NEW YORK (Sep. 30)
In recent years, supplemental, or congregational, schools — dismissed by many as failures — have been low on the list of philanthropic priorities for Jewish education.
“With the elevation of informal education to a high status, Israel trips and campus life are far more likely to garner communal funding than the schools that still educate the majority of Jewish children,” wrote Jack Wertheimer, a provost at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in an article on Jewish education trends for the 1999 American Jewish Year Book.
His article also notes that most community federations allocate far more money to day schools than to programs for congregational schools.
Tellingly, one of the largest individual Jewish philanthropists, Michael Steinhardt, has launched major multimillion-dollar initiatives for day schools and Israel experiences, but has steered clear of supplemental schools.
“Afternoon Hebrew school has been an extraordinary flop,” he said in a June interview with JTA, adding that despite efforts to improve, their “very structure of a few hours a week when most kids have more appealing alternatives” is flawed.
Despite the lack of mega-gifts, foundations and federations are investing modestly in Hebrew schools, providing seed money for projects at individual Hebrew schools, teacher-training programs and larger synagogue improvement projects that affect Hebrew school. One such program is the Reform movement’s Experiment in Congregational Education, a program working with 14 synagogues around the country.
The program is funded by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Covenant Foundation, the Mandel Foundation and the Gimprich Family Foundation, philanthropies that devote some of their resources to Hebrew schools.
The New York-based Mandel Foundation has invested money in training community leaders to provide teacher development programs, primarily for supplemental school teachers.
One community, the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, is trying to raise a $10 million endowment for innovations in local Hebrew schools and is investing $700,000 to equip them with computer technology.
But the common denominator among all the gifts is change. While day schools generally receive funds for capital costs and scholarships, most grants for congregational schools are earmarked for innovative projects.
“Where there’s energy and vision, money will follow,” said Chaim Botwinick, executive vice president of Baltimore’s Jewish Education Center. “Foundations are not interested in funding the same-old, same-old.”
According to Botwinick, who is currently seeking funding for a national network to study and promote innovations in congregational schools, a growing number of foundations are expressing interest in funding Hebrew school efforts, “but we still have a long way to go.”
Most funds for supplemental schools are temporary, with the expectation that congregations will develop its own funding source if the project succeeds.
Although congregational schools have traditionally received services — such as teacher training — from the local federation-funded central agencies for Jewish education, few congregational schools receive direct allocations or even scholarship funds from their federations, said Paul Flexner, the staffer at the Jewish Education Service of North America who is overseeing a task force on congregational schools.
“Day schools are generally thought of as independent organizations and not part of a congregational system, whereas congregational schools are part of the congregation and there has been ongoing tension between the synagogue world and the federation world,” said Flexner, adding that the situation is starting to change, with a number of communities exploring federation-synagogue partnerships.
Isa Aron, a professor at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the coordinator of its Experiment in Congregational Education project, said money is essential for improving synagogues and congregational schools. But she agreed with Botwinick, saying that “when people have a good project they usually find donors.”
“I don’t think the beginning of the problem is money — the problem is when you don’t have people involved enough or don’t know exactly what your vision is,” she said. “Once people are together with a vision and have planned programs, they may well need money and my guess is they’ll find it. The Jewish community is affluent and there’s money available.”