Shlomo Miller was having a bad day. He played with his pen on the desk and pretended to work, trying hard to forget the events of that morning.The phone rang and he glanced at the caller ID. It was his wife.“Hello?”His wife paused. She could tell from his tone that something was up.“What happened?”He sighed. “The same thing that always happens…It was a blood bath this morning, people right and left being ‘escorted off.’ Remember Chuck?”
“Isn’t he the guy who has been there for something like 30 years?”“They didn’t even let him clean out his office!” Shlomo slammed his hand on the table and shook his head.“But you’ll be okay, right?” She tried to sound supportive, but it was hard to mask her own fear.“Yeah, I should be fine. I am pretty sure I won’t make the list.” He didn’t want to mention that he’d spent the day shaking in his boots, wondering if his turn was next. His constant absences for Yom Tov definitely did not put things in his favor; nor did being caught asleep at his desk during the second week of Selichos. It always irked him when people seemed to feel that he had it made, since he had a degree and a job. Even for him, parnassa was no guarantee. With a job like this, you still needed a high dose of bitachon. Any day at work could be your last.
“We’ll be fine, don’t worry.”
“Oh, and Leah?” He paused, unsure whether he should go on.
“Make sure Rena doesn’t find out. It’ll just give her more ammo.”
Leah immediately went on the defense. “Now Shlomo, you know it’s just a stage…”
“Leah, we paid over $20,000 plus two plane tickets for her ‘seminary experience,’ and she comes back on a soap box. She hates American culture and wants to marry a guy who’ll never step foot in it, but I have to drudge through it every day to keep her – and perhaps, soon, them – housed and fed.”
“It’s not like she didn’t grow up at all during the year. She’s just being a little immature. She’ll grow out of it…”
“In time for her not to get stuck in a mess that we have to pay for?”
Leah softened her tone. “You’re having a rough day; don’t take it out on her.”
He stared down at his desk. He knew she was right. Deep down, he was proud of Rena and the person she had become over the past year. He knew that the money had been well spent, and that it would do her good to maintain her newfound inspiration and idealism – albeit with a bit more practicality. However, it was always hard when someone rejected your way of life, especially when that someone was your beloved offspring.
“Anyway, what were you calling about?” he said.
“I’m out of tomato sauce; what time are you coming home?”
He glanced at the clock. “I was planning on staying a little late to make up for Yom Tov.” He sighed. “I guess I could make it up at home, assuming you keep the kids out of my hair. I really don’t want to end up here for yet another Sunday ‘make-up marathon.’ You know I’m completely out of vacation, and we can’t afford to do unpaid leave again.” He bitterly missed his yeshiva days, when Yom Tov was a time to enjoy the holiday, not a mad scramble for hours.
“I would appreciate that. I’ll see you in an hour.”
He put down the phone and began to pack up. He soon sensed a pair of smiling eyes peeking over the cubicle wall. “What’s up, Jerry?” he said dryly. There was always that one guy who had to find the humor in everything.
“Hey, Sol, you think this was why they had that financial planning lunch seminar last week?” Jerry spoke with mock empathy: “Don’t worry everyone, now you have that emergency fund.”
Shlomo gave a laugh, but not for the same reason Jerry thought. He remembered that lunch seminar well. The smartly dressed presenter had discussed the importance of retirement planning and emergency savings.
“In addition to college funds for each child and 15% for retirement, it is important to have three to six months of living expenses kept in a fund just for emergencies,” the presenter had stressed, as those around him nodded knowingly and took notes. Shlomo had looked down and tried not to chuckle. This guy had obviously never heard of yeshiva tuitions or families with more than three kids and a dog. There were times the Millers had trouble just living hand to mouth.
Shlomo bade Jerry a hasty but polite good-bye. He really wasn’t in the mood. He went outside and made his way in the pouring rain, past the rows of leased sedans peppered with the occasional SUV and Corvette, to his 15-year-old Malibu with the broken tail light and missing front bumper. He climbed in the car and switched on the broken wipers, trying to ignore the Cheerios strewn across the dashboard.
His mind wandered to the one time he had tried to apply for a tuition break. He remembered the board member’s raised eyebrows as he tapped the line on the form marked, “Vacation Expenses” and shook his head. Shlomo knew that vacation had been a mistake. They could barely afford it, and there were probably better places to spend their money. Now it had just cost them a bit more.
