The economic downturn of 2008 revealed the existence of many cracks in our local and national systems. In the Jewish community, one of the most prominent conversations to emerge out of the seismic shifts in the markets was the affordability of Jewish life in general and of day school education in particular.
In truth full-time Jewish education has never been a self-sustaining enterprise. In day schools for example, even families who pay full tuition are getting a subsidy. At one point the national average for the difference between full-tuition payment and the cost of educating a single child was $5,000. For Jewish educators in the day school world, the spotlight on affordability is welcome. It has been a struggle since the beginning of the modern day school movement. And it is a struggle that UJA-Federation of New York has and will continue to accept as part of our communal responsibilities.
UJA-Federation has been investing in Jewish education for decades. The organization is deeply committed to a three-fold mission believing that a community can only thrive with equal measures of compassion, concern and inspiration. The New York area is home to 60 percent of all day school students in North America; 115,000 children attend more than 240 different day schools and yeshivot throughout the City, Long Island and Westchester. Tuitions vary widely but no school in any location doesn’t struggle to finance the real cost of education.
Over the years UJA-Federation’s investments in Jewish education have taken different forms. Since 1979, for example, along with the Gruss Life Monument Foundation, we have provided educators with subsidies for the cost of medical insurance. More recently, we have developed a rich array of professional development programs for educators at every tier of the day school system recognizing that the excellence of our day schools is fundamental. The new energy in the affordability discussion has provided us with the opportunity to re-evaluate our strategies and intensify our efforts to make day schools both excellent and accessible.
Our newest efforts recognize that ultimately philanthropy alone will not solve the problem of affordable day schools. There are many important resources and relationships that must be developed if we want the enterprise to survive and flourish. To that end we have recently added a professional to our Government Relations Department, which for almost 50 years has focused on accessing support for our human services agencies. This professional has responsibilities exclusively devoted to Jewish day schools. One of the critical aspects of this professional’s work will be in organizing the community of day school families as a unified constituency. Whether in Brooklyn or in Nassau, day school families have much in common both in terms of the cost of schooling and the concern for the quality of their children’s education. Yet our day school parents rarely speak with a single voice.
This position also incorporates a serious legislative agenda. Students in private schools, like their peers in public settings, are the beneficiaries of important government dollars dedicated for basic educational needs. New York State has long provided funding to all students in any school whether religious or sectarian, public or private, for fundamentals like textbooks, transportation, testing and special education. Too few of our day schools are adept at accessing money and the list of entitlements remains far too short. Beyond the ability to secure and increase educational entitlements, an endeavor we share with the Jewish Education Project, this professional will be on the leading edge of the conversation about the appropriate relationship between New York State and our Jewish schools. UJA-Federation upholds the separation of church-state but recognizes that one can embrace the principle while also accepting that the students in our day schools can and should be supported in their general educational endeavors.
There is another equally important plank in our efforts, something also revealed by the fragile economy. That is the importance of building for the long-term. Education is full of real-time pressures and immediate demands. Every single day our educators set themselves to the enormous task of cultivating the hearts, minds and souls of the next generations of the Jewish community. Too often this leaves precious little time for planning ahead. Consequently not one day school or yeshiva in our area has an appropriately sized endowment, a stable and steady income that could potentially be a source for increased scholarships and core support. Through our Planned Giving and Endowments Department, UJA-Federation of New York will take a lead role with our day schools in the creation of financial resources for the long-term. With training, coaching and monetary incentives, we hope all of our schools will be able to elevate the day-to-day work while simultaneously building for the future.
The economic turmoil continues to take a toll in our lives and community. Yet, in all of our endeavors, including our support of Jewish education, UJA-Federation is determined to gather wisdom and strength so that the lean years will properly prepare us for the feasts that surely are ahead. We look forward to current and future students reaping the benefits of today’s new investments in day school education.
Deborah Joselow is managing director of the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal for UJA-Federation of New York.