A Communal Responsibility

by Ken Gordon

Who is responsible for Jewish education? Jewish parents? Wealthy philanthropists? Central agencies for Jewish Education and federations? There’s only one viable answer to this essential question: the entire Jewish community.

Jewish education is a communal responsibility.

Amy Katz, the new executive director of the Partnership for Jewish Education (PEJE), puts it this way: “PEJE’s work in driving financial sustainability is essential to helping ensure the continued vitality of Jewish day schools, and by extension our Jewish future. But we can’t do this alone. We need to collaborate, to marshal resources, and empower schools to become more compelling to all families, no matter their Jewish denomination.”

Katz is confident that communal leaders can leap over the inevitable hurdles to communal action through shared responsibility. Which is why PEJE is vigorously working with donors, federations, foundations, agencies, community groups, admission and development directors, heads of schools and boards to make the case about our collective financial responsibility for Jewish day schools.

Throughout North America, select schools, in partnership with PEJE, are willing our dream of communal cooperation – but Los Angeles, it turns out, is at the cutting edge of communal funding activities. In Los Angeles, we have as a key partner, BJE: Builders of Jewish Education.

An Ivy League Idea

One way we’re taking this to the streets is through an initiative called Generations L.A. – a major collaboration among AVI CHAI Foundation, BJE’s Center for Excellence in Day School Education, PEJE and local Los Angeles donors. Generations L.A. is all about endowment and legacy giving.

Typically, Jewish day schools struggle to meet annual expenses through one vehicle: the annual campaign. By encouraging endowment and legacy giving, Generations L.A. aims to give schools important breathing room. A school’s endowment and legacy program can be a vital, profitable, long-term component of its development strategy.

Harvard and Yale have always understood the importance of endowment, and independent schools are getting in on the action. Harvard-Westlake’s endowment, for instance, is approximately $29,500 per student (just over $47 million). Surely Jewish day schools can – and should – benefit from such giving. PEJE projects that Jewish day schools will shoot up to the top 25th percentile in endowment funds through careful fiduciary management by local federations and central Jewish agencies.

Back to School

The fact is day schools in Los Angeles and beyond still have much to learn about fundraising. Enter PEJE’s Leadership and Fundraising Academy (LFA), stage left. This 18-month program, funded in Los Angeles by Janine and Peter Lowy, encourages heads of school, development professionals, board chairs, and other key volunteer leaders to rethink their development work and create what development people call “a culture of philanthropy.”

The LFA’s seminars and coaches have already produced results, helping schools craft strategic development plans and transforming board members into solicitors and donors.

First piloted in New York City, the Los Angeles LFA, comprised of 10 participating day schools, culminated this September. But in its place, a new LFA group has begun North of the Border, in Montreal.

Our Woman in L.A.

Sometimes schools need individual attention – and not every school can participate in the above-mentioned programs. In an effort to ensure that PEJE remains plugged into Los Angeles’ school community, Strategy Manager Jennifer Weinstock has been tapped to play the role of L.A.’s regional account manager. In this role, she works closely with Miriam Prum Hess, Director of BJE’s Center for Excellence in Day School Education, to support the financial sustainability of Jewish day schools in LA – even those that haven’t yet participated in our programs.

California and Beyond

Of course, this sort of communal work is not just a West Coast phenomenon.

Baltimore and New York, for instance, are among the first communities selected to participate in the national Generations program. But we are also beginning to see traction beyond the Generations’ communities. At a recent development conference in Westchester, N.Y., more than 20 percent of participants declared that they will create strategies at their schools to integrate endowment into their development efforts.

Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, spoke out in the Forward about the communal obligations to Jewish education. It may take a while, but communities across North America are working together – sharing responsibility – to ensure that Jewish day schools not only survive, but thrive.

Creating a Sustainable Future

There is considerable philanthropic funding out there, but we must learn to aggregate it, and to articulate the case for funding Jewish education. Not only must we convince Klal Yisrael, the general Jewish world, that day schools are an essential building block of Jewish continuity, together we must share the privilege of ensuring their sustainability. As Seymour Epstein, a longtime Jewish education advocate, once said: “Jewish education is the strategic plan of the Jewish community.”

Ken Gordon is the Social Media Manager at PEJE, which just published “Not Your Nana’s Annual Campaign: Innovative Development Practices for the 21st Century” and “It Isn’t Just Good Education… It’s Good Business.”