Sisterhood Blog

Sending My Children to Day School: It Shouldn't Be So Hard

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Nothing is more important to my husband and me than sending our kids to Jewish day school. Nothing besides keeping them healthy, sheltered, fed and clothed. But as a family struggling to keep ahead of the bills, it’s a commitment that comes with a growing struggle to pay for it.

My husband makes reasonable money at a solid, mid-level corporate job. He works hard, and I’m proud of him. His company has instituted a salary freeze and requires that we pay increasingly high health insurance premiums. I’m a writer, and writing for Jewish publications (and these days, most other publications as well) pays poorly. Sometimes it seems as if Jewish day schools, at least here in New York, are meant only for the children of lawyers and investment bankers.

I buy generic everything at the drugstore. Eating out is a special occasion and I have no hang-ups about buying our clothes at Target and on sale at Macy’s. Travel is very rare, though I long to show my kids Europe and to take a mid-winter break even once at a Caribbean resort. But we can’t afford it, because our children go to Jewish day school.

Summer vacation is mostly camping, and I detest camping. Some years we rent a bungalow upstate for a week. Pleasant and cheap, but not much of a treat. We went to Israel a couple of summers back, after several years of planning, flying on Amex points saved for 15 years and touring thanks to our tax refund.

I don’t mean to sound as if I’m complaining; especially at this time of widespread American economic struggle and when pictures from Haiti are still fresh in our minds, I know that many have it so much worse. In a way, it’s a luxury to struggle over paying for day school.

But I also feel as if I don’t have a choice about where our kids go to school - I know well that only day school will help create the kind of Jews I want my children to be.

What they get from going to our day school neither my husband nor I could give them ourselves.

Though Jewish, I attended a Presbyterian boarding school, which tells you much of what you need to know. My husband, despite the fact that he grew up attending Lubavitch yeshiva, had a pretty lousy Jewish education, too — it was about rote memorization rather than understanding.

We want our children to have a different experience than we could give them ourselves. And they seem to be getting it. They feel at home in synagogue and with the liturgy in a way that I’m still trying to attain; they see the world through a prism of Jewish literature and values.

There is only one nearby school that fits our family’s educational and religious needs. My children get a solid secular and a good Jewish education in a place where Jewish pluralism and serious study are deeply held values. So there is no shopping around to do, though sending them to day school (and Jewish camps) makes money a constant stress, and this knot in my stomach a constant companion.

We just got our new enrollment contracts. This year again, even with scholarship help and even when our income has gone down, our payment has increased. Panic mounts, as I see no clear way we can pay more.

And yet.

Our 9-year-old came home from 2nd grade last year burbling with excitement about the midrashim she’d learned, eager to discuss different rabbinic interpretations of what Lag B’Omer commemorates. To her our Biblical ancestors are people rather than flat renderings on a page.

Our 10-year-old daughter, though shy in public, will go up in front of our shul with her day school friends and lead the congregation in “Ein Keloheinu” at the end of services and just chanted Torah (something I have not yet learned to do) for the first time in Junior Congregation, with ease because she had the grounding from day school.

Our 15-year-old son is able to lead any part of services, and did so beautifully when he worked as the High Holy Days assistant cantor at another Conservative synagogue. He actually feels connected to God when he davens, and has a real gift for bringing others into the same place. I don’t know if he would have gotten there through Jewish prayer if not for what he learned at day school.

This level of comfort and confidence, this level of facility with liturgy and texts is what I want for my children. My gut tells me, and the research literature bears out, that day school is the one place they will learn these things deeply and well.

We sacrifice much to send them. I don’t save for retirement. Yesterday I asked my doctor not to order a particular test because it’s too expensive, and we have a high deductible on our medical insurance. One of my children does not get the private speech and language therapy that is strongly recommended.

Our son doesn’t have the private voice lessons he should as a serious singer. He is a high school junior (in a public high school, which is the right fit for him, though Jewish high schools were simply out of the question financially) and we are starting to look at colleges. We have nothing saved for it, because that money has gone to day school tuition.

The knot in my stomach grows.

Tuition has nearly tripled — tripled! — at our K–8 day school since our son enrolled a decade ago. We never imagined it would go up so much.

When I think about what it costs to send our kids to Jewish day school (and camps), thoughts about what else we could do with the money flit through my head. But I quickly bat them away. I am not willing to regard my children’s Jewish education as one of the many luxuries we do without.

The feeling is made even worse when I learn that we are excluded from the only grant available to people sending a child to Jewish overnight camp for the first time. Because our kids go to day school, and the grant is for people who’s kids are in public school. It feels almost punishing to be so committed to giving our children this Jewish education. The stress of it makes me cry.

