When mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt founded the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education in 1996, it was a heady time for day schools. Today, the recession seems endless, enrollment of non-Orthodox Jews is declining and even some Orthodox Jews are questioning the affordability, if not the importance, of day schools. Plus, with many parents and donors, including Steinhardt himself, shifting their attention to lower-cost and less-intensive educational options — Jewish camps, Israel trips and tuition-free Hebrew charter schools — day schools are not the easy sell they once were.
In this more austere climate, PEJE’s new executive director, Amy Katz, is determined to keep Jewish day schools a communal priority and to help existing schools strengthen their fundraising and endowments.
For the first time this year, the Boston-based PEJE was an official partner in the annual North American Jewish Day School Conference, held last month in Atlanta. Also a first this year: it provided $25,000 awards to day schools successfully launching new initiatives that “creatively responded to the day school sustainability challenge.” Among the 27 winners were New York’s SAR Academy (Riverdale), Ramaz (Manhattan) and Hannah Senesh Community Day School (Brooklyn).
Q: How many schools applied for the challenge awards, and what were the three New York schools recognized for?
A: We received 141 applications. SAR won because they refocused the way they approached the high school senior class gift, leveraging a matching gift and using peer-to-peer solicitation. Participation went from 16 percent to 100 percent, which translated into a revenue increase from $111,000 to $413,000 … Hannah Senesh used face-to-face solicitations and key board members to increase the number of donors giving $1,800 or more … Ramaz hired a dedicated alumni relations professional and were able to create a plan, increase face-to-face solicitations, increase the number of reunions and use social media and the 75th anniversary of the school to get alumni to re-engage with the school and with one another.
A number of other organizations — including central agencies for Jewish education, Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership and the RAVSAK network for pluralistic Jewish schools — serve Jewish day schools. What’s PEJE’s specific niche?
We all regularly speak with one another and respect the skills, expertise and talent each brings to the field. PEJE’s focus is on the sustainability of day schools through the growth of their revenue streams. Schools are engaged in both teaching and learning, and in sustaining themselves as well-governed nonprofits. RAVSAK, Schechter, YU and Pardes [the network of Reform day schools] focus on promoting excellent learning, content and teaching, all areas that PEJE is not involved in. YU is also working to help schools with their fundraising and annual campaigns, but the needs are great and we’re not in competition … We are also collaborating with the Orthodox Union, jointly hiring a professional to gather and disseminate best practices in the area of affordability.
Why invest in Jewish day schools when such a small percentage of American Jewish children attend — or will likely ever attend — them?
Day schools are stewards of the Jewish future: studies have shown they produce leadership. When I was at the [Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly] in November, I was asked to lead a session with the heads of federations in communities that have only one or two day schools, and the resounding theme was, “We need day schools in our community; we cannot afford to let them close.” Why? “Because rabbis, teachers and other leaders won’t come to our community if we don’t have day schools for their children.” Barry Shrage [the president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies] made a comment at the Orthodox Union’s recent affordability summit: more than day schools need federations, federations need day schools.
We live in a difficult, challenging time, and it’s not the day schools’ doing: it’s the world economy. Private schools that are much wealthier and much better positioned than day schools are facing challenges across the country. … PEJE was founded on the belief that we would increase enrollment of non-Orthodox students, and we’ve worked hard to do that, but a myriad of factors affect this, not only what is going on in the day schools … Day school change and growth is a long-term investment, it’s a 30-year project. And it’s only eight years that PEJE has been working with all day schools.
You attended Manhattan Day School, where your grandfather was principal, and Yeshiva University High School for Girls. Your five children graduated from Maimonides, in Brookline, Mass. What do you value most about your own day school experience?
I remember to this day things that I learned in third grade in Manhattan Day School in my Bible class. I can tell you that I can look at a Rashi and remember learning it back when I was 8 years old. … Many of my friends today are friends I had in elementary school. Even though I have lived in Boston for 35 years, I have a connection to those people, we share a common experience that surpasses years. That’s the value of day school: it connects you to a community of meaning; it builds your life as part of something bigger.