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The high cost of day school tuition, combined with a rocky economy, has spawned numerous plans to funnel money to scholarship funds, lower the cost of day school education, and find viable alternatives. As parents search for life preservers, the schools are also feeling the pinch and looking for lifelines.

Some 4,400 students from Bergen County attend Orthodox day schools in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to the Orthodox Union. In addition, about 650 children attend the Solomon Schechter schools in New Milford and Oakland.

Including SINAI Schools, a special-needs program housed in local yeshivas, Bergen County is home to 13 day schools, mostly concentrated in Teaneck and Paramus. Parents face an average tuition of $15,000 a year per child, and many schools have announced tuition increases. High-school tuition can reach beyond $25,000 a year when busing, building funds, and other secondary costs are added. A family with three children needs at least $80,000 after taxes to afford day school.

“In the Orthodox community you have to make over $200,000, which is well into the top 5 percent of incomes,” said Gershon Distenfeld, a board member of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge.

Many of the schools have been re-examining their budgets, cutting back programs and employees’ hours, and laying off staff members.

“When you tell someone we have a real problem over time but there are 20 other problems right now, it’s hard to get people to focus on it,” Distenfeld said. “If we want to continue to provide Jewish education for those who want it, we’re going to have to take some action in the coming years.”

How the schools are coping

“Schools need to be thinking of this long-term to find a way to ease the burden on the families,” said Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, principal of Yavneh Academy in Paramus. “In the end, the day schools will emerge stronger. As we know, with every crisis comes opportunity, and [this is] a chance for schools to take a hard look at how they operate.”

As more parents seek tuition assistance, money is getting tighter at the day schools, which also have to deal with donors who are also feeling the pinch.

Last year, 33 percent of families of the more than 500 students at Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford received tuition assistance. The administration saw that number rise to 38 percent this year, said Elissa Maier, president of its board, and expects more requests for aid next year. The enrollment numbers have not been finalized, but Maier called them “outstanding.”

Cuts are still necessary to help the school weather the crisis. At least a dozen staffers have been laid off and the school, which had had an aide in every classroom, will have none in the coming year. While requests for tuition assistance have gone up, the school has made “some cuts” in aid, Maier said, but funding remains “comparable.”

Local rabbis have been volunteer teachers at Schechter. The school has also hired a new rabbi, who will split his time between Schechter and Camp Ramah.

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Rabbi Saul Zucker, director of the department of day schools, Orthodox Union

“We’ve worked very hard this year to re-establish a stronger connection between the school and the synagogues,” Maier said. “We’ve turned to using local resources and it’s been a great way to have the synagogues feel like our partners and invest in our school.”

As part of what its leadership calls “an experiment,” Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus is holding a walk-a-thon on June 14 to raise money for its scholarship fund.

“We need large donors to participate on a communal level, but we each need to do our parts,” said Yehuda Kohn, a member of the school’s board. “In the past, most of the donations have been from within school families. We wanted to branch out and give each family an opportunity try to raise $1,000.”

The school recorded an increase in scholarship requests in the middle of this year. Not all applications have been turned in for next year, but Kohn expects another increase. The school is planning for a 33 percent enrollment increase, to 160 students, and it will add a fourth-grade class.

The school’s staff, including administration, has agreed to a salary freeze and to what Kohn called “creative scheduling.” Technology and teaching assistants are shared by larger groups.

“Every single line item of the budget was scrutinized to identify any other potential cost savings, no matter how small it might appear,” Kohn said. “We feel strongly that we have to be part of the solution for our families, and help them through the crisis.”

Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck is expecting an incoming freshmen class numbering in the 50s. Its 2009 graduating class has 72 students in a student body of 264. Next year’s student body looks to be smaller than in recent years, but administrators do not blame the economy for the lower numbers.

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Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner

“It fluctuates,” said administrator Ceil Olivestone. “Some years we have large classes, some years we have smaller classes. It happens to be a smaller pool across the board.”

The school is increasing its fund-raising efforts while instituting a salary freeze and reducing the hours of some of its faculty.

“We’ve always been very conscious of our budget and trying to keep our expenses down,” Olivestone said. “This year it’s going to be more challenging. We don’t want to do anything to hurt the education we’re providing our kids.”

The Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge announced last month that tuition would remain at current levels for the coming year. The freeze is the result of a series of cost-cutting measures totaling more than $500,000.

“Every year when we come up with a budget for the school, we agonize over spending decisions,” said Jonathan Silver, vice president of RYNJ’s executive board. “We understand there is a balance between the needs of our parents and students and our obligations to our faculty.”

