Jewish Day School Education is in Financial Trouble

    October-November 2009            
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Help Wanted: Getting Jewish Education off Life Support

Copyright © 2009 By Bertram Irving

Howard and his wife, Amy are the parents of four school-age children. Howard, a physician at the largest teaching hospital in the city, is a member of the university’s medical school faculty. He and his family are long-time members of the largest local congregation, where his two sons have each celebrated a bar mitzvah.

Amy has worked in a middle management position at a financial services firm for almost 15 years. She’s entertained hopes of leaving that position in order to devote more time to her four children and the needs of their physically deteriorating home. But after a session with her husband concerning the family finances, Amy has reconciled herself to several more years of work, hopefully at an ever increasing income.

Though living quite modestly, foregoing vacations and driving two well-worn used cars, Howard and Amy have no expectations that there will be “discretionary income” available after attending to their financial necessities, the largest of which is over $70,000 annually for day school tuition.

Bill and Amy are part of fewer than half the families at their day school who pay full tuition. The balance of the student body is assisted by scholarship aid provided directly by donors, through the local Jewish Federation and through the dedicated fund raising activities of the school itself. The lion’s share of those donated funds are drawn from the same group of donors each and every year, and while longer-term vehicles designed to supplement those annual funds are in place, their impact has been negligible to date.

Just a few doors down lives Scott, a systems analyst for a publicly held manufacturing company. His wife Helene runs a day care center in the basement of their home. Even though their fortunes have improved during an otherwise difficult economy, their five children attend day school only with substantial scholarship assistance. They struggle daily to make ends meet. While Scott and Helene are both products of the day school system, they have been desperately exploring other, less costly educational options for their children.

Bill and Lisa live in a nearby suburb. They are about to enroll their first child in kindergarten. Bill attended day school and then public high school. Lisa is interested in making the Jewish education that she did not have available to her children. In exploring the day school option Bill and Lisa were taken aback by its cost. They don’t qualify for significant scholarship aid, and the local public schools are very well thought of. They’ve decided that offering religious instruction down the road is the best option for them right now.

Howard and Amy are committed to Jewish Day School education for their children. But, like Scott and Helene, they can’t help but lament the pressure and sacrifices that must be bourn as a result. Bill and Lisa are simply not willing to make those sacrifices right now.

They are hardly alone. The preamble to a recently posted online petition suggests, “It’s not fair to ask grandparents, many of whom already paid for their children’s Day School education, to now pay for their grandchildren too. And, it’s not prudent or reliable to constantly seek the generosity of a few benefactors . . . we want to provide our children with an affordable, sustainable, and excellent Jewish education. Please help us make that happen.”

According to Gary Rosenblatt, Editor and Publisher of the New York Jewish Week, “It’s time to recognize that, with the collapse of the economy, the American Jewish day school model is breaking, if not already broken.”

Northern New Jersey Jewish Education for Generations (JEFG), a newly formed non-profit organization, states on its home page, “The current economic model for funding day schools is no longer sustainable. It is no longer possible for parents of day school students to shoulder the cost of day school tuition on their own. Broader support is essential.”

In the words of one Minneapolis parent who was interviewed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “The Jewish community has virtually disowned those of us of moderate income.” And Jonathan S. Tobin, Executive Editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger adds, “With more Jewish kids being left behind, that’s the greatest scandal I know of in Jewish life. The question is, what are we prepared to do about it?”

Grasping at Straws

Day school administrators and clergy warn that public school education or supplemental Jewish education will offer children no resistance to assimilation. In doing so they have effectively stifled substantial experimentation with those options. But these warnings sound increasingly hollow in the face of the growing financial roadblocks. Unlike some Canadian, South African, Swiss or English day schools, their American counterparts get no subsidization from public sources. And the effects of the financial squeeze are felt by associated institutions as well. The Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston recently decided to end its funding for the Bureau of Jewish Education knowing that the decision would spell the closing of the organization, the primary provider of training, research, and curriculum development for local Jewish educators.

