David Magerman, a man on a mission to build and sustain a vibrant Orthodox community in Philadelphia, is a tangle of contradictions.
A wealthy hedge fund manager, he finds the consumer-driven life pointless and in the last decade has embraced Orthodox Judaism with great passion.
He insists that the Jewish day school system is broken and that lack of quality education, not money, is the root problem. But he is spending $10 million to $15 million a year to address it through his Kohelet Foundation, dedicated to “generate and support Jewish communal responsibility for day schools.” (Since 2009, Magerman has donated about $60 million to Jewish charitable causes, much of it through his foundation.)
He says he is committed to collaboration in his quest to build and sustain Torah-based schools in his community. But he is criticized for being bossy, abrasive and unwilling to compromise. And though he is by far the biggest donor to Jewish education in the Philadelphia area, he has a strained relationship with many of the leaders of the local Jewish federation because of what is perceived to be his aggressive, my-way-or-the-highway style.
In 2008, two years after Magerman and his family moved from Long Island to Philadelphia in his search for a sustainable observant community, he partnered with the federation to create a “Megafund” to bolster support for local Jewish day schools suffering from the recession. But he grew frustrated with the slow pace and bureaucracy, and soon created Kohelet, which at once supports day schools in the region — “whether or not I agree with their approach,” he points out — and is also at odds with them at times.
With it all, Magerman, 46, has made remarkable progress in re-inventing traditional Jewish life in the Lower Merion area of suburban Philadelphia, viewing his approach as a national model for strengthening a Jewish community. He is single-handedly attracting observant and potentially observant Jews by not only donating generously to every Jewish day school in the area and founding an experimental Yeshiva Lab School, but also by establishing and operating two kosher restaurants — one meat and one dairy — in the neighborhood.
“It’s a holistic approach to improve the quality of Jewish life,” he told me during an interview at The Jewish Week the other day. “I want to make Orthodoxy and the Torah-observant life a positive choice, not a sacrifice for people but something exciting, appealing. So you try to create a community with good Jewish schools, spiritual shuls and good places to eat.”
His method seems to be working. In the last several years the Orthodox population in Lower Merion is believed to have grown significantly, and there are at least four new Orthodox synagogues.
Now, Magerman is about to launch a major national initiative recognizing the creative work of Jewish educators, part of his overall strategy to improve the quality of Jewish day schools. His new Kohelet Prize for excellence in progressive Jewish education, he told The Jewish Week, will offer a $36,000 unrestricted cash prize each year to “up to five educators, or teams of educators, who demonstrate extraordinary accomplishments” in one of five areas: interdisciplinary integration (integrating multiple disciplines in a single multi-week unit, preferably incorporating Judaic and general studies); real-world learning (helping students break down the barriers between school and the world around them); creating an innovative physical learning environment (in use by students for a minimum of six months); differentiated instruction (for a diverse student body within a single-class environment); development of critical and/or creative thinking and risk taking and failure (for a failed project or initiative in any of the five categories above that was developed and fully implemented in a classroom).
Holly Cohen, executive director of the Kohelet Foundation since its founding in 2009, explained that the goal of the prize is to recognize the achievements of individual teachers and groups of teachers around the country.
“We want to awaken the field and to show there are people out there doing innovative work.”
Cohen said a website for the prize is being developed to serve as “a clearing house of ideas” for educators everywhere and to inspire them.
The contest will be launched in early May, with the first round of winners scheduled to be announced at Chanukah time at a two-day Kohelet Foundation conference in Philadelphia.
The prize is the outgrowth of a years-long search by Magerman for models of progressive education that can be applied to Jewish day schools, whose system he describes as “broken.” He modeled his new Yeshiva Lab School on the work of AltSchool, a California-based group of small schools that feature mixed-age classrooms and a “rigorously personalized approach that “develops skills to encourage lifelong learning and success.”
Yeshiva Lab School opened in Philadelphia last fall with a kindergarten and will add a grade each year through eighth grade. (It will soon be competing for enrollment with a Modern Orthodox school that also extends through eighth grade.)
Raised as a Conservative Jew in Miami, Magerman essentially gave up observance while attending the University of Pennsylvania. But after a trip to Israel he was motivated in 2004 to enroll in a weekly, Torah-study-by-phone program run by Partners In Torah, a one-to-one Orthodox initiative developed by Torah Umesorah. He stuck with it for seven years and came to see Torah as the bedrock of Jewish survival.
He said he is seeking to convince more families that a Torah education is a prerequisite to a meaningful Jewish life.
With a background in artificial intelligence, Magerman describes himself as “a systems guy” who tries to figure out ways to make things work, fitting the missing pieces together. Along the way in his attempt to “fix” the day-school dilemma — where tuition costs often exceed academic success — he has, admittedly, butted heads with lay and professional leaders in the Jewish community, whom he has publicly criticized for insufficient support of day schools.
“I wanted to have a direct impact,” he said, on projects he supported, and he became frustrated “when I couldn’t push my ideas.”
Mentioning the name “Magerman” in the Philadelphia Jewish community can evoke eye-rolls. There is often an acknowledgment that he is investing more in Jewish life there than anyone. But that doesn’t necessarily prompt expressions of praise and gratitude.
Magerman shrugs off the criticism.
He says he is working on his interpersonal skills, noting that he has come to realize that dealing with people is more complicated than working with computers. “I’m learning,” he said, when asked about getting along with others. “I make an effort to bring in stakeholders.” He said he has “a chevrah [group] of friends and families who want the things I want” in terms of educational objectives. “I try to achieve my goals without disenfranchising others. It’s a balancing act. No one likes change, but it’s necessary. And people appreciate it when it’s over.”
Magerman said the most important lesson he has learned is that “you have to respect the mission of the organization you support, and my goal is to find ones that overlap with my mission.”
Magerman is well aware that only a small percentage of American Jews value day school enough to enroll their children. But he is committed to providing Jewish day-school education not only to his own four children but also to the next generation.
“It’s a Torah-values crisis,” he said. “The community has to see it as an imperative. I am using the money I’ve earned with God’s help to do these outsize things. If we can improve the quality, we can make a difference.”