When I went to yeshiva in Israel many years ago, the “Black Hat” yeshivas were all struggling without any government support. Funding was always politicized in Israel, whether it was the kibbutz movement on the left or the yeshivas on the right. At that time the right (both religiously and politically) had hardly any political clout so it got peanuts (or bubkes, if you prefer). The great yeshivas depended, for better or for worse, entirely on the fundraising efforts of such giants as the late Rav Yosef Kahaneman of Ponevez z”l, Rav Leizer Yehuda Finkel z”l of Mir, or Rav Chatzkel Sarna of Chevron z”l.
In Be’er Yaacov, where I was in 1958, accommodation was primitive. Bedbugs crawled up the walls of wooden huts, and food was essentially TCP (tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers) and chatzilim (eggplant, disguised as chopped liver, chicken, and meat). In those days there was the odd successful yeshiva, such as Ponevez in Benei Brak, which actually built spanking proper stone buildings and dormitories with washing facilities. Older, established ones, such as Chevron in Jerusalem, were so badly run down that you thought you were in a home for the destitute. As for Mir, you walked past the toilets on the way in and that set the physical tone (thank goodness for the rest). Admission was dependent almost entirely on merit, or in the case of those yeshivas with a long tradition, such as Mir, if your father was an alumnus.
It was taken for granted that if you could contribute financially you would, to the best of your ability, but if not, it was expected that if you came into money one day you would help. My father had died, and my mother could afford very little. But at no time was I pressed to pay, and in fact ever since I have tried my best to express my gratitude.
As the Mishna says “Im Ein Kemach Ein Torah”. If there is no flour (to make bread) how can you study? So yeshivas, like any educational institution, have always needed to ask for money, and have every right to. But there are ways and there are ways. When I was headmaster of Carmel College, almost one third of the student body came on scholarships or reduced fees. That had always been my late father’s policy; one should never turn away a worthy, motivated child simply because he could not afford the fees. Even if a child was not very intelligent or gifted, but needed the education for social or political reasons, we found ways to help. Of course, we would always ask if there were relatives we could approach, or a community that might support them, or if their financial circumstances changed they would let us know. Naturally, some parents were devious liars, and others frankly crooked. But in practice no worthy child was turned away.
In most Jewish schools one of the governors is given the responsibility for checking on parental finances when there is a request for help. Sometimes sadly these are heavy handed. Occasionally they are sympathetic and sensitive. It is notoriously difficult to know the true situation of many people’s finances, particularly if they are self-employed. There are millionaires whose wealth is entirely tied up in shares they cannot sell or in companies that reinvest. Some people have huge obligations and commitments. Others have none. It is never easy but it needs to be done.
As my children grew and graduated and went off to study in yeshivas or seminaries in Israel, I was always told what the fees were and asked to contribute the maximum, which I endeavored to do according to my circumstances at the time. But, ah, but how times have changed.
Thanks to the power of political parties, yeshivas in Israel nowadays get all kinds of subsidies, capitations, and building grants. Yeshivas are flourishing and expanding exponentially, both in numbers and facilities, and the demand for places is rising all the time. My old yeshivas are positively luxurious compared to what they were. Many alumni, not only from the USA but in Israel too, have done remarkably well financially and you can see the results wherever you go in Israel’s yeshiva alleys.
The significant inflow of funds has had a deleterious impact on the morals of the yeshiva world. As the money has flowed in, so too has corruption, and now even extortion. I first became aware of all this when looking to place an American youngster in a post high school program in Israel. The Year Off industry has spawned countless Israeli yeshivas catering to American high school graduates. The competition for places is fierce and as a result methods that, alas, are commonplace in American high schools, particularly in New York, are now transferring to Israel. Only a large donation up front will often get your child in to your place of first choice. Now, if Oxford or Harvard does this, well, what do you expect? But when a religious institution, supposedly educating young people in the highest values of Torah, descends to these pits it is a sad reflection on the state of the Black Hat world!
A nephew of mine (and don’t try to guess because I have more nephews than you can image) who happens to be very committed, very studious, and from every point of view the ideal student, was told that unless his parents come up with $150,000 they wouldn’t even examine him, and if they did he would be accepted without an examination. This was from two of the most highly regarded Black Hat yeshivas in Israel today. Both of them with palatial premises and no shortage of funds and on the basis of having heard through the grapevine, but with no evidence, that one of the parents had inherited some money.
I find this offensive on two grounds. If the money were going to poor teachers, perhaps I could understand, even if there was no due diligence to discover the facts or the nature and amount of the obligations the family has. But, in fact, I am pretty sure the money goes to the private accounts of the nepotistic families which own and run these institutions, because I have it on firsthand account that non-family teachers get very little and certainly not the pensions and expenses the “owning” families get. Almost all yeshivas are family businesses in which birth usually plays a greater part in promotion than scholarship.
Secondly, it is one thing to ask for funds. It is another to reject a student, regardless of how good or studious he is, simply as a bargaining tool of pressure. Jewish education around the world is flourishing, but in many places where there is no state support it is prohibitively expensive. We need to find, communities must find, ways of funding their schools and yeshivas.
What I am describing, however, is corruption pure and simple. If this is the way the yeshivas are going, then the outlook for Judaism as a spiritual and moral religion, an example to the wider world, as opposed to just another social phenomenon, is bleak indeed. The great and lamented Rav Yosef Kahaneman of Ponevez, Rav Leizer Yehuda Finkel of Mir, and Rav Chatzkel Sarna of Chevron must be turning in their graves. And I bet the guilty parties will be praying away with fake piety during Yom Kippur as if their hands and souls were clean.