Free Tuition For a Jewish Education

One of JOI’s main philosophies is to lower the barriers that make it hard for those on the periphery to engage in programs of the Jewish community. One of the biggest and toughest barriers to overcome is money. Finances often may be the determining factor in one’s participation and involvement. We understand that programs cost money, of course. As independent schools without government funding, Jewish day schools have the hardest time lowering “the money barrier.” The tuition of some schools nearly equals a state university.

Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh decided to do something about it for next year. This school lowered the financial barrier when it announced a new scholarship program last month that offers free tuition to students transferring from public schools. This school also understands that if you can get folks into the door and you have something worth paying for, people will want to pay for it in the future. But you have to get them in the door first. The Herman Lipsitz scholarship offers free tuition for two years for all students who transfer to the academy from public or non-Jewish private schools. Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle explains:

The Lipsitz family had been making plans to establish a scholarship fund in Herman’s memory because of his concern that every Jewish child be given the opportunity to have a day school education. Hillel is not the first day school to offer an enrollment incentive. The Torah Academy of Minneapolis offers tuition vouchers of up to $5,000 to encourage enrollment at the school, and schools in Cleveland and Atlanta also offer financial incentives.

Of course, because it is Orthodox, the school’s definition of a “Jewish child” is one whose mother is Jewish, suggesting that there are other barriers to participation at Hillel Academy for a growing percentage of Jewish households.

Nevertheless, we at JOI applaud the Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh for taking a step toward bringing down the barriers. It is a particularly important step to reach those on the periphery. Perhaps if more Jewish institutions followed Pittsburgh’s lead, imagine how much the community could grow!


  1. What a great program! I wish more day-schools would adopt this policy, or more Federations would provide the funds so they could. It could change the future of American Jewery in a very positive way.

    And I applaud the JOI for bringing this program to people’s attention.

    Comment by marc — July 11, 2007 @ 12:29 pm

  2. By contrast, check out Eric Yoffie’s blog article in today’s Jerusalem Post where he ironically criticizes Chabad for lowering the barriers to Jewish who want a bar mitzvah for their sons. I’d like to see th JOI comment on Yoffie’s desire to make it more difficult to bar mitzvah your son or bat mitzvah your daughter (for, I might add, reasons unconnected to Jewish law).

    Comment by marc — July 12, 2007 @ 11:28 am

  3. Yoffie claims to speak for the majority of American Jews…I can’t believe the JOI will let him off the hook that easily. What he says flies directly in the face of what your “lowering barriers” philosophy.

    Comment by marc — July 31, 2007 @ 10:12 am

  4. Yes, we agree that the community needs to create as many entry-points as possible, and if families realize “too late” that they want a bar (OR BAT) mitzvah for their kids (like at age 12 or 13), we need to provide flexibility. I fear that synagogues (whether Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or Other) are turning families away from the community if/when they tell such families “okay, they can have a bar/bat mitzvah when they turn 15 or 16 because they first need to study for 3 years.” For most kids, that is simply not an option.

    This is much less about meeting those families’ needs and much more about protecting the financial model upon which the synagogues operate. Granted, synagogues need finances to operate. But just because Chabad doesn’t “play by the rules,” well, perhaps that means the rules have changed and other movements must adapt to new models.

    This speaks to a larger problem, though, which is that for too many Jewish households, bar/bat mitzvot become “graduation” from Jewish learning, rather than the true beginning it was meant to be. Chabad is hoping that by offering it as a beginning, the children they serve will indeed continue their Jewish education. However, we have no idea how effective Chabad is because — as far as I know — they do not reveal (or even keep) statistics on how many families they provide this service for; how many they serve had no prior Jewish education; and how many go on to continue their education after bar/bat mitzvah. Chabad could make a much stronger argument if they could prove their effectiveness through program evaluation.

    Still, even if the kids don’t continue their Jewish education, the mere fact that they had a bar mitzvah strengthens their Jewish identity, and that’s why Chabad is still providing a valuable service for those families, and why the Reform movement is missing the boat. Reform synagogues need to figure out how to provide alternatives that will not gut their current educational system. Perhaps the answer is this: yes, you can have your bar mitzvah now, if you promise to continue Jewish education for three years (and pre-pay!). Then you also start chipping away at that larger problem of families using bar/bat mitzvah to graduate from synagogue life.

    Comment by Paul Golin — August 1, 2007 @ 12:28 pm

  5. Paul, I can honestly say, perhaps for the first time, that I agree with you 100%.

    Still, I think if this statement was made by the head of the Orthodox Union or Agudas Israel (neither of which require formal study before bar or bat mitzvah celebrations at their synagogues), the JOI would have had a full-scale article challenging it…why no coverage when the head of the Reform movement says it???

    Re: Chabad and proving their effectiveness…I just don’t think that’s their schtick. They believe that creating a welcoming, loving Jewish environment for every Jew will result in positive change…there incredible growth of their movement proves they are correct, even if they don’t provide statistics.

    I really like your idea of having synagogues which require formal study, make all or part of it come AFTER the bar or bat mitzvah…you guys should push this idea big time! Jewish ignorance and apathy are the biggest problems out there.

    Comment by marc — August 1, 2007 @ 12:43 pm

  6. Glad we found some common ground.

    Because we’re an independent organization, you need not worry that we would hesitate to express concerns with something from within the Reform Movement (as we did here, for example)—however, the truth is, more often than not we tend to see eye-to-eye with Reform and Reconstructionist when it comes to issues of inclusion toward intermarried families. When we do have differences, it’s often more about methodology than ideology.

    Comment by Paul Golin — August 2, 2007 @ 5:48 pm

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