A Jewish day school education was not an option for me when I was growing up in Bogota, Colombia. Having missed out on the experience, I was especially appreciative of the education my children received as day school students in New York. I watched with pride as they developed their Jewish literacy, their religious purposefulness (meaning their ability to answer the question “Why be Jewish?”), and a profound sense of belonging to the Jewish people — three crucial outcomes of any successful Jewish educational experience.
What I observed firsthand in my own family is illustrative of the findings of multiple studies. We now know that intensive, immersive Jewish educational experiences — such as overnight summer camps, Israel trips, and Jewish day schools — are the best investment for assuring a bright Jewish future. We also know that alumni of these experiences are more likely to grow up to be communally active, passionate Jews.
Yet while summer camps and Israel trips have long benefited from communal resources and major philanthropic gifts, except for the attention of a very limited group of national or regional funders, day schools — as a national communal priority — have suffered from underinvestment. Typically, major gifts have been directed to a particular day school by parents, grandparents, or alumni of that school. There hasn’t been systemic support of Jewish day school education on a large scale across the spectrum. The time has come to change that.
My wife and I have proudly joined with other philanthropists and foundations — including the AVI CHAI Foundation, on whose board I am privileged to sit, and the Jim Joseph Foundation — and UJA-Federation of New York to create the Day School Challenge Fund. This $51 million fund, initially conceived of by UJA-Federation, is designed to encourage day schools in the New York metropolitan area to launch or build their endowments by providing $1 in matching funds for every $3 in new endowment money that participating schools raise. Schools began enrolling to participate in the Day School Challenge Fund this fall and can continue to do so through September 2015.
The crisis of day school affordability has been growing inexorably. Over the last 10 years, while family income in real terms has remained flat, day school tuition has doubled, and many families wishing to send even one child to day school have come under extraordinary pressure. Such tuition in New York may start as low as $5,000, but escalates quickly, with some school tuition exceeding $30,000 a year. Tuition can represent one-third or more of a middle-income family’s take-home pay. When families who in the past would never have considered withdrawing their children from Jewish day schools are forced to do so, enrollments decline and schools slide perilously close to the minimum number of students they need to remain financially viable. For the sake of the entire day school enterprise, and for the vibrant Jewish future that day school graduates are uniquely positioned to help shape and lead, we need long-term solutions to making day school education more affordable for more families.
Endowment funds are one key component in addressing the daunting affordability problem. They offer a predictable and perpetual third revenue stream — in addition to tuition payments and annual campaign fundraising — that schools can count on as they seek to provide scholarships for families in need of assistance, while simultaneously creating and sustaining academically excellent curricula.
According to the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), the prudent standard for endowment funding for an independent school is at least three times the school’s annual operating budget. No Jewish day school in the New York area has an endowment that size. It is extremely difficult for schools, many of which have limited development staff, to focus on building their endowments. The Day School Challenge Fund will offer training and other support that, along with the matching funds, will help focus schools’ attention on their endowments.
There is no better place to experiment with this approach than New York, where 300 day schools educate 60 percent of all day school students in the country. To be sure, other initiatives must accompany it in full force (e.g., advocacy efforts aimed at government funding, innovative uses of technology in the classroom, etc.), but the power of the Day School Challenge Fund is its ability to multiply the philanthropic impact for schools. With the 1-to-3 matching ratio, this $51 million will leverage another $153 million. It’s not enough, but it’s a good start.
My hope is that this challenge fund will set an example for Jewish communities and philanthropists across the country, showing what we all gain when we support the institution of day schools. I hope this work will help pave the way to a future in which no family that wants a Jewish day school education for its children will be deprived of that opportunity because of an inability to pay.
George Rohr is a philanthropist in the field of Jewish education. He is on the board of the AVI CHAI Foundation, has funded more than 100 Chabad houses on college campuses, and was one of the first donors to UJA-Federation of New York’s Day School Challenge Fund.