Tackling The Tuition Crisis

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about the economic crisis in Jewish day school education, with rising tuitions and shrinking family incomes combining to make the prospect of enrollment an increasing hardship for many.

What is promising, though, is that more people are becoming aware of the importance of day school education as one of the community’s most effective means of ensuring Jewish continuity. And there is a growing recognition that the economic burden should not be solely the responsibility of day school parents.

The Jewish community in Bergen County, N.J., has made significant strides by increasing awareness of the communal obligation of day school education, and those efforts are attracting national attention.

A group of concerned parents, rabbis and educators helped form an entity known as the Jewish Education for Future Generations, one of whose goals is to create a grass-roots, community-wide support system for day school education. All of the rabbis in the community and all eight of the elementary day schools in the county are on board.

According to Samuel Moed, the president of the group, what is noteworthy is that the group is nondenominational, is reaching large numbers of local families as contributors and has created networks and alliances with the local federation and rabbinical councils.

This Monday evening, the JEFG will make its first quarterly disbursements to the local schools, based on enrollment. The dollars are relatively modest, about $185,000, but Moed points out that more importantly, “we are getting our message out that this is a systemic issue that will take years to address, there is no silver bullet,” and that it is up to the community, not just day school parents, to respond.

The JEFG has created an offshoot, Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools (www.nnjkids.org), urging every Jewish family in the region to contribute at least $30 a month to the collective pot. Close to 800 families have signed on so far, and the local rabbis and schools are driving the message home.

JEFG seeks to create a superfund for day schools, as some other communities around the country have established, and to implement cost-sharing programs among the schools, as well as seek support through political action, corporations and nonprofit organizations.

At this point, the dollars raised are a drop in the bucket. Some experts believe as much as $100 million would be needed to provide free education at the regional day schools. But JEFG is a start, and it’s raising awareness and a sense of responsibility. It could be a model for communities around the country.

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