Philanthropy in a Time of Existential Need for Jewish Day Schools

By Dr. Ray Levi and Dr. Bruce Powell

How will this season approaching Pesah 5780 be remembered?  

We might certainly tell the story of a frightening plague. For us, as Jewish day school educators who are actively coaching and consulting with professional and lay leaders, the predominant narrative has been one of a miracle highlighted by the transformation of our schools literally in days to fully functioning online academies.  

Remaining true to the mission of meeting the needs of students where they are, and inspiring their engagement in learning infused with Jewish values, our schools have reinvented themselves thanks to the Herculean efforts of teachers and school leadership. We have been overwhelmed by the number of videos we’ve seen of Kabbalat Shabbat and all school-Hallel, morning check-ins, in-depth literature discussions, and words of thank you from students and parents. Invariably, they have moved us to tears. As head of school Andrea Kasper poignantly reminded the Solomon Schechter of Greater Hartford community, 

Our children will all tell the story of the spring of 2020 when they were home from school, in their houses; they won’t remember (and it won’t matter) whether they learned more or less math, acquired more language, differentiated between a simile and a metaphor … They will remember that their remarkable teachers made every effort to keep them within the framework of the familiar, that they did everything (working around their own families, anxieties, and worries) to connect with them and to help them connect to one another. They will remember how blessed they were to live in a time when the technology could keep them engaged and in relationships with the people who matter to them. They will also remember what it was like to be home with their parents and siblings.

As the adults in the lives of our children, what is the narrative we will tell – of this spring and of the summer and fall that will follow? What will be the legacy of our entire community, and especially our fabulous donors and foundations, during this existential moment for our entire Jewish day school enterprise? What is the story of hope and action we will tell our children and grandchildren?

Certainly, we will want to look back with some laughter at the stressful, cacophonous undertaking of juggling children at home, overseeing multiple online learning schedules, and oh yes, fulfilling professional responsibilities in those tight spaces. But as we look ahead, our school leaders – lay and professional – bring many worries with us.  

  • Will our school budgets be able to absorb the increased need for tuition assistance that families will require so that their children can return to their day schools?  
  • And how will we help families, anxious about the economic instability, elect the Jewish day school setting they would like to choose in the coming year?  

If these times have asked that our schools be remarkably nimble, they call for extraordinary commitments from philanthropic foundations and donors. We have been heartened by the early collaborative statements of the Jewish Funders Network. And we trust that these individuals and foundations will quickly commit to the schools that find themselves in need of additional support for their operational budgets as well as innovative projects. We hope that programs offering professional development and coaching will continue to be in place so they can nourish the growth and recovery of teachers and leaders.  

A bold step forward, reflecting a commitment to the Biblical principle (Exod. 24:15) that, You must pay him his wages before the sun sets…” will truly ensure a story of steady movement and robust survival in the coming months and years. Let us ensure that the sun does not set on our Jewish day school enterprise.

Rather, we can shape a narrative that will demonstrate that we together – funder and grantee – collaborated to ensure that we could both respond to crisis and recover.  

We can shape a narrative that ensures that our Jewish day school faculty and administrators, who shifted so nimbly and energetically during the crisis, can continue their sacred work, doing what they do best within the warm embrace of their classrooms for the coming fall term, 2020.  

With the immediate support of our local and national funders and foundations, we can shape our Jewish historical narrative to one in which our children, who now so eagerly turn to our online classrooms, will experience in the year and years to come, the joy of being together in their non-virtual communities once again!  

Ken yehi ratzon.  

Dr. Ray Levi is the director of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS.  

Dr. Bruce Powell is president of Jewish School Management, adjunct professor of education at the Graduate Center for Jewish Education at the American Jewish University, and head emeritus of de Toledo High School.