Nothing is more critical to the future of the Jewish community than the Jewish education of our children. Over the past decades, an effective day-school system has arisen in America to meet the challenges of providing quality Jewish education for the next generation.
Our own northern New Jersey community is blessed with outstanding Jewish day schools. All of the communal day schools provide our children with:
1. Educational excellence in both Limudei Kodesh and Limudei Chol.
2. A warm, nurturing environment with resources and capabilities to meet the needs of each child.
3. A commitment to provide for education of every child in the community, regardless of the ability to pay. During the 2008-09 school year, our schools provided over $7 million in scholarship assistance to approximately 900 students (about 25 percent of the total school population).
A national crisis has been brewing for years, however, that has now come to a head during these difficult financial times. Funding the improvements in Jewish education and increasing the pay scale to attract quality educators has resulted in a steady rise in tuition. Each school works rigorously to control costs, but the reality is that over 80 percent of school budgets relate to faculty salary and benefits. Still, through careful budget management, day-school tuition remains below the average cost per student in the New Jersey public school system despite the double curriculum.
As the burden of paying for this quality education has rested solely on the shoulders of the parents, an economic model has been created that has simply become unsustainable. The rise in tuition has created an increase in the population that simply cannot afford to pay current rates any longer. If we continue along this path, many additional families will be unable to pay, including many “middle income” families whose income falls above traditional tuition assistance levels but who are unable to afford today’s tuition – particularly with multiple children. Schools have projected a dramatic increase in tuition assistance needs for 2009-2010, and this need will only intensify over time, increasing the burden ever further upon the “paying population.”
This situation has already begun taking a frightening toll on our community. Parents have decided to limit family size because of financial burdens; young families are taking on dangerously large debt burdens; individuals who might consider day-school education for their children have made other choices because of financial concerns; shalom bayit issues have developed within families due to these pressures.
As noted above, this is a national issue and a monumental challenge facing us. Leaders in Jewish communities across the country – including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and MetroWest in New Jersey – have been mobilizing to create new approaches to address this crisis, both short and longer term. These approaches are gaining traction and providing important models for others.
Leaders of our local day schools have mobilized, in an unprecedented fashion, to address the situation. Over the past months, in conjunction with the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, a standing committee has been meeting regularly to implement a series of steps that we believe can ultimately be effective in addressing the situation before us. This committee consists of senior lay representatives from each of the elementary day schools in northern New Jersey, across denominational lines, and each of the day-school principals. The mission of the group is to ensure maximum access to high quality Jewish day school education by alleviating the cost burden on day school parents. To do so, WE MUST CHANGE THE FUNDING MODEL. In meetings over the past six months, we have arrived on a three-pronged plan, with working committees pursuing each element of the plan:
1. Identification of opportunities for cost savings through interschool collaboration and grant applications: For the first time, representatives of the various schools are sitting regularly around the table, deliberating imaginative ways in which we can work together, across the community, to cut costs and to find new funding opportunities. This exploration is centered around such subjects as: collaborative procurement, pooling benefits, and accessing available grant monies through communal and governmental programs. The discussion has resulted in concrete ideas that are being actively pursued.
2. Creation of a communal Superfund for Jewish education: As long as the burden of education rests solely upon a small segment of the population, real solutions to the crisis before us will be hard to find. We must instead move towards the reestablishment of the “communal” model, within which each member of the community recognizes that the education of all children is the concern of all. This has been a cornerstone of successful, transformational efforts in areas such as Boston, Philadelphia, and MetroWest in New Jersey.
Towards that end we plan to launch a communal Superfund for Jewish education. This fund will consist of two components.
A. Congregational “Kehilla” Fund: All local rabbis and synagogues, across denominational lines, will be asked to participate in a congregational fund designed to help finance day-school education. Congregants will be urged to earmark an ongoing monthly personal payment towards this fund. Each synagogue’s contribution will be directed towards schools of its denomination. This model, created in conjunction with the Orthodox Union, is being replicated in communities across the country.
B. Donor-driven Endowment Fund: Major donors across the community will be encouraged to contribute towards a fund designed to address day-school affordability through approaches that are both transformational and sustainable. Stress will be placed upon the historic goal of ensuring, on a continuing basis, the right of all area children to an affordable, effective Jewish education.
Opportunities to collaborate on these efforts with UJA of Northern New Jersey are actively being explored.
3. Driving of a legislative agenda in support of day school education: Numerous Jewish communities, across the country, have pursued political action in an attempt to address the challenges facing the day-school community. Building upon their successes and/or failures, we are exploring various legislative agendas on the local, state, and federal level.
We stand at a watershed moment. Our decisions and actions will determine the character of nothing less than our people’s future. There are no quick fixes for this problem. We must take actions to address the short-term crisis, but also take bold, longer-term, strategic action to address the systemic issue. We ask that you join with us and anticipate strong community support across northern New Jersey as we roll out these initiatives in the coming weeks and months. Only in this way will we be able to continue providing effective and affordable day school education for all. Please feel free to contact any of the committee members if you have suggestions or want to get involved.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin
Ben Porat Yosef:
Rabbi Tomer Ronen
Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt
Dr. Elliott Prager
Nathan J. Lindenbaum
Rabbi Shmuel Goldstein
of North Jersey:
Rabbi Jonathan Knapp
Rabbi Chaim Hagler