For the first time, UJA-Federation of New York will provide scholarship money to Jewish day school students.
The $1 million in scholarships, to be awarded next year based on need, will be granted through the 280 yeshivas and Jewish day schools in the city, Long Island and Westchester. The minimum scholarship would be $5,000; the maximum is to be determined based on the number of eligible applications received.
“Our overall strategy is to make day schools an affordable and accessible option for more Jewish families,” said Deborah Joselow, managing director of UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal.
The announcement of the scholarship fund coincides with the release of a marketing study UJA-Federation commissioned to learn the perceptions of Jewish day schools among non-Orthodox parents in Manhattan and Long Island. The study focused on parents with children under the age of 12 who were not attending Jewish day schools.
The study found that most believed Jewish day schools are for those who are religiously observant, and that therefore they never really considered them for their children.
The day school scholarship money — which is not tied to the economic downturn and the resultant increase in requests for tuition assistance from parents of day school students — is from an endowment provided by the Biller Family Fund, which in past years has concentrated on providing scholarship money to needy college students.
Day school tuitions in the area run as high as $30,000 a year.
Rabbi Josh Elkin, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, said that both the marketing study and the annual $1 million day school scholarship “demonstrate the substantial commitment of UJA-Federation to the day school enterprise.”
He said identifying a major donor to provide the scholarship “comes from working with potential donors to enable them to see the value and power of intensive Jewish education in a day school setting.”
The marketing study, he said, demonstrates that day schools “need to do a more informed job” of communicating their message.
“The challenge of the schools is that they have to demonstrate what they are, what they offer, how multifaceted they are and the excellence of their program,” the rabbi added. “It’s not so much a message that they are not seriously Jewish but [that they are] Jewish in a way that many, many Jews can feel comfortable with.”
Deborah Friedman, executive director of SAJES, which provides Jewish educational programs and services on Long Island, welcomed the scholarship fund.
“I think it’s fantastic,” she said. “It’s very important for the community.”
Friedman said tuition assistance is critical “in working with the challenging issues of enrollment.”
The UJA-Federation study pointed out that the New York metropolitan area has the highest Jewish day school enrollment in the country, with about half of all school-age Jewish children enrolled. But it said that because the Orthodox community dominates the makeup of Jewish day schools and yeshivot, “many non-Orthodox parents approach day school education with skepticism and great reservation.”
Thus, although 97 percent of Jewish children ages 6 to 17 in Orthodox households attend or previously attended day schools, only 25 percent of Conservative households, 8 percent of Reform households, 20 percent of nondenominational, and 17 percent of secular households have children who attend or attended day schools.
Although this is the first time UJA-Federation is providing day school scholarship money, Joselow said that “for decades we have been working with day schools.”
“Our largest single targeted grant goes to Jewish day schools,” she stressed. “The Fund for Jewish Education is more than $5 million.” The fund provides benefits for day school teachers who are generally low paid and do not enjoy the benefits package available to public school teachers.
Although students already enrolled in day schools or who are enrolling next year are eligible to apply for the scholarship money, Joselow said “we are looking to help students transferring from public high schools because we know that is the most costly.”
She explained that such students often require preparatory work in Jewish studies, a track that is “very expensive.”
“We have 110,000 Jewish kids in day schools in New York and we will be working with the schools to grant the scholarships because that is the most effective way” to handle the application process, Joselow said.
Joselow said the marketing study was conducted over a 20-month period to provide a “better understanding of how parents make educational decisions for their children.” Four focus groups — two in Manhattan and two in Nassau County — were held. The study also used hundreds of telephone interviews and asked parents to complete questionnaires.
“We want to get more families into the day school system and we thought these people were a likely audience because they identified themselves as Jews,” she said.
In looking at the study’s results, Joselow pointed out that there are a large number of non-Orthodox Jewish day schools to choose from in Manhattan.
“What is surprising is that a lot of people said they would be interested in them if they knew more,” she said. “There were many people who knew very little about day schools and they grossly generalized. For instance, they said all day schools are Orthodox and religious, and because they are not, it is not for them. And they did not know the difference between a yeshiva and a day school.”
Joselow said she found those answers surprising because in Manhattan many parents opt out of the public schools and look instead for private, independent schools for their children.
“You would think that day schools and yeshivas would come up [in their search], but most had no information about the day school option,” she said. “Very few had considered it as a real option, and yet these are people who are proud they are Jews and say that the transmission of Judaism is important to them.”
In Manhattan in addition to yeshivot, there is one Reform day school, one Conservative day school and several Jewish community day schools.
On Long Island most Jewish children attend public schools and their parents don’t expect them to change school districts, unlike in Manhattan where 80 percent of parents said they expect their children to change districts. But like parents in Manhattan, most Long Island Jewish parents “knew very little” about Jewish day schools, Joselow said.
There is no Reform day school on Long Island, and in addition to yeshivot in Nassau County there are two Conservative day schools and one Jewish community day school.
Joselow emphasized that the study was just to “measure perceptions” and not to steer parents to or away from Orthodox schools.
“We want to help all schools,” she said. “In whatever way we can grow enrollment we will.”
The researchers who conducted the study, Insight Research Group in New York, made some suggestions based upon the responses they received, and Joselow said they are now being shared with yeshivot, day schools, rabbis, seminaries, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education and early childhood educators. The first of those meetings was held two weeks ago.
“Early childhood educators are ambassadors to day schools because they often recommend different educational options to parents,” she noted.
Among the researchers recommendations was that if non-Orthodox day schools emphasize the “cultural aspects of Judaism and couple it with a diverse curriculum, day schools would better align themselves with Manhattan and Long Island parents both Jewishly and academically.”
In addition, they said it is “important to acknowledge the desire of parents for day schools to function at the religious and scholastic levels with which they are comfortable, rather than feeling obliged to conform to the corresponding levels of day schools.”
It was pointed out also that parents and students pay close attention to school rankings for academic performance and that schools that are highly ranked are more likely to be considered.
In its conclusion, the study said: “The perceived religiosity, scholastic singularity, and social structure of Jewish day schools are leading non-Orthodox parents to believe that, Jewishly and academically, day school education ‘isn’t for people like me.’ These perceptions, often misconceptions combined with an overall lack of awareness, pose significant obstacles in engaging new families.”
To combat this “misconception and naivete,” the authors said that day school administrators, teachers and parents must work together “to serve as ambassadors in the community.” And they suggested that central agencies of Jewish education, synagogues and Jewish early-childhood programs “function as marketing tools and catalysts for a more positive and open day school opinion among non-Orthodox Jewish families.”
The study pointed out also that on Long Island “to not send your kids to a local public school implies a disassociation with the local community. Therefore, it is essential for Jewish day schools to offer their own sense of community that is welcoming and familiar, while also creating opportunities for integration with local communities.”