Rabbi Shneur Wolowik, director of Chabad of the Five Towns (NY) was recently quoted in the Jewish Star: “Parents have to choose between having a home foreclosed on or having a Jewish education. It’s a very tough decision.” A mother told the same reporter that she’d registered her daughter for public high school last week. “I can’t begin to tell you what that moment was. It was horrific.”

Mark Honigsfeld, co-president of Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway (HAFTR) is torn by the tough funding decisions that must now be made. Some families must be left behind as scholarship funding is prioritized, going first to those who were donors in the past but who must now seek help due to economic reversals. HAFTR is now looking into an afternoon program as are several other day schools around the country.

And while the public school option is discouraged for many ostensibly good reasons, some objections do little more than denigrate or minimize the family and communal influences on the student that are front and center in their upbringing: “There are very few children who will walk out of a public school setting being shomer Torah and Mitzvos,” said Rabbi Wolowik to the Jewish Star.

A Federation led study concluded more than a decade ago that Jewish education was the key to Jewish continuity, yet efforts have concentrated on bolstering the financial resources allocated entirely to the existing model. Little imagination has been applied to creating new approaches that might offer acceptable or even superior educational results while absorbing fewer community resources.

The Jewish Federation’s Superfund for Jewish Education aims to address the funding shortfall. But at the moment the needs of many simply cannot be met. The existing model might well be maintained if public funding were made available for at least the general studies portions of the day school program. But for some schools such public funding may represent a relatively small portion of the overall program and its costs. Then too, Church/State issues may be insurmountable in some localities. Life insurance based funding of the existing model shows some promise too, but the constituent base remains small and in the best scenario, the impact is long term, perhaps too far into the future to rescue the existing system.

Philanthropists continue to offer relief, but none offers a strategy for anything but short-term survival. Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh announced The Herman Lipsitz scholarship, offering free tuition for two years for all students who transfer to the academy from public or non-Jewish private schools. The Torah Academy of Minneapolis offers tuition vouchers of up to $5,000 to encourage enrollment at the school, and schools in Cleveland and Atlanta also offer financial incentives.

Risk Taking is Now Required

If a financial break point has been reached, then the downside of risk taking has already been reduced. Effort is being made to frame the problem in historic terms, modifying earlier but marginal models, and in terms of business productivity and efficiency.

A number of existing day schools have begun, or are planning to begin “supplemental” programs that will follow a day of public school. This resurrection of the “Talmud Torah” model includes both updating and curricular revision. Many older baby boomers recall the hey day of the Talmud Torah, which intruded on the Jewish, public school student’s free time on both weekdays and weekends. With built in discipline problems, time and instructional limitations, such programs almost universally failed. The programs at best helped to prepare a child for bar mitzvah, and terminated almost immediately thereafter. The new focus for such programs would seem to be the teaching of essential concepts, while imparting a “feel-good” approach, as described by the principal of a NY day school, who was on the verge of adding just such a program. Given the implicit limitations of such programs and their day school sponsors, the likelihood of them becoming effective, lower cost substitutes for full day programs is remote.

An alternative funding approach has been suggested by Scott Shay in a publication of the PEJE which he calls the “Egalitarian Tuition Plan” (ETP). A day school sets its tuition at an affordable price, say $3,000 per student. It then solicits a financial statement from each family that is then reviewed by a retained third party. The total school budget (after Federation allocations) is allocated according to an established formula, and participating families contribute according to relative income levels. Families earning less than a pre- established base income pay the $3,000 tuition, while others may pay up to 50% more than the actual cost of educating a student. This style of collective responsibility has several adherents already. In the last few years the Gross Schechter Day School in Cleveland and the Manhattan Country Day School , a secular institution, have implemented similar plans.

