Focus on Issues: Report Urges Greater Funding to Enhance Jewish Day Schools
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Focus on Issues: Report Urges Greater Funding to Enhance Jewish Day Schools

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In their strongest statement to date, Jewish communal leaders are urging greater national and local support for day schools.

A report released last Friday by the United Jewish Communities and its educational arm, the Jewish Education Service of North America, says, “No Jewish family that desires to send its child(ren) to a Jewish day school should be prevented from doing so due to financial reasons.”

It calls on local federations to provide increased financial resources and other forms of assistance for all forms of Jewish education, “with special emphasis on support that helps to ensure day school viability and vitality.”

Hailed by many as the most powerful antidote to the Jewish community’s assimilation and intermarriage woes, day schools provide a Judaic and secular education for an estimated 212,000 children in North America, or about 40 percent of all children involved in some form of Jewish education.

Once primarily the domain of the Orthodox — 660 of North America’s 810 day schools are Orthodox — day schools have earned increasing support among liberal Jews in the past decade.

However, while demand for day schools is rapidly growing, these institutions face a host of financial challenges and most function with far less money budgeted per pupil than is used in public schools.

Some have large deficits, while others survive financially only by charging tuition so high that low-income and middle-class families don’t consider them an option.

Many schools complain that financial constraints limit their ability to recruit qualified personnel or focus on improving the quality of their academic programs.

Most federations have increased their support for day schools in recent years and some are also creating sizeable endowments for them.

However, community allocations still comprise less than 10 percent of most day schools’ budgets, according to a 1997 study commissioned by the Avi Chai Foundation, one of several large foundations that provide funding and advocacy for day schools.

The report urges federations to foster partnerships among foundations, individual philanthropists, educational organizations and the religious movements not only to increase funding for Jewish day schools, but to raise the quality of instruction and encourage more Jewish families to consider enrolling their children.

The report is the product of a national “blue ribbon” task force created in late 1997 by the Council of Jewish Federations — which recently merged with the United Jewish Appeal to become the United Jewish Communities — and JESNA.

The task force was a response to a proposed resolution by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the Chicago-based National Jewish Day School Scholarship Committee that each community “fulfill its commitment to Jewish day school education with dedication and resources consistent with its significant importance to the survival of the Jewish community.”

Instead of voting on the resolution at the CJF’s annual General Assembly, officials decided to form the task force.

The 39-person task force consisted of national federation leadership, representatives from day school advocacy groups, such as the National Jewish Day School Scholarship Committee, and foundations, including Avi Chai and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, an effort by major philanthropists to support the development of new day schools.

The driving force behind the 1997 resolution, George Hanus of Chicago, participated in the task force and praised its report but expressed skepticism about its impact.

Hanus, the founder of the National Jewish Day School Scholarship Committee, is a passionate day school advocate who sees day schools as the single-most important remedy for assimilation.

He said he does not think “we can rely on federations, which are having a hard enough time trying to define themselves,” to dramatically improve the lot of day schools.

“If they can help us great, but we’re not waiting for that,” said Hanus, who is working to establish scholarship endowments for every day school, with the ultimate goal of schools being able to offer free education to every Jewish child who wants one.

His group is trying to persuade all American Jews to bequeath 5 percent of their estates to day school endowments.

Although Hanus is “not waiting for” federations — many of which have suffered flat campaigns in recent years — other members of the task force said they hoped the new report would have a significant impact.

“This is not a milquetoast report,” said Jonathan Woocher, JESNA’s executive vice president. “It wants leadership from federations in partnership with others to strengthen day schools, and at the same time it fits into a larger framework, recognizing that day schools together with other areas” will “power a Jewish renaissance.”

Asked how the new report differed from previous community efforts, including a Continuity Commission that in 1996, after three years, came up with a list of suggested “pro-continuity” priorities but took no action, Woocher said that the latest effort has the endorsement and commitment of a diverse group of players.

He said that JESNA, which the report calls on to “take the lead and serve as a catalyst for convening the relevant national bodies and for maintaining momentum” is already taking action: bringing philanthropists and federations together, ensuring that day schools are on the agenda at national federation meetings like the General Assembly and preparing to offer consultation services to communities looking to upgrade their schools.

In addition to enlisting JESNA, the task force report also calls for creation of a “continental council” to ensure implementation of recommendations.

Task force chair Bennett Yanowitz of Cleveland said he hopes the report spurs federations to increase their efforts for day schools, gives day schools the impetus to develop endowments and encourages cooperation with private foundations.

“I hope day schools will feel there is increased recognition of their importance” as a result of the report, he said.

For their part, federation executives praised the report, while pointing out that they are already stepping up funding for day schools.

“It raises the right issues and makes the right recommendations,” said John Fishel, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. “The question is long term — what are the prospects for enhancing support for day school education while at the same time ensuring that we not undermine support for other critical areas.”

Despite a flat campaign, Los Angeles recently added $1 million a year in allocations to its day schools, mostly by scaling back allocations to Israel, he said.

He said he hoped the report gets the issues “out in the broader Jewish community so people believe its importance is worthy of their increasing their annual commitment to our campaign.”

Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, which helped start the task force, said he was “very pleased” with the report and hoped it would inspire other federations to focus on day schools.

While his own federation’s allocations for day schools have increased only modestly over the years — $2.4 million to 14 day schools, compared to $2 million five years ago — it is helping day schools set up their own endowment funds, providing loans and loan guarantees and has raised close to $10 million in the past few years for day school capital campaigns.

“We’ve been pretty proactive in helping to put bread on the table for the day schools,” said Nasatir.

In Detroit, Robert Aronson, the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, said he hoped the report would lead other federations to be more like his when it comes to day schools.

“The recommendations are things we’ve already been in the process of implementing,” he said. Detroit allocates $1.5 million to five day schools, up from $969,000 in 1994-95.

It also provides buildings at reduced or no rent to three schools, and provided $750,000 in start-up funds to a new high school that has not yet opened.

Perhaps even more significantly, he said, it has raised $5 million for a community-wide day school scholarship fund, and intends to match the revenues dollar for dollar.

Although they had not yet had an opportunity to review the task force report, day school principals said they hoped it would make a difference.

Elaine Cohen, head of the Solomon Schechter School of Essex-Union in New Jersey, a Conservative institution that teaches kindergarten through 12th grade, said community funding would be especially critical in reducing the school’s dependence on tuition revenues.

Funding from her local federations, which accounts for about 5 percent of the school’s budget, is “quite generous compared to some other federations, but it’s never enough, especially if we don’t want day school education to be only for the privileged.”

“We also want to improve our teachers’ salaries, and we can’t do all we want to do in terms of program innovation and staying cutting edge if we’re totally tuition driven,” she said. “It would make tuition exorbitant.”

For Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld of the Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, a Lubavitch institution recently named a “Blue Ribbon” school by the U.S. Department of Education, more community funding is desperately needed to tackle a close-to-$1 million-deficit.

“We have a policy that we don’t turn down any Jewish child, regardless of ability to pay, but that puts us in a difficult situation financially,” he said.

Federation allocations and grants — which have “come a long way” from the past — account for approximately one-sixth of Yeshiva Schools’ budget, said Rosenfeld, but the constant scrambling for operational funds takes time and energy that could be better spent “making education better.”

“If we had more money we could enhance our programs, get rid of the deficit and the teachers could be paid on time,” said Rosenfeld.

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