By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
They are the true heroes behind our yeshivos and day schools. They work 50, 60, or even 80 hours a week to ensure that the teachers, rabbis, and staff get paid. They are the yeshiva administrators, whose job it is to seek philanthropists to pay for student scholarships, to keep down expenses, and to nudge parents for tuition.
Theirs is a thankless task. It is hard work, both in terms of the nature of the job and in terms of the impact on their social lives. At times they must refuse employees’ requests for raises. At other times they have to be tough on parents who have fallen severely behind on tuition.
But may they avail themselves of the ultimate weapon? Can they actually bar entry? Can they wield and act upon the threat of “No tuition, no readmission”?
Case In Point
Two brothers were in two of our local schools. The father told the yeshiva of the older boy that he needed a major reduction in tuition or he would be pulling the boy out. The yeshiva told him, “Sorry, we don’t do that.” The boy was yanked out and placed in public school.
That boy’s younger sibling was in another institution. That school understood the family’s precarious finances and the administrators were as accommodating as can be.
The final outcome? The older boy married a gentile. The younger sibling studied in Eretz Yisrael and now, after returning to the United States, teaches in a yeshiva. Hundreds of our local students have been inspired by the latter, and it all could have turned out differently, just by virtue of the tuition policy of an executive director. This is a true story that has unfolded recently.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin (91a) states, “Whoever denies halachah from the mouth of a student, it is as if he has robbed him of the inheritance of his fathers, as it states, ‘morashah kehillas Yaakov’—it is an inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob.” The Gemara further writes that even the fetuses in the wombs of their mothers curse such a person who denies people their Jewish heritage.
The Maharal, comparing the Torah to a bride, writes in his Drush Al HaTorah (p. 109) that the Torah is engaged not just to select individuals within the nation of Israel, but to all of Israel equally. Thus, denying the poor the chance to learn Torah is tantamount to the greatest of sins. Indeed, the Maharal further explains that the Torah belongs more to the poor than to the wealthy, as the Gemara in Nedarim says (81a), “Take heed of the poor, because through them will come Torah.” His explanation is that the Torah was given in a wilderness with no worldly materials—the equivalent of an atmosphere of complete indigence.
Rav Meir Shapira, zt’l, the founder of the daf yomi, gave a different explanation of the Gemara in Nedarim regarding taking heed of the poor. He explained that it is because the parents, who paid even a minimal tuition, paid whatever they could with dearly earned money. They gave up their hard-earned funds with mesirus nefesh, immense dedication, in order that their children should be able to learn Torah. It is impossible for such mesirus nefesh to yield anything but Torah.
In Shulchan Aruch
The Rema in Choshen Mishpat (163:3) rules that in a city where there is a melamed tinokos, a rebbe for children, and the father or fathers cannot afford to pay, the obligation rests upon the community to collect funds based upon the wealth of each individual. He rules likewise in regard to the hiring of a chazzan, referencing the Shulchan Aruch’s chapter in Orech Chaim (53:23). This ruling of the Rema is based upon a Rabbeinu Yerucham (Nesiv 29 Vol. III).
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt’l, ruled that this Rema, which formed the basis of the cheder payment system in Europe for many centuries throughout the European exile, still applies in today’s age with the modern yeshiva system (see Mechitzas Rabbeinu, p. 106). If, however, the father is wealthy enough that he can adequately pay, then the yeshiva may refuse the child entry until the father does so. Otherwise, however, it may not do so.
Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein in Shailos U’Teshuvos b’Hilchos Chinuch (responsum #61) rules that it is absolutely forbidden for a yeshiva to actually refuse admission to a child based upon nonpayment. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky ruled the same way (see footnote 106 in Emes L’Yaakov to Y.D. 245:4).
May A Yeshiva Threaten?
In recent years, a system has evolved to ensure that parents settle previous obligations before they can register their child for classes. This system is based on an admission card—without which one cannot receive a schedule, be placed on the attendance sheets, or receive books and materials. It is said from Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt’l, that one may threaten not to admit, but actually carrying out the threat is not permitted.
What happens if a parent receives such a letter, does not get an admission card, and actually does not register his child as a result? Poskim have ruled that there is an obligation upon the school to follow up with the parent and ensure that things can be worked out. It is forbidden to issue such a threat without ensuring that everyone who received such a letter is contacted.
But what is a school to do when faced with no payments? Most philanthropists are tapped out already on more exotic tzedakos rather than the local yeshiva. Some communities have worked out a special scholarship fund that each school can go to when the parent has no funds to pay. This is the situation in Chicago, for example. Other communities have not had such innovative developments. As a result, many Jews are lost to their people.
Indeed, in our times, the situation might be significantly worse than the case of the Rema in Choshen Mishpat. Within the great melting pot that is America, it is highly likely that attending a public school will directly lead to shedding one’s Jewish identity—no matter how strongly affiliated the family is at home. Poskim have ruled that such a move could directly lead to abandonment of Shabbos, kashrus, and all of Judaism. As in the local case cited above, it can also lead to intermarriage. It is thus, by far, a greater obligation than that which was discussed in the Shulchan Aruch. By virtue of this latter ruling, the halachos of denying a yeshiva education apply to both boys and girls.
Within recent weeks, this author became aware of fifteen such cases of children who were in yeshivos last year. Four are within our community, and eleven in a community nearby. Clearly, we need to follow the Chicago model.
The situation has entered into a crisis mode. There are children in our communities who are now in public schools by reason of financial hardship of the parents. In out-of-town communities, too, the crisis is reaching epic proportions.
The Rema in Choshen Mishpat continues that even those who no longer need the particular resources of the community must still be forced to contribute. The Rema further indicates at the end of paragraph three that those who are older and have no need for a wedding hall or mikveh must still contribute. We need individuals to step forward in the yeshivos and schools with which they are affiliated and form just such a scholarship fund. We need our own “No Child Left Behind” program. v
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.