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Heavy Hitters Pledge $18 Million to Create New Jewish Days Schools

Some of the biggest names in Jewish philanthropy have joined forces to create an $18 million fund to establish 25 new Jewish day schools around the country during the next five years.

Day-school education is widely seen as the most effective antidote to assimilation, but relatively few Jews have access to schools where they live. Many of those who do have geographic access cannot afford tuitions and fees that in some cases exceed $10,000.

Of the 1,166,000 Jewish children under 18, as counted by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, an estimated 180,000 are currently being educated in some 700 Jewish elementary and high schools, according to educational sociologist Alvin Schiff.

Recent shifts in Jewish geography, like the growth of Jewish populations in some Southern and Western towns, along with a growing embrace of day-school education as a priority for non-Orthodox Jews, have created a need for Jewish schools where none existed before.

The new Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education will issue matching challenge grants to community groups developing new schools of every Jewish affiliation.

The dozen members of the partnership want to “increase meaningfully the number of non-Orthodox Jewish youth in day schools and the quality of day schools throughout the spectrum, including the Orthodox schools,” according to Michael Steinhardt, the new group’s founder and chairman of its board of directors.

Steinhardt, who retired from his career as a hedge fund manager to develop new ways to attract people to Jewish life, also recently founded Kol Israel Chaverim: The Jewish Life Network, a Manhattan-based foundation funding other projects.

“We have experienced a substantial drop in Jewish knowledge,” Steinhardt said in an interview. “The goal of this institution is to try and change that, to begin helping people understand what being Jewish means so that they can make knowledgeable choices.”

“This is so non-controversial, so overwhelmingly perceived as a positive thing, that it led me to say that if there was one effort I was making that seemed ripe for partnership, this would be it,” he said.

Rather than fund Jewish high schools, which many experts on Jewish education say are in short supply, the Partnership for Excellence has decided to focus on the creation of elementary schools and the extension of some of these schools already in business into the junior high school grades.

While the full program will be launched in September 1998, four pilot grants of $100,000 have already been awarded to help start new schools this year.

In Austin, Texas, where the Austin Jewish Community Day School opened its doors this fall with 22 students in kindergarten, first and second grades, the partnership’s grant has made a significant difference, said the school’s co- president.

“It has given us the ability to bring in the best curriculum available and to focus on the growth demand that we are already experiencing,” said Alec Sonenthal, adding that the school already is being asked to expand through sixth grade next year.

Prior to its opening, the only Jewish day school in Austin, which has seen substantial growth in the size of its Jewish community in the last few years was a small Lubavitch school.

The partnership comes on the heels of the formation of the National Jewish Day School Scholarship Committee, a grass-roots group of Jewish day- and high- school leaders that is urging Jewish charities and wealthy individuals to concentrate their efforts on making day-school tuitions affordable.

While that group’s founder, Chicago real-estate developer George Hanus, has been focusing his work on the need to rescue Jewish schools already in business and struggling to stay open, he welcomed the new partnership.

“We are here to help all factions that want to get more kids into day school. Our movement can be allied with the partnership,” he said, “to create a groundswell across the country.”

Each of the 12 high-profile participants in the Partnership for Excellence has committed $1.5 million — $300,000 for each of five years.

That’s not a lot of money for each of the partners to spend relative to their wealth and what they donate to other philanthropic endeavors, but symbolically it is important, Steinhardt said.

“There has been too much self-aggrandizement, too much focus on individuals rather than on the objectives in philanthropy in the Jewish community in recent years,” he said.

Joining Steinhardt in the partnership are:

Philadelphian Leonard Abramson, founder and former chief executive of U.S. Healthcare;

The Manhattan-based Avi Chai Foundation, which itself was founded by investment mogul Sanford Bernstein, and which invests extensively in Jewish education;

Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress and chairman of The Seagram Corp., and his brother Charles Bronfman, Seagram’s co-chair and president of the CRB Foundation, which sends American Jewish teens to Israel, are each participating as separate partners;

Real-estate developer Harold Grinspoon of Longmeadow, Mass.;

Erica Jesselson of Riverdale, N.Y., and her son, Michael, of Manhattan, whose late husband and father, Ludwig, earned his fortune by selling commodities;

Jim Joseph, of San Mateo, Calif., whose family foundation also invests in day- school curriculum development;

Morton Mandel, the Cleveland, Ohio-based philanthropist who has, for several years, been investing in Jewish education through the New York-based Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education and other efforts;

Charles Schusterman, the Tulsa, Okla.-based natural gas producer who is also heavily involved with Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and the Israel Arts and Science Academy in Jerusalem;

UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, which has funded the creation of half a dozen new day schools and also provides $3.3 million a year to other day-school-related support through its Continuity Commission and other channels; and

Columbus, Ohio-based Leslie Wexner, chairman of The Limited retail empire, who has invested in training future educators.

Each new school that receives a grant will receive an average of $300,000 over five years, according to Rabbi Joshua Elkin, director of the new organization.

Each school will have to raise at least as much money from non-tuition sources to match the partnership grants, he said.

In addition to the Austin Jewish Community Day School, the other schools that have already received pilot grants are in Columbus, Ohio, Cherry Hill, N.J., and Palo Alto, Calif.

A secondary project of the new partnership is to establish a database of top- level educational consultants and technical assistants available to aid any Jewish day school as it develops staff and administration, plans its curriculum and deals with a host of other issues.

The partnership, said several of those involved, is an experiment both in Jewish education and in models of philanthropy.

“We believe that this can test and demonstrate the possibilities for rich collaboration among philanthropists,” said John Ruskay, chief operating officer of UJA-Federation of New York, in an interview.

“I don’t know if it is the best answer,” Charles Bronfman said in an interview from his Manhattan office. “It is an answer, one idea.

“On-the-job research will be important. Lets see what happens 20 years from now — will these kids be Jewish?

“This is an experiment, and what one does with an experiment is watch it,” Bronfman said. “Let’s see how it works.”

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