“Billions For Education?” Should the State of Israel Be a Funder of Day School Education in the Diaspora?

by Robert Evans and Avrum Lapin

“Don’t worry America, Israel is behind you.” The popular t-shirt bearing this slogan usually features a print of an F-16 jet and is ubiquitous at souvenir shops along Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street. How’s this for a new slogan, “Don’t worry overburdened American Jewish parents, the government of Israel will help fund your children’s Jewish day school education.”

Sound crazy? Maybe, but the idea has generated some serious buzz in certain circles of the Jewish nonprofit world.

Yosef Abramowitz, an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and former day school parent who made aliyah from the Boston area eight years ago, sketched out the concept in a short article that appeared in the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education Blog called “Billions from Jerusalem: New Financing for Jewish Day School Education.” Abramowitz, a major investor in Israel’s solar power industry, explained his thinking and took some tough questions in a February 12th webinar run by PEJE. The other panelists were Alan Hoffman, Director General of The Jewish Agency for Israel; Amy Katz, executive director of PEJE; and Gil Preuss, executive vice president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston. Their reactions, and the reactions of dozens of others who sat in on the session, was a mix of interest, curiosity and skepticism.

In an interview, Katz explained that PEJE was looking to float some new and original ideas on day school sustainability. PEJE approached Abramowitz, who replied that he had something in mind.

Part of PEJE’s role, said Katz, is to offer a sounding board for provocative ideas and thinkers knowing that not every idea will catch on in the marketplace. “It is thinking in a start-up way,” said Katz. “The landscape has changed and everybody needs to think differently.”

Here’s his idea: The Israeli government is expected to amass $125 billion over the next 20 years in revenue resulting from the development of gas fields in the Mediterranean. Israel, Abramowitz argued, could set aside 10 percent of those dollars in order to offer interest free loans for day school tuition to families in the United States and other Diaspora communities.

By doing so, Israel would be investing in a future core of committed Jews who care about Israel and also incentivize people to consider making a life in the Jewish state.

“If the recipient makes aliyah by a certain age and stays in Israel three years,” Abramowitz wrote, “then all or part of the loan would be forgiven.”

Sure, we have plenty of questions about whether this idea can work and wonder whether it would forever alter the day school equation. But we love Abramowitz’s boldness; his creativity is welcome and meaningful. It is just the kind of thinking we need right now if we are going to make Jewish life meaningful and affordable in the coming decades. Further, it will propel the evolution already in place in the relationship between Israel and Diaspora communities creating unifying themes and creating partnerships rather than the traditional “funder and recipient” model.

In their 2003 book Bang!, advertising gurus Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval talk about Big Bang ideas that disrupt the marketplace and invert conventional thinking. Thaler and Koval were behind the famous AFLAC add campaign that featured a talking duck. Having a talking duck to talk about cancer insurance? The concept defied all kinds of conventional thinking, but it worked big time, turning a bland acronym into an unforgettable brand name. We need more Jewish philanthropists/entrepreneurs like Abramowitz to aim for Big Bang ideas to transform the thinking across the Jewish world.

Abramowitz’s idea touches on two profound issues. The first is the longstanding affordability crisis facing Jewish day school education in America. “Billions from Jerusalem” also highlights that a fundamental shift is taking place in the philanthropic relationship between American Jewry and the modern state of Israel, although we are not advocating that Israel’s government become a major funding source for nonprofit priorities in the U.S.

Here is a recap of the day school conundrum: It is widely accepted that graduates of Jewish day schools are more likely to marry other Jews, visit Israel, and join synagogues and one day become leaders in the Jewish community. But large numbers of non-Orthodox families have not chosen the day school option and cost is identified as the major obstacle. Imagine being responsible for upwards of $20,000 or $30,000 per child, for years, only to then be staring at the astronomical costs associated with college. Oh, and what about graduate school?

Abramowitz noted that he and his wife once took out a $23,000 loan to cover day school tuition through a commercial lender and paid a high interest rate. “If the loan were generated by the Bank of Israel and passed along to us at cost, it would be far more affordable,” he wrote.

Of course, cost is not the only problem facing day schools.

Many non-Orthodox families simply are not interested in a day school education for their child for a variety of reasons. Some place a high value on diversity and believe their child should be with classmates of other religions and backgrounds. Others think top-notch public schools or competing private schools offer better preparation for colleges. Jewish day schools have long been pushing back against both of these perceptions and have sought to make the case that they produce well-rounded children capable of succeeding in any environment. Still, despite the fact that some day schools have made excellent cases, and generous tuition grant programs have been introduced in a number of cities, the sense is that the ball has not moved down the field all that much.

Could Israel come up with the needed dollars? This is the same country that American Jewry once considered its poor younger cousin, the place where one supported by dropping coins in a “puskhe” to plant trees or resettle refugees?

The truth is that the Jewish state – a center of innovation and an economic power – has already taken several unprecedented steps to invest in the future of Diaspora Jewry. Israel is helping to fund arguably the most successful Jewish initiative of the past two decades, Taglit-Birthright Israel. In 2011, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a $100 million, three-year funding commitment to Birthright. This January, Israel upped the ante by announcing that it planned to spend $1 billion over 20 years to strengthen the identity of Diaspora Jews, though details have been slow in coming. In a January editorial about the plan, The New York Jewish Week called it, “welcome, exciting news, though the basis, at least in part, for this initiative is the growing awareness in Jerusalem that there is no longer an assurance that younger Jews in the Diaspora feel connected to their Judaism or the Zionist cause. What is historic here is not only the size of the funds being discussed – details are still sketchy – but the genuine partnership between Israeli and Diaspora leaders, each recognizing a new level of interdependence.”

And on February 18th, The Jerusalem Post reported that Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has called upon his government to give $365 million a year to prevent Diaspora Jews “from assimilating into oblivion.”

During the PEJE webinar, JAFI’s Hoffman was asked how day school loans would play on the Israeli street in an era of rising income inequality, when many public benefits have been cut. Hoffman acknowledged that, politically, the day school idea would be a tough sell for Israelis, many of whom were raised with the idea that Zionism represented the negation of the Diaspora.

Would Israelis send dollars overseas knowing there are so many pressing needs at home? The question is extraordinary inversions of the one Jewish organizations, especially Federations, have been asking for decades: Spend the money here or on needs in Israel and other global Jewish communities. In recent years, many Federations have decreased allocations for Israel and increased funding for local programs.

But if Israel adopted Abramowitz’s idea, would it be a game changer for Jewish day school education?

Preuss, of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said during the webinar that he doesn’t believe the current “model is sustainable in the long-term in the U.S.”

He added that the free loans, combined with the enticement of aliyah, would certainly appeal to families that are committed to Jewish day school education and who are strongly Zionistic. But would it make day school more attractive to families not already sold on it? Would the loans make day school more appealing to the broad swath of American Jewry? Preuss was skeptical, and so are we. Israel may decide that day school is not where it wants to invest billions of dollars in strengthening the Diaspora. But a healthy day school movement is vital for a healthy American Jewish community, and day school proponents must keep searching for new funding models.

Whether or not “Billions for Jerusalem” becomes a Big Bang for American day school education remains to be seen. But the thought is worthy of serious consideration and we need more people like Abramowitz who are willing to challenge the status quo and make the impossible seem possible.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, a fundraising consulting firm located in suburban Philadelphia. They are frequent contributors to eJewishPhilanthropy.com. The EHL Consulting Group is one of only 38 member firms of The Giving Institute. EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and nonprofit business practices and strategies. Learn more at ehlconsulting.com

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