Alan Steinberg likes to call it the “miracle on Grand Central Parkway.”
Last summer, Yeshiva Har Torah, where Steinberg serves as executive vice president, was, like many other Jewish day schools, scrambling to raise funds to compensate for its widening, $400,000 budget gap.
Lucky for them, a donor approached, offering to match all funds raised in the school’s “Mind the Gap” campaign. But there was a catch: every Har Torah family would have to make some sort of contribution, and within 30 days.
The size of the parents’ gifts was not important, but the donor, who does not have children or grandchildren at Har Torah and wished to remain anonymous, stipulated that no one — not even the financial aid families — would be exempt from the requirement to give.
“The thought of getting 100 percent of our parent body to do anything, let alone donate money, seemed insurmountable, especially during the summer months, when the school was closed, but, we gave it a try,” said Steinberg, a real estate investor and parent of six who oversaw the school’s successful building campaign and actually quit his job to serve as executive director for a year while Har Torah’s Little Neck, Queens, campus, completed in 2005, was being built. After 30 days filled with e-mails, phone calls, visits — even student-organized lemonade stands — the 464-student school had received gifts from 70 percent of the parents. Not enough, but the donor was impressed enough to give them a 30-day extension, and by the time the new deadline arrived, the school had a check from each parent, along with gifts from alumni, grandparents and even teachers. The grand total? A sizeable $200,000, which was doubled to $400,000 with the donor’s match.
As a result of the campaign, this co-ed, centrist Orthodox institution — which enrolls children from nursery through eighth grade — has actually increased its enrollment by 20 students, been able to double its financial aid budget and is in a position to plan a capital campaign to expand its already overcrowded building.
Approximately 25 percent of students receive some form of financial aid, and while Har Torah —unlike some schools — has not experienced a dramatic jump in families applying for financial aid, those who need aid are requiring larger scholarships.
Going into 2010-11, Har Torah officials say they are cautiously optimistic about the school’s finances.
“Last year we got more calls from parents who were losing their jobs or businesses,” said Edward Fox, Har Torah’s executive director.
Leaders of the 20-year-old yeshiva are hoping that their success in the matching campaign will inspire other Jewish schools to follow their lead and seek a broad base of grass-roots support, rather than simply focusing on major givers.
“It’s so much easier to go after a few big gifts,” said Rabbi Gary Menchel, Har Torah’s principal of almost 15 years. “But to build a sense of community and commitment, you need to get everyone involved.”
In Har Torah’s campaign, the average gift was $500 per family, but contributions ranged from as little as $5 all the way to $25,000. Two hundred and eighteen donors gave $100 or less, 176 gave between $101-$500, and only five donors (other than the matching benefactor) gave more than $5,000.
The fact that each gift would be matched by the donor, and the requirement of full participation, made for an easy sell to parents. No family, even if it had little money to spare, wanted to be held responsible for the failure of the campaign.
“We said, ‘Unless you give, the hundreds of thousands already raised won’t be matched,’” Steinberg explained.
Told about the Har Torah campaign, Jeffrey Solomon, co-author of the recent book “The Art of Giving: Where the Soul Meets the Business Plan” (Jossey Bass), said it is emblematic of a larger trend: “the challenge or matching grant that aims to achieve certain philanthropic objectives.”
“Sometimes it’s getting every member to give; in other cases it’s getting new givers,” said Solomon, who is president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies. “All represent strategic ways of creating leverage.”
While Solomon said he had never before heard of a day school requiring 100 percent parental participation, he knows of recent matching gifts that required 100 percent board participation, the recruitment of new donors of a certain size or from a certain segment of the community.
“Leveraged matching grants have historically been terrific for everyone,” he noted. “They’re a win-win.”
Upon learning of the campaign, Marvin Schick, a consultant with the Avi Chai Foundation who is an expert on Jewish day schools, said he would recommend the strategy to other schools and donors.
“Kol hakavod to the anonymous donor,” he said.
Interestingly, Har Torah was not the first school approached with the donors’ offer. But it was the first to take him up on it.
“He offered this to his grandchildren’s school, and they wouldn’t do it,” Rabbi Menchel said.
Steinberg, who lives in Great Neck, L.I., said, “In financial hard times, other institutions’ first reaction is to reach out, not in. We want to strengthen ourselves first … If everybody gives something then the sum is equal to greater than the parts.”
Since its founding 20 years ago, Har Torah has always attracted a highly devoted parent body.
Leaders and parents are quick to point out that it is not a “community” school; students hail from all over Queens and Nassau County, with virtually none living within walking distance of Har Torah.
“Anyone sending their kids to Yeshiva Har Torah is passing another yeshiva that’s more convenient,” Steinberg said.
Nonetheless, the school’s location — right off the Grand Central Parkway, near the Nassau-Queens border — makes it accessible from many neighborhoods and towns.
Parents praise the school’s child-centered approach, the faculty’s accessibility and the strong focus not only on academics, but on character development.
The school caps all classes at 22 students, and faculty and administrators have regular meetings to review each child’s progress.
“There’s just no comparison with other schools,” said Dafna Emmer, the mother of twins in kindergarten at Har Torah.
Originally from Queens, Emmer said she had been hearing about Har Torah for years and that the school was a major factor in her family’s decision to move from Riverdale to West Hempstead, L.I., a few years ago.
“From Day 1 its reputation has been unbelievable,” Emmer said. “Rabbi Menchel is phenomenal. As a parent, you know you can count on the principal to be there for you if there’s a problem. He has genuine concern about how you’re feeling, he knows all the kids, and the kids love him. He’s involved at every level.”
Dr. Ronny Herskovits, a Jamaica Estates, Queens, dermatologist who sent all five of his children to Har Torah (the youngest is now 15), starting shortly after the school’s founding, said, “The faculty and administration are very attentive to what the parent body and student body have to say and to their criticisms and suggestions.”
Herskovits’ daughters continued on to Yeshivah of Flatbush and his sons to the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, and “in both these schools and other places where they interviewed, I could say comfortably that they education they received at Har Torah was held in high regard.”
For most of the time that Herskovits was a parent at Har Torah, the school was divided between two temporary locations that were 10 minutes apart from each other — and neither particularly convenient to his family.
“They were very unimpressive physical conditions, so the fact that they were able to attract so many students was testament to the strength of the faculty,” he said.
Barbara Friedman, a mother of six from West Hempstead, said,
“Overall, it’s a very warm environment from start to finish. You feel it’s a happy place. Kids want to go there.” n
Next week: Schools consider tuition freezes.