Still, it had been hard not to take any more vacations. It had been years since his family had really gotten away, and it was so difficult watching his coworkers traveling and enjoying themselves. If he had to be honest, though, he knew that the tuition board was right. He had a well-paying, respectable job, and as much as he struggled, he had to admit that others in the community had it worse. He had a few friends who were unemployed and some who barely managed to get by from week to week, let alone dream of vacations. With limited scholarship funds available, he knew it was only right for people like him to shoulder the burden.
He also knew his struggle with Rena came from a good place. In essence, he agreed with the hashkafos of the schools his kids attended. He just felt hurt by the implied criticism of his chosen lifestyle. He thought of the many he knew who had strong opposition to their children’s schools but sent their kids there anyway because they felt they had no better choice. Or some baalei teshuva, unfamiliar the concept of even paying for primary education, paying through the nose to send their children to Jewish schools just to have them come home with confusing ideas and plans for life that seemed so foreign and irresponsible.
He grabbed a CD of a shiur and pushed it into the car stereo. Sending your kids to yeshiva was a struggle all around. One hundred and ten percent worth it, but a struggle nonetheless.
* * *
Rabbi Morty Weiss was having a bad day. He sat at his desk in the financial office, racking his brain for someone else to call.
His phone rang. It was his wife, and she had that nervous tinge in her voice.
“Hi, what’s the matter?” He could probably guess, but he figured he’d ask anyway.
“I just checked the account and you still haven’t been paid.” When a paycheck was late, for him it was a matter of frustration, but she got scared.
“I know… I’m working on it. We’ve all been working on it all day…”
“But I need to pick up the Yom Tov order tonight! How are we going to cover the check?”
“I know, Chana. It’s going to be all right, just transfer it in from the savings.”
“But we’ll need that for the credit card…”
“Look, I know it’s scary, but we are working on it. It might be late, but we will get the money.” He took some pride in his work as a fundraiser. The yeshiva might not pay on time, but at least they paid eventually. That wasn’t always the case when he was still working as a rebbe.
Looking at the list before him, it was easy to see why they were lacking funds. This month’s list of bounced tuition transactions was unusually long. He also observed that several names were repeats from previous months. He put the list in his pocket and got up to leave. He’d make some calls later on tonight, when people were more likely to be at home.
On the way, he bumped into Rabbi Gross and noticed the other man’s careworn face. Even though it wasn’t his fault, he felt bad.
“I’m sorry, Shmuel,” he said. “We hope to have the funds by tomorrow.”
Rabbi Gross lifted his hand and gave a nervous chuckle. “No, no… it’s not that. I just got off the phone with the parents of one of my talmidim. They… they just don’t understand. I don’t know what is going to happen with the talmid…” He shook his head ruefully.
Morty understood. It was the same feeling he’d had so many times during his years in the classroom. There is only so much you can do to help a child. You need willing partners. Without them, your efforts go to waste.
He walked out of the yeshiva, opened his umbrella, and started the trek home. He enjoyed being able to walk to work, a luxury he didn’t have when he taught “out-of-town,” a two-hour commute away. Soon he was passing by one of the more pricey local restaurants, which was crowded and humming with business.
He always tried his best to look away when he passed the restaurant, but today it was even harder to see people spending their money so frivolously when so many were struggling to survive – and schools were struggling to stay open. As part of the financial office of the yeshiva, he unfortunately knew too much about some of the people who regularly frequented this fine dining establishment. How could they justify getting a tuition reduction and then spend their money that way?
But then he struggled and stopped himself. You never know another person’s situation, and you never know the back story of why people spend the way they do. It may be simple for him to live the way he does, but for some, eating out in fancy restaurants might be a necessity to maintain shalom bayis.
This situation was definitely not what he had in mind when he had decided to go into chinuch. He’d pictured himself inspiring young talmidim, sharing his love for Torah, and shepping nachas with appreciative parents. Sure, it wouldn’t pay very much, but it would be so rewarding, feeling that he made a difference day in and day out. Besides, he could always count on the tuition breaks and deals for rebbeim to keep his family afloat.
It didn’t take him long to realize that the talmidim weren’t always inspired and the parents not always appreciative. His years in the classroom were filled with problem children. He extended exceptional effort just to see many of them fail, while fielding difficult phone calls from parents who fought him every step of the way.
