Jewish Day Schools and Student Scholarships

by Sherri W. Morr

I was turned down for tuition assistance for my son at a Jewish day school. This was 40 years ago. I was told that the school could “no longer carry children like mine; schools could not provide dollars for my child, after all they had the Russian and the Israeli children to worry about”. I worked in the Jewish community and was pretty devastated. Because there was no other choice, I moved on; today my son is a wonderful man, father, and husband; perhaps he did not suffer, but then he did not receive a day school education.

I like to think things might be different today and given my work with Valley Beth Shalom Harold M. Schulweis Day School and the BJE: Builders of Jewish Education I think they are. Or at least tremendous attention is being given to the subject of families who want to give their children a Jewish day school experience, but need help in order to do it.

I listened to Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California a few weeks ago speak about this very issue to parents and former parents of the Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Day School at a small gathering of potential Endowment Campaign prospects. How to pay for those who cannot is a huge issue in the Jewish community; as one who works in this environment I see the problem personified when wondering why more young Jews are not involved in Jewish life, or why it’s so hard to find committee members or board leadership, or why is synagogue membership decreasing and Bar and Bat Mitzvah students not continuing their Jewish education after their simchas. Some of it I am convinced is because the foundation is just not there. Think for another moment of the amount of dollars targeted to the younger generations for special programming and unique experiences to raise their level of Jewish awareness. Is it possible that some of this money might have gone to day school tuition to create the foundation when these young adults (now they are called emerging Jews) were children? I have traditionally believed a sound solid foundation can only be provided by a day school education. I believe that, and Rabbi Feinstein’s words rang true.

In essence he said, a Jewish Day School education is spiritually necessary but the model is economically unsustainable. Hmm what does that mean? It’s pretty self evident. He gave as an example the parent who comes to him and says this one thing: this opportunity to learn and to study, and to flourish spiritually is the one gift I can give my child, but I need help. And some of these parents (very similar to my own experience) are turned down; turned away, told no. Where do they go? What other options are there. Are day schools only for those with wealth? Or expendable income? A day school education has the ability to change a life; if they do not receive it as young children we may never get them back, they may be lost to us and to the Jewish people.

The National Generations Program administered by Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) and the AVI CHAI Foundation. Partnering with BJE in LA there are seven select schools that are part of a pilot program to raise endowment funds for day schools where the interest can be used toward student scholarships; VBS is one of those schools. Raising endowment donations is the only way to insure that day schools will carry on and connect to those who need support. As a fundraiser creating opportunities for endowment giving is one very critical way to remember our donors … those who bravely and generously gave to carry on their dreams long after they are gone.

Some dozen years ago I was engaged at two independent schools; neither were Jewish schools but the school population was heavily Jewish. Both schools had begun in a response to Jewish students not allowed at other private schools. As Jews did then, they began their own organizations, institutions, and schools. These schools today are fiercely nonsectarian, but wrestle with similar issues, but with no Jewish connection. In fact one of the bigger financial aid issues is that (full paying) parents in private schools want their children to go to schools where economic diversity is apparent. It’s a hard bill to fill and its ramifications are not easy or always easily observable. These schools run ongoing scholarship campaigns and work very hard to increase their endowment. A portion of every tuition dollar is used towards scholarship as well. So in a sense every family supports economic diversity and tuition assistance simply by paying tuition.

VBS and other Los Angeles schools are being productive through the Generations program to raise endowment funds. Part of the motivation is a generous family foundation match; part of the challenge is to prioritize endowment giving, and learn to be comfortable speaking about it; go back to those graduates (and their parents) some who are far along in their careers who speak so positively of day school education. In particular the 3 young adults at the VBS endowment campaign evening spoke lovingly of the faculty, and their attention, and the head of school who loves her job because a young child is excited to receive a siddur, and the rabbi who sat on the floor with them when they were in Kindergarten and told stories that helped cement their love of being Jewish … this is what it means to be at a Jewish school.

So, can we afford to turn down just one? I don’t think so, and I know Rabbi Feinstein would agree.

Sherri W. Morr has spent the last several decades working and consulting in the Jewish community as a fundraiser, a teacher, and trainer, most recently as Director of the Western U.S. at the Jewish National Fund for 12 years. She has completed an MA and received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Her work outside of the Jewish world at independent schools, the Baltimore Symphony and Tufts University have given her an awareness beyond practice in the Jewish community. Sherri has 3 grown sons and lives in Los Angeles, California.