Tuition-Free Day School? That’s What’s Happening in Minnesota
By Karen Schwartz
Tirtza Ben David drives two hours a day to take her two young daughters, Moriyah, 4, and Chana, 2, to the Lubavitch Cheder Day School in St. Paul, Minn. It’s a small school, she says, where each child gets personalized attention and the chance to learn in ways that best suit their needs.
“My kids are very happy; they love it!” she tells Chabad.org. “They grow so much from it.”
The school is looking to grow as well.
How so? By offering one year of free tuition to new families with students entering for the first time this fall.
“With finances off the table for now,” says Rabbi Yossi Bendet, the day school’s director of development, “students can take part in the experience of full-time Jewish education.”
The initiative, which is being funded by a benefactor who wishes to remain anonymous, is aimed at welcoming a larger and more diverse group of students to the school, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary.
Currently, 100 children from ages 16 months through eighth grade attend, including those at the preschool and day care. The rabbi emphasizes that the new effort is more about individual children being in a full-time Jewish environment than it is about numbers, although an expected 10 percent increase in the student body would be a positive development.
More broadly, he adds, the entire community could benefit – and not just local residents. Bendet hopes word of the educational incentive gets out to families considering relocating to the family-friendly area. St. Paul, the state’s capital, fits the bill, he stresses, in terms of a lower cost of living than most urban centers in the United States and with all the essentials for a comfortable Jewish life.
An estimated 40,000 Jews live in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul.
“Additional students would mean the chance to bring in more teachers and start new programs, which in turn benefits the children,” says Bendet. “Our message to parents is: You have the opportunity to give your child a Jewish education.”
“We find that there are many parents who think a lot about Jewish education,” he continues. “It’s a big decision, and sometimes, a hard one. By temporarily removing the financial factor from that decision, we hope more parents will consider giving it a try. A Jewish education is a gift you cannot put a price tag on. It could change a life.”
In accordance with the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe – Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory – the school focuses on the full child, his or her complete needs, explains Bendet. He adds that the Rebbe stressed the importance of giving children the values to lead good Jewish lives and be contributing members of the Jewish community.
‘A Great Place to Live’
Bendet himself attended the school in the 1990s from age 3 until graduating from eighth grade. He went on to attend Chabad yeshivahs and later, as a rabbi, helped spread Judaism in a number of U.S. cities, including New York, and several countries around the globe before returning to the Twin Cities in 2015. He and his wife, Mushky, a teacher, came back to work with his father, Rabbi Shlomo Bendet, who has led the school since its establishment 40 years ago.The school was founded in 1977 by a handful of Chabad families under the auspices of Rabbi Moshe and Mindelle Feller, who began the Upper Midwest Merkos-Lubavitch House in 1961.
Rabbi Shlomo and Chavie Bendet came to the Twin Cities the year the day school was started. The parents of 11 children, they grew the institution from its beginnings in the basement of the local Lubavitch House to a trailer-turned-classroom, and eventually, to the building it is today. A duplex next door was added over time to house the day care and preschool, with a playground between them.
“A larger facility is one of our goals,” acknowledges the younger Bendet. “We have to get a little creative at this point to find space for our classes and for any extracurricular activities that take place.”
He adds that the timing for all this is auspicious. “It has been 40 years since the Rebbe dedicated the year of Chinuch, of Jewish education. During that year, the Rebbe strongly encouraged institutions to think in terms of growing and reaching more children,” says Bendet. “The Rebbe also demanded that schools and camps take in children tuition-free when necessary. As we mark 40 years since that revolutionary campaign, can there be a more appropriate time to double-down on our efforts?”
And as the day school, too, celebrates 40 years, “it’s a great time to reflect on all of the accomplishments over four decades,” says Rabbi Shlomo Bendet, there since its beginnings. “While there is plenty to be proud of, the Rebbe taught us to look ahead. We can use the strength from this milestone to leap forward and build more. That is what we intend to do.”
Meanwhile, Ben David, who recently had a third daughter, Menucha, is looking forward to seeing both the student body and the general Jewish community expand as a result of the free-tuition incentive.
“It will not only help build the school,” she says, “but help families figure out that this is a great place to live.”