Even as the some of the major donors of community-based Jewish day schools gathered for the first time this week to discuss ways to increase funding, several admitted in interviews that the amounts they could raise would be a pittance compared to what school vouchers could provide.
"Vouchers can make a bigger difference than if UJA-Federation doubled its allocation" to day schools, said Alec Ellison of Rye, a supporter of the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester.
Saying vouchers would allow those across the economic spectrum to benefit from a Jewish education, Ellison said the "real tragedy is seeing parts of the Jewish community against school vouchers. And I don’t use the word ‘tragedy’ lightly."
The issue, which has emerged in recent years as a hot-button one in the Jewish community, pits those who advocate a strict separation between church and state and those, largely in the Orthodox community, that see vouchers as a way to enhance day school funding. Yet establishment groups like the American Jewish Committee have begun to advocate for increased levels of funding for Jewish day schools, and the top professional at UJA-Federation of New York, John Ruskay, has said recently that "it is time to seriously reconsider" the "extension of public funding in Jewish day schools."
The group that organized the two-day conference in White Plains, Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, has not taken a position on the voucher issue. But several of those who spoke to the 300 donors in attendance, each of whom contributed at least $100,000 to day schools in the last three years, were in favor of it. The partnership has raised $18 million over five years to support the development of new day schools.
"I believe that we will never make a serious dent in relieving families of high tuition costs unless government funding is available to [day school] families," said Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, in a keynote speech.
He said assistance should be either in the form of "vouchers or as grants to cover the costs of general education provided by day schools."
Another participant, Yossi Prager, executive director of the AVI CHAI Foundation, said that if "people begin to look realistically about the cost of doubling or tripling the number of day school students … they will come to see that it is likely beyond the ken of Jewish philanthropy."
He cited capital costs and the costs of personnel training and educational technology.
"We have to take a hard look at the question of vouchers, both from the perspective of our own self interest, and for the good of America generally," said Prager. "More and more people outside the Jewish community are clearly doing that. You see it reflected in the polls and in political campaigns. But I donít believe the Jewish communal establishment or the Jewish community at-large has yet taken a fresh look at the question."
Prager said that in the last decade, there has been a 15 percent increase in the number of students attending day schools, and a 25 percent increase outside of the Orthodox community.
"We don’t see any sign of the growth abating," he said, "we see evidence of even further growth."
Carol Kekst, chairman of the board of the Solomon Schechter High School in Manhattan, said the school admitted 35 freshmen this year and had to turn away an equal number because of lack of space.
‘This is our second year in this building and we thought we would be here five years," she said. "We’ve already outgrown it."
Although several other major donors at the conference rejected the idea of vouchers based on the constitutional separation of church and state, others like Jack Wertenteil of Roslyn, L.I., said: "If the government wants to give us money, we should take it. There are many poor people who could use the subsidy."
William Spielman, also of Roslyn, said that if he is paying taxes to support the Roslyn School District but sending his children to the Solomon Schechter Day School of Nassau County, "the district should give me a subsidy that I could use for the day school."
And Miriam Bernstein, a member of the founding family of the Yavneh Day School in Cincinnati, said vouchers are critical to "sustaining the school and educating our children. It’s a way to get back money after voting for tax levies all these years."
One of the founders of PEJE, Michael Steinhardt, said the group’s 12 partners have funded 37 new schools since it was founded three years ago. Each partner (including the UJA-Federation of New York) has committed to donating $1.5 million over five years to PEJE.
At the conference, the AVI CHAI Foundation announced a $50 million building loan program for Jewish day schools, double the amount it has currently available. Arthur Fried, a foundation trustee, said he hoped this largest interest-free loan program of its kind would inspire other philanthropies to "increase support for Jewish day school education."
Steinhardt noted that the "vast bulk of our day schools are under-financed and under-capitalized; we have a serious teacher and administrative shortage, and no coherent recruitment strategy yet in place to remedy this situation. There are not sufficient curricular resources available, and we are not yet good enough at telling the day school story to the larger Jewish community."
He added that there must be a shift in philanthropy "away from anti-Semitism, even away from the Holocaust, and onto education and Jewish internal life. Day schools have not received the prominence enjoyed by other areas of Jewish philanthropy."
Wertheimer noted that of the 232 family foundations in the U.S. that contributed at least $200,000 in 1998 to Jewish causes, the bulk of their money (63 percent) went to causes outside of the Jewish community. The figure would be about 80 percent if it included foundations established by those of Jewish origin who have little or no commitment to Jewish causes, he said.
"When weighing the needs of Jewish institutions and causes (both at home and abroad) against the needs of the many worthy non-sectarian causes … shouldn’t the proportions be at least 50-50? For those of us committed to revitalizing Jewish life in this country, and with a commitment to strengthening Jewish educational institutions, the hemorrhage of money seems all the more short-sighted and, frankly, is catastrophic."
He said that of the Jewish causes funded, most went to synagogues and organizations, slightly less than 25 percent went to Jewish federations, 22 percent went to Jewish causes overseas, and 6 percent to day schools: $15.5 million out of $773 million in total allocations.
"The day school share of total grants stands at just over 2 percent," said Wertheimer, adding that the patterns overall were not much different five years earlier.
A further analysis found that more than half of the foundations that give to Jewish causes "did not give one penny to day schools. Moreover, it is chilling to go down the list and see how many foundations that did give to a day school, allocated a few hundred or a few thousand dollars to schools. … Only 25 of these 232 foundations with a Jewish interest allocated 5 percent or more to day schools in 1997 or 1998."