Menu JTA Search

PROFILE Day school champion races ahead with his ‘5 percent’ funding solution

NEW YORK, July 7 (JTA) — Two days before a special communal task force released a report last month urging significantly more funding for Jewish day schools, the man arguably most responsible for the task force”s formation was neither celebrating nor patting himself on the back. Instead he was shlepping around muggy New York City, enlisting allies in his campaign to persuade all Jewish day schools to start endowments and all American Jews to bequeath 5 percent of their estates to those endowments. It”s a campaign he calls “Operation Jewish Education/The 5 Percent Answer.” A Chicago real estate developer who is vice president of his local federation and chairs the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, a modern Orthodox day school in Chicago, George Hanus burst onto the national scene two years ago when he convened a conference on the “crisis” of day school funding. That conference led to the formation of the National Jewish Day School Scholarship Committee, which Hanus chairs. The committee, together with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, pressed the Council of Jewish Federations — which recently merged with the United Jewish Appeal to become the United Jewish Communities — to adopt a resolution at its 1997 General Assembly that each community “fulfill its commitment to Jewish education with dedication and resources consistent with its significant importance to the survival of the Jewish community.” Instead of voting on the resolution, federation officials decided to form the task force, on which Hanus — along with national federation leaders and representatives from day school advocacy groups and foundations — served. A heavyset man in his early 50s with gentle blue eyes and light gray hair, he displays seemingly endless energy for one subject: Jewish day schools. That narrow vision has alienated some federation leaders, who argue that other community needs — including the supplemental schools attended by 60 percent of children receiving a Jewish education — deserve attention, too. But the way Hanus sees it, the correlation between day school attendance and high rates of Jewish identity makes the schools the most important investment for a Jewish community poised, he believes, to lose 1 million children to assimilation and intermarriage. “We as a Jewish society are under an affirmative obligation to educate our children, but the current day school system has such high tuition that it”s an economic barrier of entry except for the most wealthy and most religious,” he said, taking a break during his New York trip to have a Coke in the swanky tea room of a Manhattan hotel. “We can predict with statistical accuracy that Jewish society as we know it will lose 1 million children spiritually unless we do something.” Like his conversations, Hanus” promotional materials are peppered with phrases such as “impending Jewish calamity” and words such as “historic” and “devastating.” With his melodramatic rhetoric and zealous energy, he comes off at times like a one-man mission to save the world and at other times like a Cassandra, frustrated that the rest of the Jewish community does not share his intense fear for a doom he believes can be prevented only by day schools. “Why isn”t this at the top of the agenda for everyone?” he asked. “This is a solvable problem. If there were an external enemy, we”d mobilize all forces.” To be sure, Hanus is not the only person concerned about the future of the Jewish people. Continuity has been a buzzword for the past decade and day schools have risen near, if not to, the top of the Jewish communal agenda. The new report of the United Jewish Communities and Jewish Education Service of North America urges philanthropists, day schools, religious movements and federations to work together to fund the schools, to raise the quality of their instruction and to encourage more Jewish families to consider enrolling their children in day schools. The report, however, also says funding for day schools “cannot come at the expense of other vital communal needs and responsibilities.” Most federations are already increasing their support for day schools, which are enjoying growing enrollment. Day schools are serving not only their traditional core of Orthodox children, but growing numbers of Conservative and Reform children. Foundations are exploring ways of recruiting new families to the day school system and are also looking at ways to make day school education more affordable. But the changes aren”t happening fast enough for Hanus, who 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,” he said. Instead, he is plunging forward with his 5 percent plan, which he sees as a modern-day “kehillah tax,” an obligatory community contribution that should apply to Jews of all incomes. He dreams of raising $11 billion — enough to guarantee a free day school education for all American Jewish children — by building “the largest Jewish political group in this country,” a network of day school supporters from all streams of Judaism. To that end, he is setting up a New York office for the National Jewish Day School Scholarship Committee and is urging rabbis to talk about the program from their High Holiday pulpits. He is also creating a database of every day school in the country, offering pointers to day schools seeking to create endowments and is urging federations to establish community-wide scholarship endowments. Day schools in Chicago have already set up endowments and are publicizing the 5 percent plan through a community-wide campaign, while schools in Long Island and Miami are discussing how they will implement Hanus” plan. The executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, the rabbinic arm of the Orthodox movement, has agreed to press members to discuss the issue from their pulpits during Rosh Hashanah. Hanus estimates that $20 million has been raised for day school scholarship endowments around the country in the past year and a half. Although the funds were not raised by the National Jewish Day School Scholarship Committee, he credits his organization with putting the idea on the table. But others suspect Hanus is exaggerating his — and his organization”s — role. Marvin Schick, president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on Staten Island, N.Y., said his school just received a large bequest totaling more than 5 percent of the donor”s will. “It had nothing to do with Hanus” advocacy, but with the fact that the person had a connection to our institution,” he said. Schick, who co-authored a 1997 study on the funding problems of Jewish day schools, said Hanus” “heart is in the right place” and agreed with what he termed his “militancy.” But, Schick said, “to think that anyone will pay attention” to his plan is “wishful thinking” because people don”t draw up their wills that way. Michael Steinhardt, a founder of the day school grant maker, Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, and a multimillion-dollar philanthropist who supports Jewish education and revitalization efforts, said he supports Hanus, although “the jury is still out” on whether his plan will succeed. Steinhardt said his only difference with Hanus is that outside the Orthodox community, where most opt to send their children to day school, it is not just financial issues that influence day school attendance. Noting that in non-Orthodox communities only about 7 percent of Jewish kids go to day schools and the reason is not primarily financial, Steinhardt said he is working to encourage more non-Orthodox Jews to attend day schools. For his part, Hanus insists his effort is not exclusively for the Orthodox and stresses that he doesn”t care whether the day schools people support are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or pluralistic. But it is unclear whether free or reduced tuition would be enough to attract most liberal Jews, particularly those who are ambivalent about their religious identities, to day schools. Whether people agree with all his ideas or not, there is no lack of consensus on Hanus” drive and energy. “George is a man with a cause in which he believes deeply and is devoting tremendous energy and effort,”” said Bennett Yanowitz, of Cleveland, who chaired the United Jewish Communities task force on day schools.