Nothing is more important to us than sending our kids to day school. It just shouldn’t be this hard.

Debra is an award-winning journalist and author of “Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant” (Jewish Lights). She can be reached at

Howard Mon. Feb 8, 2010

Been there. Am there. And with only one kid.

Enrollment keeps going down, because of the financial squeeze on parents who are in.

And the visibility of the coming squeeze on those who are not in yet.

Yet, only this kind of school gives the kind of full immersion in Judaism that I grew up with, without the xenophobic attitude that I grew up with as well.

Aurora Mendelsohn Tue. Feb 9, 2010

We are in the same boat. We seek vacations we can drive to. We don't know if we'd be able to pay for day school for a third child. That should no be part of our decision making processes. But it is. (Day school as birth control).

But as much as I am a fan of day school I purposely send my kids to know Jewish-camps so they can meet people who are different. I don't like the isolation of day school, being removed from the public sphere, or having no non-Jewish friends. In the long run our community relations would be better if we had less isolation.

I understand that youth groups, camps and day school are the best ways to provide kids with Jewish identities, so it makes sense that a grant would exclude day school kids from getting camp grants. They want to reach the kids who only go to Jewish camp, and have no other connection.

What bothers me is that all the discussion about Jewish continuity makes people focus on outreach to the unaffiliated (birthright trips) instead of making sure that the partially affiliated Jewish community is strong, vibrant and attractive to modern Jews (if it isn't they will leave). Progressive day schools like the one my kids (and I assume your kids) go to are a great way to make sure that there is a rich living Judaism there for those who want it. It is a much better investment than a glossy soft-sell to the unaffiliated in the hopes they'll join. They are just as likely to become affiliated through their encounter with a day school peer or an innovative service of program planned (in their own city) by someone with a day school or summer camp background and a modern, non-judgmental approach.

Aurora Mendelsohn Tue. Feb 9, 2010

Opps that should be "non-Jewish camps" above

Steve Tue. Feb 9, 2010

I sympathize. I send my children to those evil orthodox schools :-) The way I've learned to think about it is that this is an investment whose returns are more important then money. My children would no more consider eating non-kosher food then jumping off a building. Why would then do such a thing? This kind of identification with Torah values is what you pay for. And the data shows that its very difficult to get that any other way. That said, the community darn well needs to find ways to bring costs down. You are 100% correct. Good luck to you.

Steve Tue. Feb 9, 2010

Its a day for typos. Should have been "Why would they do such a thing?" Sorry.

Claire Tue. Feb 9, 2010

The synagogues in the area could help to pay for Jewish schools from the synagogue fees that people pay to them. There must be many Jews who can't afford to send their children to Jewish schools or want to send their children to Jewish schools but refuse to pay so much for them.

Chaya Tue. Feb 9, 2010

Although I sympathize with parents dealing with the burden of day school tuitions, as I have two children in a day school myself, I am also employed by that Jewish day school as both a faculty member and a Judaic chair. As such, I am expected to produce top notch curriculum planning, lessons that would rival any award winning "A" public school, and develop a spirit of friendliness and sense of community of among our students and community. Parents expect excellence, and we as a school provide it at every level. But that comes at a cost. That curriculum? $110 a head for books and supplies. Teacher training? $1000 or more, per teacher, to fly to conferences and become trained in the newest techniques...To maintain a level that parents who are paying upwards of $20,000 to have their kids educated are expecting and deserve, mean hard work and dedication on the part of faculty, but there is a cost factor. Unless parents are willing to sacrifice certain aspects of a well rounded education (eliminating the arts, computer lab or dynamic curriculum) then as a parent you need to assume that you get what you pay for. If a day school were to drastically cut its costs then inevitably there will be a program of some sort that your child will not get as a result.

Jessica Tue. Feb 9, 2010

I don't know that it's much about cutting costs - but I think this might point to a different way of finding money, of finding a focus for Jewish money in day schools.

We haven't even started having kids yet, and this stuff is worrying to me!

Steve Tue. Feb 9, 2010

There is of course the Catholic model. Their cost is a fraction of ours, and many of their schools do a fine job, thank you. But that also comes at a price of a different sort. They have centralized control. If the Archdiocese determines that St. Tim's parish school is not pulling its weight, they shut them down. Jews being what they are, I cant imagine that working with us. Can you imagine if the Federation had the last word on what schools should be where, who should be open and who should close... Then again...

