Friday, January 29, 2010

Rabbis and Revolution


A Shavout Sermon

Rabbi Jack Riemer

(Printed by permission of the author who sent an advance copy to Bungalow Babe on Wednesday, informing her that her recent article in the Forward on the high cost of Jewish education had inspired this sermon. This subject is one that preoccupies Bungalow Babe, causing her to continually kvetch about it as a way of keeping it on the communal radar screen. As Rabbi Riemer is the quintessential rabbi's rabbi, whose articles and sermons are read and quoted from by an international, interdenominational rabbinate, Bungalow Babe could not be more honored. In addition, she is newly reminded of the role that rabbis and other religious leaders play in fomenting social revolution. Her Forward article, which ran in last week's paper, can be read at

This is the holiday of the giving of the Torah. And therefore, it ought to be a holiday on which we think honestly and seriously about the state of the Torah in our time, and about what we can do to enhance it.

I want to teach you two new words today, two words that I believe have much to say about the state of Torah in our time. One is the word: “STEPPY”, and the other is the word: “TIPSY”

Does anyone here know what STEPPY and TIPSY mean?

I want to talk about these two words today, because I believe, in all seriousness, that the future of Judaism in our community will depend in good measure on how these two new words relate to each other. And therefore, if you care about the future of the Torah, hear me well:

I learned the meaning of the term: STEPPY from Shira Dicker, who is a prominent publicist and the owner of a communications company, and who is a parent whose child goes to one of the best day schools in New York City.

She says that some time ago she got a call from the parent of a child in the school, reminding her that the school’s annual fund-raising dinner was going to be held soon, and that she had not yet bought a ticket.

Shira Dicker says that a year ago she would have been embarrassed to tell the woman that she could not afford the seven hundred and fifty dollars that the dinner costs, but this year, she found herself feeling sorry for the woman who was calling her, because she was probably getting a lot of turn-downs. In this post-Madoff, recessionary time in which we now find ourselves, there were probably a lot of people in the school who were STEPPYs.

What is a STEPPY?

The word is an acronym.

It stands for: Struggling, Two-income, Educated, Professionals Paying Yeshiva Tuition.

STEPPYs are people who are struggling to make enough to send their children to day school, which is not easy these days. The cost of day school education has climbed from four figures a year to five figures a year. And now that the economy has gone south, parents who are struggling financially have only two choices, neither of which is very pleasant to contemplate. They can either take their children out of day school, or else they can ask for scholarships, which is not easy to do for people who are middle class and not poor, but who find ten or fifteen or twenty thousand dollars a year for tuition a big nut to crack.

And I have just used modest figures. There are some day schools that approach tuition figures of forty thousand dollars a year, and some of these schools now find it difficult to give scholarships because their investments have tanked, and some of their donors are no longer able to give as generously as they did before.

Shira Dicker says that nobody talks about this, but the stress of coming up with this kind of money for tuition has permeated the lives of many people. It has impacted marriages, made wives wonder why their husbands can’t earn more, and made husbands wonder why their wives are always so tired and cranky. It has turned Shabbat in many homes into a day for physical recuperation instead of spiritual rest, and it has made the prospect of college tuition seem out of reach,

A STEPPY is any Jewish parent who has changed careers, or taken on additional work, or who forgoes a social life, or who limits the amount of cultural events she goes to, or who lets the cleaning lady go, or who passes on sending a child to summer camp, or who puts off her own continuing education, or who drives a run-down car, in order to be able to keep her children in a Jewish day school.

Sharon Strassfeld once observed that “In her circle of friends, the cost of day school education is the most effective form of birth control”.

And, as Shira Dicker says, all this is without counting in the costs of having a bar or bat mitzvah, or sending your child on an Israel Program, or keeping kosher or belonging to a synagogue.

Who is to blame for this situation?

Or to put it more constructively, what can we do about this situation?

I think that there are two answers.

One of them is the TIPSY solution, which I heard about recently.

Does anyone here know what the TIPSY solution is?

No, it is not to go out and get drunk in order to forget the seriousness of the STEPPY situation.

The TIPSY solution is also an acronym. It comes from the Kohelet Foundation, which has two goals. One is to lower the cost of day school tuition, and the other is to increase the involvement of parents in Jewish education, because they believe that a home in which parents study Torah is a good role model that will encourage children to take their own Torah study seriously.

What does TIPSY stand for?

It stands for “The Tuition Incentive Program for Subsidizing Yiddishkeit”.

The idea is really very simple.

The foundation has worked with four day schools in the Philadelphia area so far.
What they do is first determine the actual cost per child if the school operated at full capacity.

The school then agrees to lower tuition in order to attract more students.

The Kohelet Foundation then agrees to provide funding to make up for any losses incurred if the class does not reach full capacity.

At the Kelman Academy in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, for example, they lowered the tuition for the first two classes by four thousand dollars, and they lowered the tuition for the third grade by thirty five hundred dollars. They figure that after the families have become hooked on the day school, they will continue sending their children after the first three years, even if they have to pay the whole tuition themselves.

This is one suggestion. It can only work in those schools that are under capacity. In schools that are full and have waiting lists, some other idea will have to be found. But what the Kohelet Foundation has shown us is that there are innovative ideas that can be found to make day schools better and also more affordable, if only we look.

My second suggestion is a simple one—which is that we get over---once and for all--- the idea that the cost of a Jewish education is the sole responsibility of the parents.

Every one of us pays public school taxes, whether we have children in the public schools or not.


Because we understand that the entire society depends on raising the next generation to be good citizens, good people, and good workers. In exactly the same way, the members of the Jewish community must learn to accept the concept that Jewish education is the shared and sacred responsibility of the entire Jewish community, whether we have children enrolled in a day school or not.

All of us have to consider it our obligation to support our local day schools, whether it be by purchasing tickets for its annual dinner, or ads for its journal, or by making donations in our lifetimes and in our wills. For it does not matter whether we ourselves have children in the school or not. The future of the Jewish people---nothing less than that---is at stake!

All of you probably know the Midrash about what happened at Sinai on the first Shavout, but let me tell it to you again. I have heard this Midrash ever since I was a child. But do you know what? Now I hear it, not just as a fanciful legend, the way I heard it, when I was a child, but as the simple truth.

The Midrash says that when God gathered the Israelites together at the foot of Mount Sinai, He said to them: “I have a great treasure which I am prepared to give to you. But before I give it to you, what can You give me as a guarantee that you will keep it safe?”

The people offered Moses as a guarantor. But God said: “No, Moses is mortal. And therefore, He cannot be a guarantor that you will always keep this treasure.”

The people offered the Prophets as guarantors. But God said: “No. The Prophets are also mortal. Therefore, they cannot be guarantors that you will always keep this treasure which I am about to give you.”

Finally, the people offered the children as guarantors. And this time God said: “Yes! Your children are the best guarantors. If you promise me that in every generation, your children will guard this treasure, I will give it to you.”

And then God gave the Israelites the Torah.

Now that I am a grown up, I understand this ancient Midrash better than I did when I was a child. Now I understand that what it means is that with serious Jewish education, the Jewish people will live. And that without it, we will not be.

And so, on this, the day when we celebrate the giving of the Torah, let us reaffirm the promise that our ancestors made on Mt. Sinai long ago. Let us---all of us---whether we have children of our own in the school or not---accept upon ourselves the personal responsibility for the Jewish education of the next generation.

And may TIPSY and other ideas like it help the STEPPYS in our midst so that the Torah may live and flourish from generation to generation.


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