A not too dissimilar, though more regressive solution follows the old European system of taxing the Jews of a city to fund the local day schools. While this continues in parts of Western Europe today, it is unlikely that American Jews would either entertain increasing their tax burden or cede control of funding Jewish education to the civil authorities.

There are also ideas that circumvent the existing structural model entirely. The growing cost of day school education has spurred the expansion of Jewish home schooling. Dozens of organizations and web sites offer curricula and community to parents who choose this path. Among these are the Jewish Home Educator’s Network, Beit HaChatulim, the Jewish Homeschooling Education Network, the Jewish Homeschooling E-mail List, and the Chevrah Jewish Homeschoolers List. The expense here is measured in time and opportunity cost along with some materials. Some families combine free public schooling with Judaica at home while others have taken on homeschooling in its entirety.

Many parents of would-be day schoolers chafe at the portion of their real estate taxes dedicated to local public schools -- schools that their children do not even attend. They look toward recapturing some of those tax expenditures by combining a public school education with a privately arranged Judaics curriculum. In some cases the Judaic curriculum is offered to a small group of students both before and after public school. The teacher (s) is paid by the participating parents. This cost amounts to a small fraction of the corresponding day school tuition. An interesting modification of this approach includes negotiating with the public school for former day school children to attend the public school for part of the day, leaving the remainder of the school day for them to have dedicated Judaica sessions, either on or off campus. Again, the costs are dramatically less. Meanwhile the quality of secular studies is generally quite high and that of the Judaic studies is dependent on the quality of the instructors engaged. At least one public school system on the East Coast acknowledged publicly its favorable view of this arrangement.

Finally, perhaps the most controversial solution being proposed involves the consolidation of multiple schools, facilities and constituencies into a single Jewish day school campus. In this scenario several schools would give up their independent facilities (selling the real estate or terminating their leases) and combine forces in a single (or perhaps two or three) location. While the numbers of students served on this single campus might be seven or eight times that formerly served by each school, dramatic efficiencies would be captured. Instead of seven or eight English departments, there would be only one. Instead of seven or eight fundraising offices there would be one. Only the best teachers and administrators need be retained, and they could be rewarded commensurately.

Objections are obvious, of course. How can so many differing religious philosophies be accommodated on a single campus without violating the norms of any one group? And how can the Jewish community absorb the many redundant teachers and administrators that would be expendable? In the first case, experts in traffic management routinely design flow systems that allow for multiple populations to occupy common ground with limited or no interaction. This would overcome gender and ideological issues. The dramatic financial savings owing to staff reduction and facility cost also allow the school to compete for the best teachers available, offer better equipment and facilities, and create a system of student transportation that would overcome geographic accessibility. At the same time, tuition cost could be dramatically reduced. The ability of the community to absorb displaced workers has, unfortunately, been tested in the past and will, no- doubt be tested again.

Jewish communities are simultaneously soliciting an expanded day school audience while searching for a model that its current constituency can afford. Why, then, are there not calls to allocate some of the “perishable” funding now keeping the existing model on life support to the empirical testing of each of these alternatives? Once developed as stand-alone competitors to the existing system, they will succeed or fail on their own merits. Continuing to apply financial band-aids to the existing problem does little more than suck potentially system- saving financing from any structural improvements. Existing day school families will increasingly be pressured to abandon Jewish education, while prospective students are either scared or turned away – all while being told that education alone creates generational continuity. Circumstances now call for new or forward-thinking leaders to step up and put these or other novel ideas to the test.

Bertram Irving has been a consultant to large corporations in Europe and North America for more than 20 years. His clients include N.V. Philips, Thyssen AG, Verlagsgruppe Handelsblatt, Swiss Bank Corporation, William M. Mercer, Lustro Plastics Corp., Federal Express and a variety of smaller technology-based firms. He has published books and articles in the fields of both business and religion. Several of his articles on institutional Judaism can be found at He can be contacted at


from the October-November 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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