Deb Tue. Feb 9, 2010

Here in LA many are turning to homeschooling and looking for ways to cooperatively pay for the the Judaica. I am one after 10 years of teaching in and watching my children grow in a day school. See One great new option that is still developing is, an on-line interactive homeschooling website for Judaica courses.. Chabad also has an on-line school. This is a growing movement but it also involves a potential financial sacrifice with one spouse home. Secular studies can be handled on-line, through a charter, as an independent study and more depending on your state.

Sarah Tue. Feb 9, 2010

I feel your pain as well - and I'm just beginning, with a 3-year-old whose tuition is about what my parents paid to send me to high school, back in the day. (And she's in a "cheap" day school!)

I also identify strongly with Chaya's points. As a teacher, I know what goes into creating the sort of dual-curriculum stellar educational experience that parents want, and that they will be willing to sacrifice to pay for rather than sending their kids to public school. But it's a vicious cycle: no one wants to pay for less than top quality, but in order to achieve that quality, you have to pay more... And teachers need to get paid enough to send their own kids to school!

I actually have to commend Debra on that note. Most of the time, when I see an essay or post or article with a title referencing high day school tuition, the writer seems to be blaming the school for the high cost, without taking into consideration all the legitimate expenses that tuition must cover. I appreciate the tone of your post - simply outlining the struggle, the realities of the situation, without implying that profit-hungry schools are raking it in over the struggles of the parents.

I just wish I knew what we could all do about it.

Hana Tue. Feb 9, 2010

The centralized Catholic model would only work if lots of families gave up a lot of choices in terms of the 'flavor' of their Day Schools--religious and spiritual orientation, curriculum emphases, etc. And not all Catholic Archdioscese are doing well--in DC a consortium of catholic schools was flagging, so they closed and were transformed by groups of parents and other community members into secular public charter schools instead.

Tuition is high for Day Schools, even moreso now that there have been major losses of large donations from benefactors who themselves have lost money, not just from general economic decline, but also because so many of them had money invested with funds related to Madoff, et. al.

And even though Day School might feel like it's a must and not a choice for you and your family, I think it is very important to be mindful of the fact that it IS a choice you are making, and choices almost always involve trade-offs. It could help to remind yourself that so many people don't have such choices--they have to accept the public education that is offered them.

Mike Tue. Feb 9, 2010

I am concerned that people have the impression that Day Schools are only for the affluent. The truth is that in the Orthodox community anyway (I cant speak for others) there are families of every income level. What they have in common is a dedication to giving their children a Torah based education. And while it is certainly true that this is an expensive proposition, no one is turned away because of money. That said, in the real world, the schools are going to try to get as much as they realistically can because they have bills to pay.

As to whether this is a "choice", its a choice in the same way that eating is a choice. Do you want a balanced diet or do you want to live off of only junk food? If you live off of only junk food, you will have serious health problems down the road. If you live off of junk Jewish education, dont be surprised when the results arent what you'd like. But parents have to demand quality for their dollar. The Jewish high school I send my daughters to is unhappy with its feeder day school because many kids are lacking some basic math skills. There is no excuse for that. That has to be fixed, but the solution is not to throw the baby out with the bath water. The solution is to demand the quality you deserve.

hank Wed. Feb 10, 2010

I know it's none of my business, but after reading this post, I have to seriously question your priorities. Likely over a hundred thousand dollars spent on private school. Yet, you have no money saved for retirement, college or a rainy day. You can't afford speech therapy for a child who needs it (I'm sure when she's 20 years old with a lisp she'll be happy about the choices you made). And you're even choosing tuition over medical tests.

If you and your husband had spent that much money on heroin rather than private school and left yourself in a similar situation, people would think you were nuts.

While the benefits of private school to your children are clearly evident, they are not worth the health and long term security of your family. You didn't go to a jewish day school and neither did your husband. You both turned out fine, committed jews. Your children will too.

sarah Wed. Feb 10, 2010

When you work out the total costs of sending your three children to Jewish schools until they are old enough to leave, it must add up to a huge amount. You say "We sacrifice much to send them. I don’t save for retirement. Yesterday I asked my doctor not to order a particular test because it’s too expensive" I think that health and saving for retirement should come before sending children to a Jewish school. I think if the children were to go to a Jewish school for 3 years and then move to a non Jewish school then at least they will have the chance to have a Jewish education and it won't be a financial struggle.

JDS Wed. Feb 10, 2010

It is a terrible thing to want things that you cannot afford. It makes for great unhappiness. And while Jewish day school might seem like a basic need bordering on neccesity, a private education is a luxury. Here in Boulder, CO the one Jewish day school is on the verge of collapse because of lack of funds. They offer scholarships to many families but they do not have the endowment to really be able to afford it.

This is the reality; one cannot live the life of a rich person without being rich. The things you say you want like a vacation to Europe or the Caribbean at a resort are for people with lots of extra money.

