The Day School Enterprise Can Succeed

Day school kids; eJP archives
Day school kids; eJP archives

The recent announcement of NewOrg, a national day school organization that will represent the schools across the denominational spectrum, marks the beginning of an important new era for Jewish day schools and yeshivot.

It’s a development that comes after almost two decades of steady and productive innovation. The birth of PEJE in 1997 marked the establishment of a day school “field,” in which day school professionals, families and lay leaders, as well as philanthropists, began to see themselves as part of a vibrant and thriving enterprise of Jewish education, rather than representatives of a single school. Today, we understand that any investment in learning and any lesson learned in an individual school can go far beyond the walls of that school to benefit a much larger communal whole.

As leaders of community-wide day school advancement initiatives at our nation’s Jewish federations and central agencies – and together representing communities that educate 75% of North American day school students – our key takeaway is that the sharing of information and best practices as well as the ongoing collaboration and sense of common cause, elevates the entire field and lifts up each individual day school.

So at the same time that NewOrg begins its work across denominations, day school thinkers and planners from nine North American Federation communities – New York, Boston, Montreal, Los Angeles, Toronto, Greater MetroWest NJ, Chicago, Miami, and Cleveland – have created the North American Day School Strategy and Planning Group (NADSSPG). We have come together at a time when the flurry of articles and comments in the wake of the Statement on Jewish Vitality have sparked debates and strategy conversations in Jewish communal organizations and institutions and around our Shabbat tables.

These discussions are symptomatic of the sense of anxiety that many feel about what our American Jewish future will/should/can/might look like. Many are asking: In the midst of much demographic and societal change, how do we maintain Jewish communal vibrancy and nurture future Jewish learners and leaders?

Where we all agree is that Jewish day schools are a vital component of any vibrant Jewish ecosystem. As communities grapple with how to creatively and strategically engage the next generation of Jews they must not forget that day school education offers an unparalleled depth of knowledge, strength of identity building, and richness of community for students and families.

So Federations, central agencies and visionary philanthropists who care about engaging the next generation of Jews cannot afford to watch from the sidelines while day schools struggle with the ever increasing burden of rising education and financial aid costs. We must redouble our efforts to support our day schools and partner in new ways to ensure day school sustainability. It is our hope that the new collaborative spirit exhibited in NADSSPG will enable us each to shore up our ongoing commitment to sustaining the day schools in our communities and to supporting them to remain relevant, excellent, accessible and affordable institutions.

Despite all these positive developments, we all recognize that there is no magic bullet. Communities must chip away at the challenges inherent in the current Jewish day school model with strategies that maximize resources and continue to make day schools attractive to a broad range of families. Some of the creative solutions our communities are employing include: middle-tier income affordability programs, intensive community-wide endowment building efforts, interest-free loans to schools for capital investment, loans to families to help finance day school tuition, public funding revenue streams, joint purchasing, offering buildings for rental space during non-school hours, expanding annual campaigns and enhancing fundraising sophistication.

It’s an approach that requires engaging every member of a school’s professional leadership and, of course, Boards of Trustees, as well as current parents, former parents, alumni, grandparents, and community members. Central agencies are supporting schools as they experiment with the impact and implementation of these approaches. Facilitation of collaboration among and between schools to share resources and costs and even merge where appropriate is also occurring in some communities. In addition, in many communities the school/central agency partnerships have led to a new commitment on the part of schools to adhere to the highest standards of operational excellence, fundraising, and fiscal responsibility. Finally, it is axiomatic that in addition to chipping away at the affordability challenges, schools must always simultaneously strive for excellence. To grow enrollment schools must continually analyze their target markets in order to develop relevant programs that appeal to the unique needs of the students and families in their communities.

The burden of ensuring day school sustainability cannot be on the schools alone. Federations and other central agencies must help schools get the day school message out. We can look for community-wide events and other opportunities to tout the unparalleled power of a day school education to families and funders. We can facilitate new connections between day schools and Jewish early childhood centers. We can help to bridge gaps and build relationships between our day school communities and other institutions. We, as day school advocates, can remind our colleagues who focus in the realms of education, camping, experiential learning, and synagogue life that at the highest level we share the same common goal: to engage the next generation in Jewish life and learning. Identifying synergies and capitalizing upon them will help ensure the Jewish future for our children.

Which brings us back to NewOrg and what will be a critical innovation for North America’s day schools and the over quarter of a million students that they represent. Now, one organization will be able to collect, analyze and disseminate new ideas for sustainability and innovation and help galvanize a field with many acknowledged denominational and demographic differences around a unified purpose and goal. We look forward to working together with the leaders of NewOrg to provide future generations of learners and leaders the opportunity for an excellent, accessible and affordable Jewish day school education.

Members of the North American Day School Strategy and Planning Group

Combined Jewish Philanthropies Boston
Nancy Kriegel, Director Initiative for Day School Excellence

Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chica
Rachel Shtern, Assistant Director, Planning, Community Building, and Jewish Continuity

Jewish Education Center of Cleveland
Marlyn Bloch Jaffe, Associate Director

BJE: Builders of Jewish Education Los Angeles
Miriam Prum Hess, Director Donor and Community Relations
Betty Winn, Director for the Center for Excellence in Day School Education

Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education Miami
Valerie Mitrani, Director of Day School Strategy and Initiatives

Federation CJA Montreal
Natana Shek Dor, Director CJA’s Generations Fund

Jewish Federation/Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ
Kim Hirsh, Director of Philanthropic Initiatives
Steven Levy, Vice Chair, Greater MetroWest Day School Advisory Council

UJA-Federation of New York
Chavie Kahn, Manager, Strategic Partnerships, Day School Challenge Fund
Miriam Cohen, Strategy Manager, Day School Futures

Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education Toronto
Daniel Held, Executive Director
Evan Mazin, Director, Educational Finance