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Record Day-school Gift in Boston May Set Example Around the Country

October 12, 2004
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Jewish educators hope one of the largest gifts ever for Jewish education in America will prompt other philanthropists to follow suit. The $45 million donation from a group of anonymous families is intended to improve Jewish day school education in Boston. The money will be spent over five years, with $30 million divided equally among three schools and the remaining $15 million designated for a tuition scholarship fund and grants for innovative educational projects.

Jewish community professionals hailed the move, announced Monday, as a historic investment. Jewish educators say they hope other philanthropists will now step up to transform day school education across the country.

“We’ve been dreaming about days like this,” Barry Schrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said at a news conference Monday in Boston. “The grant truly represents a change in the way the American Jewish community understands education.”

The pledge, called CJP’s Peerless Excellence Project, was announced at the annual conference of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, held in Boston from Sunday through Tuesday.

The gift’s primary beneficiaries will be the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, The Rashi School and Maimonides School. They are the Boston area’s three largest Jewish day schools, representing the Conservative, Reform and Orthodox movements, respectively.

“It’s not merely a gift; it’s an investment,” said Lisa Rosenbaum, a member of Maimonides’ executive committee. “We’re being goaded to think bigger.”

Maimonides, the oldest and largest of Boston’s Jewish day schools, with approximately 625 students, is in the process of coming up with a plan to spend its $10 million — an amount equal to the school’s annual budget.

The executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, Rabbi Joshua Elkin, said the $10 million grants constituted the largest-ever gifts for operational use in day-school education. The $45 million total dwarfed even capital gifts and day-school endowments, he said.

“There’s been nothing quite at this level,” Elkin said. “It breaks the glass ceiling of how much it is possible to invest in a day school.”

“It presents an unprecedented opportunity that I believe will be something that encourages other communities and other donors to think about ways to invest in their day schools,” he added.

The money comes with some strings attached: Funds are not to be spent on capital improvements, and the goal is to use the money to institute permanent improvements at the schools, not merely give them a five-year boost, according to Gil Preuss, director of the Excellence Project.

“We’ve challenged the schools to think carefully about their vision and come up with a plan for implementing it,” Preuss said.

“The idea is not just to have excellent schools for five years, but to shift the line” and improve the schools permanently, he said. “This is really a vision for what the Jewish community can be around the country.”

Yossi Prager, North American executive director of Avi Chai, one of the Jewish foundation world’s biggest charities, said the schools’ challenge will be to build a system that will use the money effectively but also can survive once the funding period is over.

“Either they’ve got to build in an effective fund-raising program or find ways of creating programming that’s sustainable beyond the term of the funding,” he said.

Avi Chai has spent tens of millions of dollars on grants to Jewish day schools. It also operates an interest-free loan program for capital improvements at day schools that has doled out approximately $56 million over the past five years.

Prager said the $45 million gift should serve as a model not only for investment in day-school operations but because of the role Boston’s federation, CJP, played in brokering the deal.

“The role of the federation was not as a giver but as an ally or advocate for day schools,” Prager noted. “That should be a comfortable role for day-school education.”

There are 14 Jewish day schools in the Boston area serving a total of 2,600 students, 1,400 of them at the three schools slated to receive the gifts.

Day-school enrollment in Boston has risen significantly in recent years together with the opening of several new schools. The area’s schools now have excess capacity.

One of the areas not addressed by the $45 million gift is teachers’ salaries, which educators say still fall short of the level needed to recruit and retain good teachers. None of the $15 million portion of the gift will go toward teachers’ salaries, though Peerless Excellence officials did not say whether or not the three primary beneficiaries would be able to include requests for salary raises in their $10 million spending plans.

The decision by the anonymous families to make the $45 million donation to day-school education — an amount rare even for gifts to universities and museums — came in a “magic moment,” CJP’s Schrage said.

Deliberations about a substantial gift for day-school education had been under way for about five years, Schrage said, but it wasn’t until one family decided to triple its intended pledge that the project suddenly reached record proportions.

Officials would not say how many families were involved, only that they were local.

“The prerequisite is a couple of passionate donors who believe they can change the world,” Schrage said. “We expect that many more donors will begin to see the schools as a positive place to make an investment.”

Philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, the real-estate magnate behind countless “Jewish renaissance” projects, such as birthright israel, called the Boston gift a “bright and shining example” for what should be happening around the country in Jewish education.

“We must do a much better job than we’re doing today,” he said, noting that the vast majority of Jewish parents still do not send their children to Jewish day schools.

About 91 percent of Orthodox children go to day schools or yeshivas, but less than 20 percent of Conservative children and 4 percent of Reform children go to day schools, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.

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