NEW YORK (JTA) — The Kadima Hebrew Academy in the West Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles found itself this fall in the same boat as most other Jewish day schools.
The elementary school, which has 260 students, saw a dramatic increase in requests for financial aid and faced a potentially significant drop in enrollment next year if it could not provide relief for its suddenly financially squeezed parents.
Kadima president Shawn Evenhaim estimated that the school was facing double the need for financial aid: About 30 percent of its students now receive some sort of assistance, but school officials thought the figure would reach 60 percent for the 2009-10 academic year.
“We were listening to parents telling us what is going on in their lives: They have lost their jobs, they have lost houses,” Evenhaim told JTA. “We could have taken the stance that we don’t care and that this is what it takes to run a school. We would have lost a lot of students.”
Instead, Kadima cut its tuition by 20 percent across the board. Its tuition now for an eighth-grader is about $16,905.
To help offset the cost of the reduction, the school asked that those parents who could still afford to pay the full tuition accept the break but consider giving the difference to the school as a donation.
Evenhaim says the move has paid off, with Kadima expecting an enrollment increase of 20 percent for next year.
With the recession in full force, Jewish day schools and yeshivas like Kadima are scrambling to stay afloat. The tuition crunch has sparked several initiatives, including a recent emergency meeting held by the Orthodox Union to address the concern.
Education officials say the more than 800 Jewish day schools in the United States, with 200,000-plus students, are in trouble as tuition dollars decrease, the need for financial aid rises and the pool of available philanthropic dollars shrinks.
"We are now in an industrywide crisis," Moshe Bane, the chairman of the board of governors of the Orthodox Union, told the meeting of more than 60 officials from Jewish day schools at the organization’s New York offices.
The O.U. called the emergency session in an attempt to figure out how to deal with the crisis, which has hit the Orthodox community particularly hard. In many O.U. congregations, where many members tend to be heavily involved in the financial services industry, more than 10 percent of families have reported that the primary breadwinner has lost his or her job.
The Conservative and Reform movements operate day schools, but a much smaller percentage of children from the households of those movements attend Jewish day schools than from Orthodox homes.
Bane, a bankruptcy lawyer, said that part of the troubles now facing day schools stem from their own financial irresponsibility in recent years — borrowing money to pay back other borrowed money. Soon, he added, the chickens will come home to roost.
"We have an enormous amount of debt outstanding and are unable to refinance it," he said. "And that is a serious problem."
The fear of recession has only now begun to sink in, according to a survey recently released by the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York.
The BJE surveyed 63 schools and asked them about their feelings last year versus this year, and the results showed a significant increase in concern about money.
Last year, fewer than 20 percent of schools surveyed were seriously concerned about tuition collection. That figure has soared this year to nearly 65 percent.
Thirty-five percent of schools were seriously concerned about losing donors last year; now it’s 85 percent. Approximately a quarter of the schools expressed serious concern about meeting payroll last year; nearly 70 percent have that concern now.
And while 45 percent were seriously concerned about meeting scholarship needs, more than 60 percent are this year.
Most schools are seeking creative solutions to the tuition problem.
Some, like Kadima in Los Angeles, have reduced tuitions. The Beth Tfiloh Community Day School in Baltimore recently gave out $100,000 in emergency loans, so parents could afford to make their tuition payments for 2008.
In New York, where tuition at day schools can run as high as $30,000 per year, the UJA-Federation of New York announced this month that it would give out $1 million in scholarships for the area’s 280 day schools and yeshivas serving approximately 110,000 students.
The Orthodox Union is considering creating an emergency fund to help cash-strapped day schools and yeshivas. The fund would provide money for schools that have immediate cash flow issues and cannot meet basic expenses. It also could include a component that would provide cash advances to schools that would have to be paid back.
Some in the non-Orthodox world are looking at the creation of a public Hebrew charter school in New York, which won approval from the city in January, as another potential option for alleviating tuition crunches.
The crisis has led to the same call for increased collaboration that is being heard throughout the philanthropic world.
"The days of going it alone I believe are over," Rabbi Joshua Elkin, the executive director of the Partnership and Excellence in Jewish Education, told the O.U. gathering of educators. "The days when individual day schools were their own boats and they were going to sail on the high seas alone are over. There is strength in numbers, in being together and learning from each other. Above all we have to create synergy and we must, must, must avoid duplication."
Schools need to think creatively and collectively, Elkin said. In terms of collaboration, he floated the idea that day schools pool their Advance Placement classes. Whereas several schools in an area may have AP classes with fewer than 10 students, he said it would make sense for those schools to offer a joint class and thus save money.
Elkin said schools across the board must look at increasing class sizes and should look for alternative sources of income. For instance, a school could rent its facilities to other organizations during off hours.
Above all, he said, schools must look not only at the present situation but also down the road, budgeting for several years at a time and not incurring more debt now in trying to weather the storm.
For instance, tuition breaks might not be the answer.
"Rolling back tuition is not necessarily the way to go," Elkin said. "The only thing you do when you freeze your tuition is transferring the burden to your development office.
"The last thing you want is to continue to give the education for under the cost of the education. That is a losing proposition."