I hate to preach the whole 'reality check' thing here, but it is typical of many middle class families. You think you should be able to live a life that far exceeds your income. The things you talk about are real luxuries. Forget the nonsense of a fantasy vacation and put money in the bank for retirement, and needed medical tests, and speech therapy.

I am sorry for your woes but either get your tastes in line with your finances or you will end up like the rest of the country who lives like this. Unhappy, broke, divorced, and wondering why they can't live their American dream.

Claire Wed. Feb 10, 2010

If you were to move your children to a non Jewish school it would not do them any harm and they have already had a good Jewish education. You could move your children to a non Jewish school and send them to Jewish summer camps and youth groups and they are likely to continue living Jewish lives.

Mike Wed. Feb 10, 2010

I dont think a proper Jewish education is a luxury. Its part of our responsbilites as Jewish parents. If you dont provide that, you are not doing this part of your job properly. I think the point of the article though is that its the priorities of the *community* that need help. Why *should* she have to choose between a decent Jewish education for her children and proper medical care? She should not be in that position, and as a community we need to fix this, not say "ah well. private education is only for rich people." If you want your kids to say, eat only Kosher, you have to educate them properly. BTW, part of this is an insurance issue. There has been a massive decline in coverage for so many people in recent years. That needs to be fixed as well.

JDS Wed. Feb 10, 2010

It is a terrible thing to want things that you cannot afford. It makes for great unhappiness. And while Jewish day school might seem like a basic need bordering on neccesity, a private education is a luxury. Here in Boulder, CO the one Jewish day school is on the verge of collapse because of lack of funds. They offer scholarships to many families but they do not have the endowment to really be able to afford it.

This is the reality; one cannot live the life of a rich person without being rich. The things you say you want like a vacation to Europe or the Caribbean at a resort are for people with lots of extra money.

I hate to preach the whole 'reality check' thing here, but it is typical of many middle class families. You think you should be able to live a life that far exceeds your income. The things you talk about are real luxuries. Forget the nonsense of a fantasy vacation and put money in the bank for retirement, and needed medical tests, and speech therapy.

I am sorry for your woes but either get your tastes in line with your finances or you will end up like the rest of the country who lives like this. Unhappy, broke, divorced, and wondering why they can't live their American dream.

ERP Fri. Feb 12, 2010

This article is hitting home in the worst way. I have twins, nearly 2 who will go to a JCC daycare for the first time this year, which will cost about 20k per child. Both my husband I work FT so that we can afford to live a middle class life. (Non-Jewish day care would cost the same, so I'm not disputing the cost here.)

I worked in the Jewish community for nearly a decade, and I've been "programmed" to belive that day schools are the best choices. I'm not convinced that the day schools are the best choices for us.

Even before we had kids, the only vacations we took were to see family, and we drove 10 year old cars. We buy generic stuff, and I don't buy designer anything. (Shhh... I even shop at Walmart.) All of my kids baby gear is even second hand! We have been agressively saving for retirement since the day we got out of college.

My parents sent me to a well known conservative Jewish camp, because I was the only kid in my town who went there, and I got a VERY generous scholarship and had a very generous grandmother of means. (A bacon-loving grandmother, mind you.) Today, the same camp costs over 8K per summer. I went to public school in a small town as a kid, and I desprately want my kids to have the experience of growing up in a Jewish community, and attending a Jewish day school. Based on tuition documents I've seen from my local dayschool, It will cost us well over 45K per year to do this, if we go forward with it, which would be about 30% of our annual income, and that means I MUST work. If I didn't work, I couldn't even consider sending my kids to dayschool. Will it be worth it? I don't see that the academics are any better than public school. Or, will the nachas of knowing that my kid reads perfect hebrew and torah trope be enough to outweigh all the other concerns? Will dayschool help me create Shalom Bayit or simply add to my stress?

Furthermore, will I be ostricized because I'm the only working mom? Does dayschool have EXTENDED day programs for working parents...? So many of the people at my temple are SAHM's...... and they seem to have no problems affording the membership dues, which are nearly 4k per year, dayschool for their 2 or 3 kids and a new Mercedes SUV.

Will knowing how to speak fluent Hebrew, and the ability break down Mishna give them a advantage when they go to college or help them to navigate the challenges of life in the secular world? Will knowing the ins-and-outs of Jewish tradition make them happier kids? They may be better informed Jews, but will that make them better people? As a child, my husband had a HORRIBLE, unspeakable experience at an orthodox day school that is theoretically one of the best in the nation. As an adult, I barely can get him to sit through services and he's pretty much a cultural Jew, certainly not religious.

