Synagogues and Day Schools, Sitting in a Tree…

by Charles Cohen

Donors recognize the importance of strong organizations in their respective communities: that’s why they often spread their philanthropic giving, like chopped liver on challah, across multiple institutions. Committed Jewish families also understand that idea of “the more, the more”: the more Jewish activities children experience, the more likely those kids will grow into engaged adults. In a similar vein, Jewish organizations know the value of strong institutional partners – for instance, Federations supporting agencies through annual allocations.

It’s not rocket science.

Until recently, though, few organizations actually cut their peers a check.

Last year, Phil Baratz, a committed day school parent and former board president at Young Israel of Hollywood, was thinking about the high cost of Jewish education for families in his community. It was a regular topic of conversation at his dinner table, especially because his wife was a former president of Brauser Maimonides Academy, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Given the featured roles both institutions played in their community and their lives, Baratz wondered what more they could do to help each other.

Baratz knew the issue was bigger than one synagogue and one school, though. While plenty of his peers’ children were at BMA, Young Israel members enrolled their children at several different schools in and around his section of the Sunshine State. “What is missing from today’s community,” Baratz said in a phone interview, “is that sense of communal responsibility. We can’t enforce a ‘Jewish tax’ on everyone to pay for Jewish communal needs.”

With those two thoughts in mind – local day schools were educating Young Israel members, and supporting Jewish education should be a communal responsibility – Baratz approached Young Israel’s executive committee with an idea: An annual allocation from the synagogue to local day schools. Each school would receive an annual per capita distribution based on the number of students enrolled who were also Young Israel members.

Some people questioned the role of a synagogue in funding day schools; others wondered whether the money should be directed toward different, potentially more pressing needs, like hunger, or helping poorer families make proper weddings for their children. The committee also wanted to be clear about the message being sent to the community: Were they okay with supporting every day school enrolling Young Israel kids, even if one or more of those schools weren’t Orthodox? Would the members be upset that the issue wasn’t being offered up for a vote? Maybe they should roll the extra funds into a super Kiddush fund, and have pickled herring, scotch, and delicious, meaty cholent every Shabbat.

After some more discussion and a recommendation from the budget committee, the board approved a new “Jewish day schools” budget line of $30,000. The allocation was almost immediately matched 1:1 by a member of the synagogue, bringing the total day school funding from Young Israel of Hollywood to $60,000 in 2012-13. Baratz said that “the new allocation sent a clear message to the community about the importance of Jewish day school education, and about the community’s role in supporting it.”

Day schools and synagogues aren’t always the best playmates. They’re not competitors, but it’s too easy to forget how other organizations play a symbiotic role in your ecosystem, and how you can collaborate to achieve both institutions’ missions, and ultimately better serve Jewish families. Young Israel of Hollywood understands this, and is now actively leveraging its resources to benefit its community.

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