On the communal and physical landscape of Kew Gardens Hills, Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim stands as a citadel of Torah learning and anchor for the surrounding community. From his experience, Executive Vice President Rabbi Hayim Schwartz says, “It’s the grade schools that attract Jewish families to neighborhoods by educating the next generation.”

“I grew up in the Bronx. At one point there were almost a million Jews in the Bronx, but there was not a single yeshivah high school. The community did not invest in education beyond the eighth grade and sent them to Manhattan for high school.” Recognizing the importance of schools in communities, Rabbi Schwarz made it his top priority to be at the well-attended yeshivah day school breakfast last Sunday, organized by SOS: Support Our Schools, a movement comprised of local yeshivah leaders and supporters aimed at prioritizing the yeshivos of Queens in one’s tz’dakah obligations. The breakfast was hosted by the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, with Rabbi Yaakov Bender of Yeshiva Darchei Torah as the speaker.

“The yeshivah makes the neighborhood,” he said. In his 40-year experience as Rosh HaYeshiva at Darchei Torah, he has seen the school’s growth as it became a magnet for Jewish families. “Housing went from $100,000 to $200,000. You’d have no community without the Torah.” Once regarded as a backwater community at the edge of the city, Far Rockaway today has a thriving Orthodox community, in large part because of Yeshiva Darchei Torah.

Rabbi Bender then related the story of Yehoshua ben Gamla, who lived shortly before the Churban Bayis Sheini, and whose story appears in the Gemara (Bava Basra 21a). “In his time, fathers taught their sons Torah, and those who did not have fathers, for them he set up yeshivos.” It is our job to take care of our community’s children, especially our y’somim and single-parent families. “If we do not take care of our children’s Torah, then the Torah will be forgotten.” At Darchei Torah, only 30 percent of families pay full tuition, with the rest paying reduced tuition that they could afford. The difference is made up by donations from supporters. “When the yeshivos go up, the community goes up,” he said.

David Berger, President of Bnos Malka Academy in Forest Hills, spoke of his school’s difficulties in securing donations and making the case for local schools. “The problem is that the communities are generally of the mindset of supporting exciting tz’dakos that come to our neighborhoods, and then we see the money leaving the neighborhood, despite the direct negative impact on our own kids’ educational needs.” Falling short on funds, schools miss paying their staff and run on deficits. “These are your children’s schools,” he said.

As a solution, Berger said that the public should not assume that schools “will always be here.” He proposed a realistic monthly amount to give, $50, which if done by each household in the community would be an accurate indicator of the local Jewish population that could sustain the school. “Public schools spend $19,500 on each student, while yeshivos in Queens on average spend $12,000. And they should be spending $13,000. Yet, when you average in tuition assistance, families are in fact paying $9,000 per student. People want extra programming, extra attention, high quality, all of which is good for the community. But the shortfall has to first be reached.”

Rabbi Herschel Welcher, mara d’asra of Congregation Ahavas Yisroel, director of SOS: Queens, and a talmid of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l, spoke of the poseik ha’dor’s instruction that local schools are a greater tz’dakah priority than charities outside the community, including those of Israel. “It’s a necessity for every community to have yeshivos, for boys and for girls. It is a responsibility beyond tz’dakah, even for someone living here temporarily, for over 30 days,” said Rabbi Welcher. “The pure Torah of our children is a z’chus for ourselves.”

At its breakfast last year, this country’s leading poseik, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, expressed support for making local schools the tz’dakah priority, as did Rabbi Paysach Krohn, the local mohel, author, and lecturer. “There are many things that schools can do with the proper funding. We ask everyone to prioritize local elementary schools,” said supporter Mendel Starkman, a father who has children in the Bnos Malka Academy and Yeshiva Tiferes Moshe.

Kew Gardens Hills resident Baruch Freedman’s two children are respectively two years old and four months old. “I’m not paying tuition yet, but the z’chus is that I should be able to pay in the future,” he said. “There’s an element of transience here, but the reason you are here is that the elements of Jewish life are here and that needs to be supported.”

By Sergey Kadinsky