Menu JTA Search

FOCUS ON ISSUES Unique foundation subsidies boost attendance at day school

SEATTLE, Jan. 27 (JTA) — Matt Peckarsky is a product of public schools and a Reform home and synagogue, yet at 14, he finds himself a freshman at the Orthodox Northwest Yeshiva High School in Seattle. The gaps in his Hebrew language background gave him a “shaky start,” says his father, David Peckarsky, but Matt now is “flourishing and we are all delighted.” The Reform community had minimal Jewish expectations of Matt after his Bar Mitzvah, says David Peckarsky, explaining his son’s curious journey. But he and his wife, Ruth, had different ideas. “Our impression was that he was at the beginning of his Jewish life, not at the end.” A first family trip to Israel last year also served as an inspiration. “It opened all our eyes to what a Jewish life is and who we are,” he says. The couple then read about a private foundation’s plans to offer a subsidy to all students at the Orthodox high school in Seattle. The subsidy reduced the annual tuition from more than $7,000 to $3,000. And that was key. With no reduction, “it really would not have been much of an option for us,” Peckarsky says. The reduction made a difference for others as well, helping to boost enrollment roughly three-fold in this year’s incoming freshman class, drawing students from across the spectrum of religious observance. The subsidies reflect an unusual pilot program funded by the Seattle- based Samis Foundation, which awarded grants of $2.1 million in 1996 to day schools and other Jewish institutions, both in Washington state and in Israel. The program has piqued interest nationwide, given the growing consensus that education is a key weapon in the struggle for Jewish continuity. While there are private foundations elsewhere contributing to Jewish education, Samis’ universal subsidy aimed at one school appears to be unique. But the grants, while welcomed by the community, have also triggered some tension with the local federation. The funding has prompted questions that echo beyond Seattle about how private foundations and federations can work toward the same goal without operating at cross purposes. Policy-makers “do feel there are educational experiences we can make available to our children and youth which will have an impact on their Jewish development and Jewishness,” says Jonathan Woocher, executive vice president of the Jewish Education Service of North America. At the same time, he says, it is clear that “the cost of Jewish education in several of its more intensive and promising forms is an inhibition to certain families who would want to participate.” In that vein, the Samis initiative “is very important,” Woocher says. The trustees “should be applauded and commended for biting the bullet,” he says. “The big question is, are there others to follow?” Rabbi Bernie Fox, the principal of the Seattle high school, which has 68 students this year, echoes the challenge. “The problem is how to take the solution and make it available,” when “the biggest obstacle is cost.” In some ways, Fox says, “it’s very sad.” “It’s like having a cure for a terrible disease but having it be too expensive” to deliver, he says. Seattle has been in the forefront in recognizing the importance of Jewish education, says Irwin Treiger, a trustee of Samis and the immediate past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. Several of the foundation’s trustees have a hand in both organizations. “Perhaps the need for continuity becomes more vivid when you’re so far from centers of Jewish life,” he says. The city of about 35,000 Jews boasts four day schools in addition to the high school. The federation last year allocated $600,000 to education out of a total domestic allocation of $2.25 million. That allocation included funding for the Jewish Education Council, the local Jewish education bureau, which became a division of the federation a few years ago. In considering how best to use its resources, Samis commissioned the council to do research. But Samis alone made the decision to offer the subsidies at Northwest Yeshiva. Nevertheless, it is clear that Samis’ decisions affect the federation system.
For instance, the federation was concerned that Samis’ heavy emphasis on funding the city’s day schools, attended by 700 students, meant short shrift for the 2,500 students in supplementary and congregational schools. As a result, the federation decided to make a “correction,” said Michael Novick, the federation executive director. It allocated less money to day schools and more to other programs, he says, stressing that “we didn’t cut a penny of Jewish education” overall. In the case of the Orthodox high school, the Samis subsidies meant a cut in the federation’s allocation from $76,000 to $43,500. The cut came at the same time that the school was pressed to step up facilities and services to match the increased enrollment that resulted from the subsidies. Carol Oseran Starin, the federation’s assistant executive vice president for education and the director of the Jewish Education Council, hails Samis, but she also acknowledges the unique communal challenges it poses. “I view Samis as an incredible opportunity to support Jewish education and to move the Jewish education agenda forward,” she says. At the same time, she adds, “when you’re a private foundation, you have autonomy.” “You make your own decisions and define your mission,” she says. And those decisions have “a lot of ramifications” for the community, especially when the community is small, she says. A joint Samis-federation committee was recently formed to iron out tensions and to forge a “complementary relationship,” which Starin calls “an absolutely achievable goal.” Champions of the subsidy program say it was not intended to be divisive, but is a test that aims ultimately to boost overall day school enrollment and strengthen the entire Jewish community. “Studies are telling us that financial burdens are very much a factor in limiting enrollment,” says Treiger, the Samis trustee. “Our goal is to make quality day school as affordable as possible.” “It is my belief we will make every effort to expand the program to other schools.” At the same time, parents are asked to share the burden.
In exchange for the subsidy, parents must help raise money or otherwise work for the school. The parents at the high school have managed to raise about $55,000 for the school this year, says Fox, the principal. Meanwhile, the school provides families other “dividends” for their efforts. Members of the Peckarsky family now are going to Shabbat services nearly every week and soon are likely to begin keeping a kosher home, while David Peckarsky has begun studying with one of his son’s teachers. “I’ve been re-energized in my Judaism,” he says, adding, “All of it comes with a great deal of joy.”