My own parents are worried about when they are going to be able to I'm not banking on any grandparent help from them for dayschool. The more I read about this issue of dayschool vs. public school, I'm starting to think that my children are better served by a public school education with a strong dose of Hebrew school, camp and youth groups which is basically what I had. I want to invest in Jewish education...but not at the expense of everything else, like eating and paying for health care.

Dayschool will be luxury for the rich, or for kids with rich grandparents. Unless the dayschools can start showing me the ROI on my $540K investment, I'll probably end up sending my babies to a public school. (Oh, and could they show me ROI on a Thursday night at 7pm, and NOT at 10AM on a Tuesday... I can't go to a dayschool meeting during the day...because I work for a living!) Even the marketing is geared to people who can meet for coffee on a weekday morning...

allie Fri. Feb 12, 2010

As difficult as it may be, do not discard a private school education. It is more about who you children become friends with than about your saving for retirement or else (by honest with yourslelf: this savings and investment myth worked for 50s-60s generations, but no longer true for the rest of us who will have to work until our last breath). Trust me, you will be glad for every penny you invested in your children envorinment, friends, activities. Otherwise, they will go to the 'other side' and meet a 'nice [non-Jewish] boy/girl who makes them happy' and will not think twice whether they hurt their parents, grandparents, betray generations of the Jews who fought so hard to have the self-identify we enjoy today. And now we are losing it again by assimilating in droves. I feel guilty. Do you want to feel guilty, too?

allie Fri. Feb 12, 2010

And I, too, apologize for all the misspellings and typos - I rushed to type in my comment without editing it.

Claire Sat. Feb 13, 2010

Allie says "Otherwise, they will go to the 'other side' and meet a 'nice [non-Jewish] boy/girl who makes them happy'" I know Jewish people who have gone to non Jewish schools but their parents had a Jewish home, they went to Jewish youth groups and summer camps, were taken to synagogue and they live Jewish lives and have married other Jews. I know plenty of Jews who went to non Jewish schools who told me they will only marry Jews out of respect for their parents. If a child goes to a Jewish school they are more likely to live a Jewish life but it is possible to live a Jewish life if a child goes to a non Jewish school.

Felice Whittum Sun. Feb 14, 2010

Debra,thank you for this post! Having just submitted our financial aid application for two of our three kids in day school (the third in in Jewish day care), I'm feeling the pain right now. Our finances stink. Luckily we do have retirement savings and decent health care, but we struggle to pay our bills and live very frugally. Yes, day school is a "choice," the way choosing to affiliate with the Jewish community is a choice. We don't have to, but we DO have to, because it's a core part of our being. Our kids are SO HAPPY in their school, are learning so much, and their classmates are such nice kids. I went to public school, a supposedly good one, and HATED it-- the kids were spoiled, shallow, and nasty. I understand the finances of the shool and don't blame it at all for having to charge so much. I just wish that the Jewish community would make Jewish education more of a priority. As Aurora said-- hi Aurora!-- it would be nice to have resources spent on those of us committed to the community and not just on outreach.

Steve Mon. Feb 15, 2010

I am flabbergasted by the numbers here though. I wonder if its a denominational (Orthodox vs Conservative) thing? I've put 4 children through Orthodox Jewish day school and high school and never paid more then 10K a year, most times less then that -- for everyone. We are middle class types -- there are plenty people in our school with more need then us who are (presumably..) paying less. The way things work here is that there is an offical tuition and then there is the real world. If tuition is 12K a kid and people have 3 or 4 kids, they are *not* paying 40K to the schools. No one I know could possibly do that. Scholarships come into play very quickly. It was difficult, no question. But it wasn't impossible. We're not all rich you know...

Fred Mon. Feb 15, 2010


We have lots and lots of data about what becomes of children from observant homes who are sent to public schools. This data is not encouraging. There are no guarantees ever when raising children, but what we need to do is maximize our chances. You know, its not really unlike going to college.... Plenty of college educated people are under (or un) employed, but on average, college graduates earn more then high school graduates. Here too, the chances of raising a Jewishly observant child are so much better if you do the day school thing then if you dont. No guarantees.. just (much) better odds. As a parent, you want every advantage you can get.

John Tue. Feb 16, 2010

You can always move to Israel..... You get a Jewish education, in and out of school, and the cost is minimal. Plus, all those worries about a kid not being connected to Judaism, don't really exist. Yom Kippur, the whole country closes, the language you speak in the supermarket is Hebrew, Shabbat is the day off, all or most of your friends are Jewish, and when you finish your army service, you're given a Bible as a gift. Solves a lot of problems....

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