Op-Ed: How Jerusalem can help finance U.S. Jewish day school education

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Every decade or so, yet another demographic survey reveals the obvious: The American-Jewish community is in flux, with affiliation falling.

Each time, the community circles back to what we know works: high-quality Jewish education, along with Jewish camps and Israel programs. Taken together, these are effective identity builders, especially if repeated over many years.

I am a product of the Solomon Schechter Day School system, and my children attended the independent Jewish Community Day School when we lived in Newton, Mass. My Jewish education, bolstered by Young Judaea and other camps and Israel programs, sparked several decades of serving the Jewish people in the nonprofit realm.

This meant I was doubly taxed: first, the expensive day school bills, and second, a lower salary than friends and family members because I worked for Jewish nonprofits.

The Jewish community needs new ideas to ease the financial burden on families. I was a scholarship kid growing up and am grateful for the assistance I received from the community and Hadassah. We also have seen that new programs that require seemingly out-of-reach financial resources can work. Example No. 1: Birthright Israel.

Part of Birthright’s success is attributable to the Israeli government’s decision to allocate significant funds to enhance Jewish identity of youth outside Israel. This serves as positive testimony of what can be done when we see Israel as a full partner in preserving and enhancing Jewish identity worldwide.

Now Israel, and the strength of its economy, also can play a critical role in making day schools affordable in new ways.

Israel has an excellent credit rating — A+, according to Standard & Poor’s. The Bank of Israel could make long-term, low-interest loans available to Jewish families, perhaps working with an Israeli bank that has a U.S. affiliate. Or at the very least, it could provide a loan guarantee for day school parents.

While our children were at Jewish Community Day School, my wife, Susan, and I took out a $23,000 loan one year to help cover tuition through Prepgate, a commercial service for private-school families. It carried a relatively high interest rate of LIBOR plus 5 to 10 percent. If the loan were generated by the Bank of Israel and passed along to us at cost, it would be far more affordable.

Here’s how Israel’s financial role would work: While a child is enrolled in Jewish day school, part of the repayments would be covered for parents — half by the local Jewish federation and half by the State of Israel.

Payments would be frozen whenever the recipient visited Israel, whether on summer programs, junior year abroad, MASA or some other long-term program. If the recipient immigrates to Israel by a certain age and stays for at least three years, then all or part of the loan would be forgiven.

According to Nefesh B’Nefesh, each North American immigrant adds significant financial benefit to the Israeli economy, so this works from a macro-economic perspective. If the recipient becomes a full-time Jewish communal professional, then there should be some loan forgiveness as well.

Another idea would be to help offset tuition costs by focusing on Jewish communal endowments.

More money is being generated now by Jewish foundations and endowments than by annual federation campaigns — a sign that our community needs to create new strategies to finance major initiatives in Jewish life.

The truth about Jewish endowments is that they are managed very conservatively by outside professional money managers and not performing as well as they could.

Even a modest 2 percent increase in annual returns, from the federation endowments of more than $14 billion, would produce about $300 million annually that could be earmarked for Jewish education — especially if the 2 percent were generated from safe, Israel-based investments.

Here’s one example: Solar fields in Israel are financed 80 percent by Israel’s very conservative commercial banks and 20 percent from equity investors, who enjoy a roughly 9 percent annual average return for 20 years, linked to inflation and backed by the Israeli government. That is more than double the return on an Israel Bond.

Imagine a federation endowment investing money in Israeli infrastructure projects — in, say, their Partnership 2000 communities in Israel — and using the boost in profits to lower the cost of Jewish education back home. These truly would be worthwhile investments because they promote social and environmental benefits in Israel while generating enough funds to support Jewish education in North America.

The State of Israel is also creating a sovereign wealth fund to invest wisely the huge windfalls it expects from its recently discovered natural gas deposits — an estimated $125 billion over the next two decades. While Israeli education, defense, renewables and society certainly should be the major recipients of the profits here, asking Israel to set aside 10 percent of the funds, or $12.5 billion, to finance affordable Jewish education around the world would radically transform lives and strengthen Israel by strengthening Jewish peoplehood.

(Yosef I. Abramowitz, the winner of a Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education, lives in Jerusalem and works with two Israeli solar companies. He can be reached on Twitter at @kaptainsunshine. This is part of a series of essays on Jewish day schools being published by the Sustainable Stories project of PEJE, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.)

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