In creating a budget, the school looks at compensation and non-compensation costs, he explained. Compensation costs are direct educational costs such as payroll, which are constant, while non-compensation costs include building upkeep, electricity, and other services that can be renegotiated.

“For next year we looked at the budget,” he said, “spent four to five months [in discussions with] lay leadership, the board, and third-parties, [to determine] what we can do and what our options are. Then we decided what tradeoffs we felt comfortable making and not making.”

The school also instituted an across-the-board salary freeze. Some members of the administration volunteered for a salary reduction, while other faculty members saw their hours reduced. An unspecified number of staff were laid off.

“We did let some people go this year,” Silver said. “These were very difficult decisions that were made with great deliberation. We did also ask some people to cut back on their responsibilities with commensurate cuts in their pay.”

He pointed to the New Jersey Non-Public School Technology Initiative Program, which provides RYNJ with tens of thousands a year for its educational technology needs. Another grant, through the Gruss Institute, provided “smart boards” for the school’s classrooms.

Next year, RYNJ will also host SINAI in its River Edge building, which will provide a modest additional income from rent. In addition, the school is refinancing its mortgage, which will save thousands of dollars next year, according to Silver.

“Schools need to think creatively about where funding can come from,” he said. “It requires being creative and smart, trying to find other options for funding.”

Why day school is so expensive

The day school system is a relatively new invention in American Jewish history. Beginning with the immigration waves of the 1800s, Jews tended to send their children to public school, followed by Talmud Torah or cheder – afternoon Jewish education programs.

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Rabbi Shmuel Goldin has led local efforts to address the day school crisis

The 1930s saw the creation of Maimonides in Boston, Ramaz in Manhattan, and a handful of other day schools around the country, as well as pocket communities with yeshiva programs that lacked secular components.

About that same time, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz created the Torah U’Mesorah, a national umbrella group for day schools; Beis Medrash Elyon, one of America’s first post-graduate yeshivas; and Camp Mesivta, the first yeshiva day camp.

“He almost single-handedly started what became the day school movement,” said Rabbi Saul Zucker, a Teaneck resident who is director of the OU’s department of day school and educational services. “He was very instrumental in recruiting educators, in helping to do fund-raising, and really in spreading day schools, and branching out in cities wherever there was any significant population across the country.”

The 1950s saw an explosion in the day-school movement as new schools opened in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.

It was not until the late ’70s, though, that the modern day school began to take shape.

“When day schools started out, they were designed to provide Jewish students a self-contained environment free of whatever the perceived influences were of the public schools – whether assimilation, cultural factors such as substance abuse, or just a value system that was … inconsistent with Torah values – and to provide Jewish education,” Zucker said.

“The idea of excellence – standards of excellence, the idea of cutting-edge technology, providing for special-needs students – for the most part you might have been talking a foreign language,” he added.

As the public school system began to pay more attention to education and advanced in technology and services, yeshivas began competing with the secular educational institutions.

“The Jewish people have traditionally always valued education,” Zucker said. “So whatever meant excellence in education, we pursued it.”

Excellence meant more teachers, teachers’ aides, counselors, gyms, books, and the latest technology. It also meant better teachers, in secular as well as Jewish studies.

The Schechter factor

“In the non-Orthodox community,” said Rabbi Kenneth Berger of Temple Beth Sholom in Teaneck, “while there’s a large number of people who understand the importance of day-school education, there are also many who don’t feel that commitment and send their children to supplementary Hebrew schools. It’s harder for us to raise the awareness of the important role of a day-school education.”

In 2007, Metropolitan Schechter High School in Teaneck became the first victim of the economic crisis when a major donor reportedly suffered a financial reversal and the school faced a $1.5 million deficit. It closed just weeks before the start of its fifth year, leaving students scrambling to find new schools and teachers looking for work.

While the vast majority of children from the Orthodox community attend day schools, only about 20 percent to 25 percent of children within the Conservative movement use the movement’s Solomon Schechter system. Robert Abramson, director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Department of Education, said that number is no small feat.

“The Schechter day schools spend a lot of effort and time being the best place they can be,” he said.

Given the financial crunch, however, he estimated that the system would lose “a number” of students but he did not think it would result in a “catastrophic” decrease.

He pointed to the dual system within the movement of Schechter and congregational Hebrew schools and said the movement is determined to figure out a way for students who leave for public schools to continue making use of the education they received from Schechter.

