Westchester, the verdant suburb just north of New York City, is known for its quaint main streets, historic houses and top-notch public schools — and the top-tier taxes that go with them. For Jewish parents there, the prospect of paying tens of thousands of dollars in day school tuition on top of the taxes can be daunting.
Now, a member at Westchester Jewish Center (WJC), a Conservative synagogue in Mamaroneck, is trying to make the decision a little easier for families by offering to split the cost of up to three years’ tuition for any family that decides to take the day school leap.
“Day school is expensive,” said WJC member Heather Gold. When her now-ninth- and eighth-grade sons were preschoolers, she and her husband were struggling with the public/day school decision when an offer of financial help from the grandparents helped them decide to send their sons to an area day school, Carmel Academy. She thinks the grant could go a long way towards helping other families take the day school plunge.
The grants are being provided by an anonymous donor who said in a WJC press release that he hopes his scholarship program will inspire others to join him and “expand the pool.”
The fund at the 465-household shul will pay for half of each student’s tuition — up to $12,500 — for their first year in day school, their first year of middle school and their first year of high school, giving an incentive to families to stay on the day school track. Asked how many students the fund could support through the three years, WJC’s senior rabbi, Jeffrey Arnowitz, said there is “enough there for more kids than are likely to apply for it.”
Westchester’s Jewish population has been growing at a leisurely pace, increasing from 12 percent in 1991 to 17 percent in 2011, according to a 2011 study by UJA-Federation of New York. Most Jews live in the South-Central area —Scarsdale, New Rochelle and White Plains — where the percentage of people living in Jewish households (homes with at least one Jewish adult) was 40 percent. The Sound Shore area, which includes WJC’s Mamaroneck, had a population of 14 percent. The Sound Shore area, which includes WJC’s Mamaroneck, had a Jewish population of 14 percent.
Reform Jews made up the largest share of Westchester’s Jewish population, at 37 percent. They were followed by Conservative Jews at 22 percent, and secular Jews at 20 percent, while Orthodox and nondenominational Jews tied at 11 percent, the study said. Of these, 22 percent went to day school, 53 percent had attended Hebrew school, 11 percent had Hebrew tutoring and 15 percent had no formal Jewish education.
Unlike Orthodox families, Conservative and Reform Jews are more likely to send their kids to public school along with about two days a week of after-school Judaic instruction. Rabbi Arnowitz said that while the congregation is “fiercely proud of our Hebrew school … we are not in our four hours [a week] able to teach the level of Hebrew” that students can learn at a day school.
Day schools usually offer financial aid, and some have come up with unique strategies to provide even more aid. Westchester Day School, for example, launched a program two years ago in which families could earn tuition aid by doing community service. However, it’s fairly unusual for a synagogue to offer day school scholarships.
“This sounds like an innovative effort,” said Shira Epstein, dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. “It seems to reflect that there is more flexible thinking about what it means to invest” in a child’s Jewish education. She said the effort reminded her of the “One Happy Camper” program, which pays $1,000 to parents sending their kids to Jewish camp for the first time. “This is a great way to get people in the door,” she said.
Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, agreed.
“That actually is really innovative,” he said. “It’s really trying to support the education of the members of its community, investing in the future.”
“What I think they’re being very smart about,” he added, “is encouraging people to transition from elementary to middle and middle to high, because like any educational process, the impact is cumulative.”
Deborah Elitzur, who sends her children to the Leffell School in White Plains, said that any program that helps parents choose day school is a good thing. “I feel that the influence of day school can be far reaching,” she said.
Note: The original version of this article gave the wrong title for Shira Epstein. Her correct title is the dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education and an assistant professor of Jewish education.