Thank You to the Fundraisers at our Day Schools, And Just One Request

[Based on remarks to day school development professionals attending the PEJE NY – NJ – Philadelphia Regional Development Conference in Greater MetroWest, NJ]

by Robert Lichtman

Rabbi Yossi was walking down the road one day and tells this story …

… A certain man met me. He greeted me and I returned his greeting. He said to me, ‘Rabbi, from what place are you?’ I said to him, ‘I am from a great city of scholars and sages.’ He said to me, ‘Rabbi, would you be willing to live with us in our place? I would give you a million golden dinars, precious stones and pearls.’ I replied, ‘Even if you were to give me all the silver and gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would dwell nowhere but in a place of Torah.’ (Pirkei Avot, 6:9)

Isn’t it ironic – maybe perversely so – that Rabbi Yossi thought there was a trade-off: “all the silver and gold, precious stones and pearls in the world” on the one hand, and a community of Torah on the other. While here, generations later, it seems as if the only way we can maintain a community of Torah is if we have “all the silver and gold, precious stones and pearls in the world.” There is something terribly wrong with this picture.

I know you know that – and that brings me to thank you. Federations and foundations are great for what they do, and they can do a lot. But they can’t do it all. You as the schools yourselves raise more money and provide more financial aid than federations and foundations do. The immediate answer to the financial challenge is to raise more money; and I guess that is why you are here. And one reason I am here is to publicly thank you and your schools for your openness and purposeful mission to be accessible for all Jewish children.

Now let me tell you a little bit about The Partnership, and that will lead to my second thought.

We call The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life our community’s Jewish identity-building organization. We don’t talk about Jewish education per se, rather we focus on how to “Bring Jewish Learning to Life” – how to take Jewish learning and apply it to life – not to Jewish life, but to all of life – everywhere, and every day.

Another story: A little over 100 years ago, horse and buggy drivers unwillingly had to start sharing the road with automobiles. A lot of horse and buggy manufacturers went out of business. The ones that stayed in business and thrived did so because they looked at the situation differently. They asked themselves this question: Are we in the horse and buggy business, or are we in the transportation business? They adapted to the new transportation reality and they built cars.

The Partnership works with our schools, but not because we are in the school business. We are not in the education business. We are in the Jewish identity-building business.

And you are, too.

Day schools are one of the most powerful Jewish identity builders ever invented. From day schools emerge Jewish communal and congregational leaders, philanthropists, Israel activists – the heart and soul of our Jewish communities.

Everything that I just described and that you know so well about the impact of Jewish day schools is equally true about Jewish overnight camps. So why do we need to invest so much into both day schools and summer camps?

Because there are things a child will learn in day school that she will never learn in summer camp. There are experiences that a child will encounter in summer camp that he will never encounter in a day school. In my view, you are not in the day school business. You are in the Jewish identity-building business. And so are Jewish summer camps.

In fact you demonstrate this with increasing interactions between day schools and camps. Here in Greater MetroWest we fund one such endeavor between a school and a summer camp. There is a deeper relationship developing similarly in Toronto. The Nadiv program of the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the URJ is a bold example of this synergetic relationship. You share so much in terms of values, content and staff. You even share the same children as students and campers.

The evolution and the intensifying of these interactions are inevitable for the benefit of schools and camps, or rather, for the benefit of the children in schools and camps. It is increasingly evident to us in the Jewish identity-building business that this is so.

So here is the thing: As interdependent as you are or ultimately will be with Jewish summer camps, there are day schools in some communities, that when evaluating eligibility for financial aid, will disqualify a family from receiving such aid if they send their children to a Jewish summer camp. They will repress a child’s Jewish identity development from September to June because the child’s Jewish identity flourished in July and August. There may be only a few such schools. But a few is too many.

This is my request – with respect. Make your school the one that publicly encourages students to continue to explore their Jewish identity at Jewish summer camp. Be the day school that publicly and proudly assures parents that financial aid will not be at risk if their children attend a non-profit Jewish summer camp. Heck, why not be the school that in partnership with some non-profit Jewish camps offers a joint discount as a financial incentive for families to buy the whole package?

If you agree with me, please share your thoughts with those who distribute the “silver and gold, precious stones and pearls.” I plan to do so as well, so that our communities continue to thrive in the business of building strong and proud Jewish identities for generations to come.

Robert Lichtman is the Executive Director of The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, the Jewish identity-building organization for Greater MetroWest NJ.