early enrollment discounts.

The One Happy Camper Program, administered through FJC, is just such a program. It offers $1,000 off tuition for every first-time overnight camper, regardless of financial need.  To date FJC has awarded 75,000 grants through One Happy Camper.

There are also scholarships and incentive grants available from many other organizations including the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which heads a program called PJ Goes to Camp.

“Once you get in the door, camp is going to do everything they can to keep you,” Fingerman said.

At Surprise Lake Camp, the first session for the upcoming 2018 year will cost $5,100 for kids 13 and under, and $5,350 for 13 and over. A full summer costs between $8,200 and $8,400 depending on the camper’s age.

Executive Director Bradley Solmsen of Surprise Lake Camp, right, with Joel Kaufman. (Cathryn J. Prince/Times of Israel)

Bradley Solmsen, the camp’s executive director, is aware of the difficulty this presents.

“We are in challenging times in the Jewish community. As a provider of a Jewish experience, I know a high quality experience is by definition expensive. I’m not talking about over the top. I’m not talking about extravagant. I’m taking about quality and we believe that no one who wants to send their child to camp shouldn’t be able to do that, or perceive that they shouldn’t be able to do that,” said Solmsen.

While Surprise Lake Camp doesn’t participate in One Happy Camper, it does offer a wide range of scholarships and discounts.

About half of all campers receive some sort of financial assistance, Solmsen said. The amount ranges in the hundreds of dollars to thousands of dollars. The camp also offers a $200 discount for every additional family member who enrolls.

Putting a lid on it

Tuition caps limit the total amount parents pay to a fixed dollar amount or to a certain percentage of adjusted gross income, usually between 15% and 18%.

At the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy & Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (JKHA/RKYHS) in Livingston, New Jersey, middle income families can get financial relief through the Middle Income Tuition Max, which caps tuition at 18%.

Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, Head of School JKHA/RKYHS. (Courtesy: JKHA/RKYHS)

“It gave parents the institutional acknowledgement that we’re not tone deaf to their desire for a private education for their children while trying to manage their own personal life,” said Rabbi Eliezer Rubin, the head of school.

Not only does the cap give parents the feeling the school is listening to them, it gives parents a sense of security, said one father of three students currently enrolled in the school who spoke with The Times of Israel.

Ben’s children started attending the school before the Tuition Max was instituted. Under the old system parents had to fill out lengthy applications for financial assistance — a process he felt was daunting, invasive and uncertain.

“The award could change from year to year. There was no absolute certainly what you would get. The knot in the stomach came when the letter from the school came and you didn’t know what was in it,” said Ben.

That’s changed. “The process is fair and equitable. There is a certain level of comfort. Now we can plan and budget. I’m not looking that they give it [schooling] to me for free, I want to do my fair share.”

In Los Angeles, Kadima Day School reduced tuition up to 11% for preschool families, to $11,600. For elementary and middle school families it will reduce tuition by 43%, or between $13,900 and $14,900. The hope is the reduction will make Jewish education more accessible while eliminating the need for any family to apply for financial aid.

This last point is important because many parents in this income bracket aren’t comfortable asking for help.

Doron Krakow, President and CEO, JCC Association of North America. (Courtesy: JCC Association of North America)

“The broad conclusion is that while the country as a whole has recovered from the recession, the middle and low income families have not recovered as well,” said Doron Krakow, president and CEO of JCC Association of North America.

“So they are facing pressures, and they are also less accustomed to pursuing financial aid. They can find it hard to swallow their pride and ask for help. They have to lay themselves bare and that’s uncomfortable,” he said.

Thinking outside the box

Some schools are reducing costs and passing the savings on to parents through online and blended learning, Perla said.

Westchester and Torah Academy in New Rochelle, New York and Yeshivat He’atid in Teaneck, New Jersey, keep tuition to $11,000 by using interactive computer programs to customize lesson plans for each student. This obviates the need for costly resource room staff, said Perla.

Both schools are part of a cohort of four schools, including the Milwaukee Bader Hillel and the Los Angeles-based Harkham-GAON Academy High School, who receive support from the Avi Chai Foundation for this type of program.

It takes a village

Financial relief also comes from community institutional assistance, be it matching grants, scholarships and endowment funds.

The UJA-Federation of New York has several programs, including the $51 million Day School Challenge Fund that gives 50 cents for every dollar given by private donors to 21 participating schools. This is to help build endowments.

Additionally, upwards of 2,000 students have benefited from the Rose Biller Scholarship awards, said Deborah Joselow, chief planning officer for UJA-Federation New York.

The scholarship is awarded as a percentage of a day school’s tuition, with a cap of $5,000 per student. The award must be used toward the cost of tuition at a Jewish day school by students currently enrolled or accepted to a Jewish day school, or yeshiva students in UJA’s eight-county area.

“I think it’s very tough to be middle income, period. We are exceptionally aware of the financial pressure of being Jewish, of living in this area,” Joselow said. “We are consistently looking at ways to meet the needs of the middle income and the working poor. It’s a considerable challenge, always.”

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