For decades, Jewish day schools have given out financial aid based on need and merit scholarships based on talents students might have that could benefit the school — in sports, for example, or music.
This year, Westchester Day School is pioneering a new type of scholarship, one that benefits the local community.
Called the Community Service Grant, the program gives a family $15,000 (dispersed over two years) for pledging to volunteer in the local community for at least 75 hours each year. The school plans to give out two to three grants the first year, said head of school Rabbi Joshua Lookstein.
The grant came about because of “a donor who wanted to honor the memory of his father in a meaningful way,” said WDS board president Joshua Trump (no relation to President Trump). “The priorities were: do something that would help the school by growing enrollment, do something that was mission-oriented and do something that would impact the community. The idea of the community service grant is that it really checks all of the above,” he said. “It provides an attractive incentive to prospective young families looking to move into the community or considering Westchester Day School, but it also highlights the priorities of WDS. We place a premium on families who are doers in the community.”
The grant also came out of a desire by school leadership to incorporate the goals of the school’s recently rewritten mission statement, Trump said.
“The mission statement says, we’re here to ‘prepare students to live as mensches; first and foremost a WDS student is a mensch.’ It’s as blunt as it could be. And we’re really trying to demonstrate that and articulate that message in everything we do,” he said.
When applying for the grant, the families must lay out in detail what kind of volunteering they plan to do. One family member could do the hours or the entire family could participate; there’s even a provision allowing the family to organize a volunteer event and get credit for the hours worked by each person who attends.
“Part of the message here is not only are we hoping families will show up and spend time working in the community, but they’ll also take leadership roles by creating programs and encouraging others to do more,” Trump said.
Although the application deadline isn’t until Feb. 20, WDS has already received two applications.
In one, a mother offers to set up an anti-bullying/kindness campaign at the school that would include anti-bullying workshops and “buddy benches” where students could go when they were feeling lonely so that other students would know to go over and talk to them.
The second proposes that the entire family — mom, dad, a 4-year-old boy and twin 3-year-old girls — volunteer at a local nursing home doing arts and crafts with the seniors as well as baking challah and assembling Shabbos kits at home for the Jewish residents.
‘This is a no-brainer.’
Lauren Feuer of New Rochelle proposed the nursing home plan. “Any way we can alleviate the burden [of tuition], we’d love to,” she said. “Also I’ve been thinking about the whole giving back [idea] and it’s really been on the top of my mind, so when I saw this I was like: ‘This is a no-brainer.’”
Feuer, who co-founded a baby clothing company called Magnetic Me, added that the service grant has given her the push she needed to start volunteering. “I just lost my mother, and I got to see my community spring into action and all these people took time out of their day to do kindness. It just reinforced to me that I’m capable of a lot so I need to also do a lot.”
She wants to be an example for her kids and thinks that her kids will be examples for others.
“I told my husband, whether we get this grant or not, this is something we’re going to be doing,” she said.
The community service grant appears to be the first of its kind, at least in the U.S.
“We don’t know of anyone else who’s done a similar community service [program] and tied it to tuition assistance” said Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools. “We think this is a first, and we’re just delighted that people are trying different ways to really serve families and make it more affordable. So we encourage this type of experimentation when it happens.”
The pioneer aspect of the program is an extra benefit, Rabbi Lookstein said. “One of the exciting things about it is that we think it could be a model for day schools across the country,” he said. “We feel it’s a win-win situation for everyone — more students in Jewish day schools and more of those in need being cared for.”
Myra McGovern, vice president of media at the National Association of Independent Schools, also said she’d never head of a program such as this, and when she asked about 600 schools via email if anyone had heard of a similar program, not one responded that it had. She agrees that the program was something other schools might be interested in emulating.
“That’s brilliant,” she said. “It’s almost like a merit scholarship, the merit being you’re community minded and willing to contribute. Presumably if you’re that engaged with community service you might potentially do even more than 75 hours.”
Even though “most schools are just striving to fully fund need-based aid,” McGovern said, a fund like this is something schools could fundraise separately for because it has a unique appeal.
Indeed, since the service grant was announced several weeks ago, a second donor has expressed interest in contributing to the fund, Rabbi Lookstein said. And he could imagine more coming forward in the future — both people drawn to the appeal of a two-for-one donation (the same money both sends a child to school and provides help to a community organization) — and those who might not be connected to the school but are involved with one of the local organizations being supported.
“If you know that this grant could create more volunteer hours for an institution that you care so much about, then you would be interested in supporting a day school even though you may not be a direct member of that day school community,” Rabbi Lookstein said.
While this is the first time the school has offered a community service grant, it’s not the first time that a donor has given to a project that has a two-for-one element. Two years ago, a donor paid to have 532 solar panels put on the roof of the school, having the effect of saving the school significant money on electricity costs, and also reducing carbon gas emissions, Trump said.
“Another family overhauled our kitchen utensils taking [away] all the Styrofoam and non-recyclable materials and financing an upgrade to all recyclable, biodegradable [tableware],” he said.
“The concept of working with donors to find ways to help the school and help the surrounding community is something consistent with our mission,” he said. “It’s something we love to do, and it’s something we found is a great approach.”