Nor were the breaks and deals enough to supplement his income. It would have been more feasible to simply stay at home with his younger kids than teach as well as work at the side jobs and tutoring he was forced to take on, which set his work week at well above 60 hours. Sure, he had Yom Tov off with the family, but he barely had any time off during the rest of the year. He just couldn’t afford it.
As the yeshiva became more and more desperate, his role had begun to morph. From full-time rebbe, he became a rebbe who did a little fundraising on the side; then a fundraiser who gave shiurim occasionally; and finally full-time fund raiser. He didn’t like it, but his family’s growing financial burden afforded him no alternative.
Finally arriving at home, he took out his list and sighed. Once a month, he stooped even lower and became a debt collector.
Even with all the stress, he knew that it was still a bracha to be in chinuch. Even as a fundraiser, he could see how his work made a difference in the lives of children every single day; a luxury those in the secular work force could only dream of. As a bonus, he got to spend his days in a Jewish environment and on a Jewish schedule, but it was a struggle nonetheless.
He eyed the clock and made a mental commitment: 7:00. Now he could procrastinate and take care of a few things around the house, but by seven he needed to start the dreaded phone calls.
* * *
Shlomo was still working from home when the phone rang.
“Hello, Mr. Miller? It’s Rabbi Weiss, from your son’s yeshiva.”
Shlomo froze. He knew instantly the exact reason for the call. He had been so caught up with yesterday’s deadline at work that he had forgotten to transfer enough money to cover the monthly deduction.
“I’m sorry, Rabbi Weiss, but we had low funds in the account because of Yom Tov. It was a busy day yesterday because of a deadline and…”
Morty couldn’t hear another excuse. It had been too long a night, and this was the second month in row for the Millers.
“Mr. Miller, we don’t need a story, we need the money.” He regretted it as soon as he said it, but it was too late. Within both men, something snapped, and the shouting began.
“Look, it’s not like I’m not going to pay it, I just forgot to transfer the money! What’s the big deal? Do you know what I’m giving up to pay these tuitions?” Shlomo exclaimed hotly, twisting and turning the pen in his hands.
Morty jumped from his chair and began pacing. “What do you mean, what you’re ‘giving up’? Look at what you get, Mr. Miller! Where are your priorities? This is your children’s education! We rely on those funds to keep the school running and pay the already underpaid teachers on time!”
“Why don’t you just have bitachon that the money will get there somehow? That’s what they’re busy telling my daughter!”
“Bitachon is all well and good… but this is the real world! We need the funds now so that teachers can eat!”
“That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to explain to my daughter about her rebbeim. She won’t listen!”
“What a healthy message to send to your daughter! Send her to school and then fight the teachers! If you don’t agree, why send her there in the first place?”
“Did I have a better choice? Speaking of the real world… do you know what it’s like for someone who is actually working there? Do you know what it’s like to drive a beat-up car, live hand-to-mouth, and take unpaid leave for Yom Tov when everyone else is taking semi-annual luxury vacations?”
“And do you know what it’s like trying to run a school and educate other people’s kids on a shoestring budget when we see those same people who pay nothing in tuition going out to eat in fancy restaurants and taking lavish trips with money we need desperately to keep our doors open?!”
Each man paused, lost within his own struggle. Suddenly, they both burst out in unison, as if on cue,
“’Understand it’s hard, okay?”
They both startled, realizing what had just happened. Shlomo threw down his pen in frustration and put down the phone for a moment. Morty stopped pacing and buried his face in his hands.
“Look… I’m sorry, I’ll try to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Shlomo finally said.
“It’s okay,” Morty responded. “I’m sorry for what I said. We know no one does this on purpose, and we do have some donors who can lend us some money if you really need extra time.” He was glad this was the last phone call for the day. He just couldn’t do it again tonight.
Two men put down their phones and decided to call it a night; two men on opposite sides of a phone call, but on the same side of a challenge. All around the world, other Jewish parents, educators, and donors did the same – people who may never have a plaque in their name or even be mentioned at a banquet and are far from perfect but who are heroes nonetheless. People who struggle in ways others may never know or understand. People who are part of a team dedicated to the education of every Jewish child and will never, no matter what, give up.