Time to Change the Tipping System

It was 9:10 a.m., and my ninth-grade rebbi was standing at the door of the classroom when Sruly*, who was my closest friend and chavrusa at the time, walked in. As I had feared, he received a sharp, public reprimand for his tardiness.

Two minutes later, Dovi*, whose father was a very wealthy philanthropist, showed up. He was greeted with a cheery “Good morning,” without even a hint about his lateness.

I was fuming, outraged at what seemed to be a blatant exhibition of money-fueled favoritism.

This was only the latest in a long string of such episodes in which I observed what looked like preferential treatment handed out to the sons of the wealthy and influential by principals, rebbeim and even English teachers.

As young teenagers, those of us who didn’t come from particularly wealthy homes would discuss the matter. We debated whether it was the inevitable “protektzia” enjoyed by the rich (especially if they were members of the yeshivah’s board of directors), or the amount of the Chanukah and Purim gifts that these affluent parents doled out.

In camp, it was even more of an issue.

Counselors tried to be nice to everyone, but with tips representing a sizable percentage of their income, it was often assumed that they were heavily influenced, consciously or otherwise, by the amount they expected to receive in tips.

Now, looking back, I see things rather differently than I did at the ages of 12 and 14. I recognize that the fact that Dovi was a top student who was usually very punctual, while Sruly often came late, was the real reason for the difference in treatment.

Whether counselors were really nicer to children of the prosperous is also very debatable, although I suspect that some counselors tended in that direction.

But what hasn’t changed in my mind is an aversion to the tipping system, which I feel is demeaning and creates countless uncomfortable situations. Some parents even consult their children as to the amount these youngsters think the rebbi “deserves,” an act which runs contrary to basic principles of chinuch. It pulls down the honor of the rebbi and weakens his ability to impart Torah teachings to the child.

Lest I be misunderstood: As long as the current system remains in place, tipping isn’t optional; in many situations it is morally and halachically obligatory. It is with a clear understanding that we will give tips that we send our children to camps and schools, and depriving rebbeim, teachers and counselors of the income they deserve is a crime. Any changes made to the current system must ensure that these hard-working individuals end up with more income, not less.

I know that there are some who might argue that tipping is a way to show hakaras hatov. Indeed, a timely, usable gift along with a nice mishloach manos is very much in place, but a cash gift sends a very different message. No child should ever feel like a second-class citizen because his parents can’t afford to tip as generously as they would like to. No counselor should have to think about how reprimanding a disobedient camper will affect the amount of his tip.

Instead, schools should calculate the median amount of the annual tips received by rebbeim and teachers last year and add that amount to the tuition statements at the beginning of the year. Along with the registration fee (I have long wondered what that was really for!), the book fee and the transportation fee, we should also have a mandatory tip fee. Rebbeim will receive a lump sum on Chanukah and Purim along with their paychecks, saving themselves the indignity of having to accept envelopes from their students.

The same idea would work in camps, as well. Counselors should get a regular salary from the camp, including the full amount they received in the past as tips. The camps, in turn, will be collecting these amounts from the parents.

While the rich will be giving somewhat less under this system, since they only account for a minority of the parent body, the average parent will probably be paying only a little more, as the difference will be spread out equally among all parents.

Let us bear in mind that no one would even contemplate tipping a doctor or a lawyer, regardless of how good a job they do. Why should a rebbi or counselor be any different?