Jewish Day School Affordability Is Not a Werewolf, It’s a Cholent

by Charles Cohen

Werewolves, to me, are the silliest villains in the horror movie canon. They’re only dangerous one night a month, at which point (starting at midnight, no less) they go through a loud, hairy transition that’s hard to miss, unless it’s in the middle of the forest. And if your village does have a werewolf problem, all you need is some silver, because one shot is all it takes to put that beast down. Chick-chock, lickety-split. All things being equal, not the most difficult problem to solve.

Jewish day school affordability is the most prominent and complicated component of what is really a larger challenge – the high expense of living an engaged Jewish life in the 21st century. Just last week, two great thinkers wrote important articles about the topic (Harry Bloom in eJewish Philanthropy, Marvin Schick in Baltimore Jewish Life) – and others have made important contributions in the past couple of months (Rabbi Aryeh Klapper and Jon Mitzmacher among them). And, other than Dr. Bloom, each of these scholars suggests the existence of a “silver bullet”: the one magic strategy that will somehow make Jewish day school affordable for every family.

Is affordability really that straightforward? Is it the werewolf of the Jewish community?

I don’t think so. There is no silver bullet. There’s not even a silver bomb. In fact, let’s ditch that metaphor completely and take on another, tastier (and Jewier) one instead: Jewish day school affordability is a cholent. It requires multiple ingredients, and everyone’s recipe is different. (I, for example, use sweet potatoes and beer.) And every community must create its own mix, unique to its attributes and challenges. These may include government funding, substantial federation support, cost sharing, blended-learning projects, or endowment campaigns. But no individual strategy can meet the challenge.

Pittsburgh’s three Jewish day schools benefit substantially from Pennsylvania’s Earned Income Tax Credit Program and an increased federation campaign allocation. MetroWest, New Jersey has an incredibly successful endowment campaign for its three schools. Chicago has not one, but two communal fundraising efforts. But as innovative and effective as these initiatives are, none of them has “solved” the affordability issue.

So what will it take to succeed?

It will take persistence and data, and the ability to confront the challenge using multiple tactics and strategies. It will take the support of champions; a commitment to systemic change; and a detailed plan, with ambitious, measurable goals. It will take a deep understanding of your school’s and community’s strengths, weaknesses, and resources. It will take a lot of time at Starbucks.

Last, it will take the combined experience and expertise of community partners who share a common vision. That’s why PEJE and the OU have collaborated to create the Jewish Day School Affordability Knowledge Center – a central “clearing house” to share noteworthy practices across the entire Jewish day school field.

Over the next year I will be analyzing affordability strategies from communities across North America. I cannot tell you how excited I am to learn and share with all of you so we can all benefit. Together, we can make fantastic cholents, and find effective, innovative ways to make Jewish day school more affordable.

But you’re peeling the onions. I hate that part.

Charles Cohen is the manager of the Jewish Day School Affordability Knowledge Center. An attorney in pretentious suffix only, Charles’s prior Jewish communal service includes working at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, where he supported schools and other Jewish organizations in strategic planning and fostering effective collaboration.

cross-posted with PEJE blog