The Case for Jewish Day Schools: Toward A Bright Future
Tue, 08/24/2010

A provocative question is circulating in the Jewish community: Can day schools survive, given the reality of reduced philanthropic support in this economic climate? While this is a vitally important question, it misses two salient points.

First, there is strong evidence that the day school field is not only surviving, but is a resilient, thriving enterprise. Enrollment decreases this past year were smaller than originally feared; we have seen significant enrollment growth at 50 non-Orthodox schools nationwide; and school closures, while painful, have been few.

Second is a more critical question: Can the Jewish community allow day schools not to survive? The answer is an emphatic “no.” We at PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) believe that day schools are essential for fostering an engaged Jewish people for an enduring, vibrant future—not just in rosy economic times, but also, perhaps especially, in these challenging economic times.

Why are we so passionate about our day school mission? For one thing, today’s young Jewish leaders are disproportionately represented by day school graduates. This is not just anecdotal evidence. PEJE’s research on day school alumni clearly shows that day school alumni are more engaged than their non-day school counterparts.

Other experts agree.

Professor Jack Wertheimer, at the recent Jewish Funders Network Conference, presented new, soon-to-be published research that elucidates PEJE’s findings. In his study of emerging young Jewish leaders, volunteer and professional, ages 22-40, Professor Wertheimer found that a whopping 40 percent of the respondents indicated that they attended day school. Even more striking, among that 40 percent, almost 90 percent did not self-identify as “Orthodox.” This research adds to the vast mountain of evidence that day schools matter. We fully expect that much of the volunteer and professional leadership of our 21st century community will continue to emerge from the day school ranks.

How, then, will day schools survive, and thrive?

PEJE believes that the current economic crisis presents a unique opportunity to re-think “business as usual,” with less emphasis on event-driven fundraising programs and more attention on strategies that strengthen financial sustainability. For example:

Continued foundation support. Philanthropic investment to day schools is, in fact, alive and well. Even as some foundations embrace other venues, new organizations and individuals are stepping up with increased financial support, valuable marketing expertise, and the active promotion of both individual schools and the larger day school field. In Philadelphia, for example, one foundation engages parents in their own Jewish education in exchange for a foundation gift to the school, which is then credited against their tuition bill.

An expanded donor base. This is not just wishful thinking; it is already happening. Day schools continue to enjoy vast financial support from donors who believe passionately in the power and impact of a day school education.

A heightened focus on endowment and legacy. PEJE and its partners in the field are currently at work developing strategic initiatives that will help schools tap into previously underutilized resources such as financial support from alumni and planned giving programs. MetroWest New Jersey’s $50 million dollar endowment campaign for affordability and educational quality is but one example.

Tuition incentive programs. Established tuition incentive and financial aid programs are thriving everywhere from Cleveland to Seattle. Programs such as the Jim Joseph Foundation’s two-year, $11 million financial aid program for day schools, preschools, and camps continue to make an enormous difference in the lives of families.

The larger story about day school funding, then, is not about diminished resources. Instead, it is about the enormous potential for transformative change in the Jewish community.

One recent collaboration is illustrative. During the peak of the economic decline, PEJE and UJA-Federation of New York joined forces to train 11 Jewish day schools in governance and fundraising strategies. Although the program has officially concluded, participants are still reaping the rewards.

Leaders report large increases in annual campaigns and the solicitations of first-ever seven-figure gifts. This past spring, thanks to the generous support of Janine and Peter Lowy as well as the hard work of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Jewish Education, the program was adapted for launch in LA.

Stakeholders agree that the program is off to an extraordinary start. But more importantly, as the program gets launched in communities across North America, it promises to have a bold and deep impact on the field.

Will day schools continue to confront challenges in the months ahead? Yes: We are in a protracted cycle, along with scores of other nonprofits as well as for-profits, which realistically may continue for years to come. Are day schools doomed? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Still, we must be vigilant. The case for day schools must be intensified. Development professionals need support, coaching, and access to expertise in order to grow their skills and expand their donor base. Finally, day schools can—and must— activate their alumni base. Day school graduates represent the stellar product of this educational system, and their value in recruitment, governance, advocacy, and resource development efforts cannot be overestimated.

While I recognize the challenges confronting day schools today, I am also inspired by the commitment and profound investment of so many professional and volunteer day school leaders throughout North America. Together, we will move the day school educational experience forward in our collective commitment to cultivate and nurture the next generation of Jewish leaders.

Rabbi Joshua Elkin is executive director, Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE).

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