Schools now included in the Kehilla Fund
Ben Porat Yosef

Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey

The Moriah School

The Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey

SINAI Schools

The Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County

Yavneh Academy

Yeshivat Noam

“The challenge of the Schechter school system,” said Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner of Temple Emanu-El of Closter, “has got to be to invent themselves as not the Conservative alternative to day school but rather the best opportunity for your child. We should not see the competition as Moriah and Frisch but [Englewood high school] Dwight A. Morrow.”

Looking for solutions

“We’re still in the nascent stages of figuring out the answers to [the tuition] problem,” said RYNJ’s Silver. “There’s no silver-bullet answer to this problem.”
Many families remain dedicated to the Jewish environment their children get only from a day school, and putting them into public school just is not an option – no matter how high the costs may rise. Beyond the ideological imperative, the positive impact of day school education on future Jewish involvement is well documented.

The Orthodox Union convened a summit of day-school leaders in January to discuss a series of proposals. From that meeting, the organization has been moving forward on a handful of those ideas, most notably a national insurance program for day-school faculty.

Zucker expected a comprehensive insurance policy would be ready this month for schools to sign on by September.

An Internet tool bar, expected to bring revenue to the schools, should be ready by the start of the new school year, Zucker said. The free toolbar will be available nationwide and will feature corporate sponsors. Every time Internet users conduct a search using the toolbar, the advertisers will make a donation to an OU education fund, which will then be allocated to various schools. Free Cause, which developed the bar for the OU, created the same set-up for the Susan G. Komen Fund for breast cancer research. The toolbar generates approximately $600,000 a month for Komen.

In recent years, the OU has advocated vouchers for private school education. (See Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s column on page 14.) Zucker acknowledged the fine line separating church and state but questioned why government money could not fund only the secular subjects, required by the state.

“If they weren’t learning this in yeshiva, they would be learning this in public school,” he said. “Why should property taxes that go to support math and science at [Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Teaneck] not go to support math and science at Moriah in Englewood? It’s the same math and science.”

At about the same time as the OU summit, a group of local day-school administrators, spurred by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah, began to meet. Last month, the Northern New Jersey Tuition Crisis Committee launched the first step of its plan to create a giant communal fund. The committee includes representatives from every day school in the county, including Solomon Schechter.

The organization last month incorporated as Northern New Jersey Jewish Education for Generations and launched Northern Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, NNJKIDS, commonly referred to by the organization’s leadership as the Kehilla Fund.

Through its Website, NNJKIDS.org, the non-profit organization plans to collect donations for scholarship funds at Bergen County day schools.

“The concept is to … say to the community at large that Jewish education is no longer the responsibility solely of tuition-paying parents,” Goldin said, “but that the financial burden has to be shared by the entire community – the rationale being that education of every Jewish child is of concern to every Jew.”

Once logged on to NNJKIDS.org, would-be donors have the option of selecting their synagogue affiliation in order for donations to be allocated to schools in that denomination.

image“We’re trying to encourage the synagogue-school affiliation,” Goldin said. “It makes sense for synagogues to raise money for the schools of that movement.”

Donors can also direct their money to a school of their choice if a member of an Orthodox synagogue wants to donate to Solomon Schechter or a member of a Conservative shul wants to contribute to an Orthodox day school.

“The idea is that people will be logging on and asked, at whatever level they can, to make monthly contributions to Jewish education through this fund,” Goldin said.

UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey has been working with the tuition committee to create a community mega-fund, which through the support of large donors would provide aid to all of the day schools in the federation’s catchment area.

“It’s recognized by the federation that this is an issue of extreme importance for our local community,” said David Moss, UJA-NNJ’s assistant vice president for endowment, who has been working with the tuition committee. “While the issue is one of great significance and immediacy, we also want to make sure that our response and whatever efforts we take are well-planned and well-thought-out.”

Earlier this year, the SSDS administration began meeting with a rabbinic advisory committee that includes most of the Conservative rabbis in Bergen County. Many of the county’s Conservative synagogues are donating funds to the school to provide scholarships to families from within their congregations.

Cong. Beth Sholom in Teaneck raised $33,000 recently for SSDS. The synagogue sent the money directly to the school, which then distributed it to 15 families from Beth Sholom.

“Somehow, the community has to be convinced to bear a larger burden of the expense of day-school education,” said Beth Sholom’s Berger.

Temple Emanu-El of Closter also sent a large allocation to Schechter, which helped three children from the shul pay this year’s tuition, said Kirshner. His goal is to set up a fund within the synagogue in coming years with a balance between $350,000 and $500,000 to put toward tuition assistance. For example, if a family receives $10,000 in financial aid but needs another $10,000 for tuition, and can provide $7,000 on its own, the synagogue will contribute the remainder.

Synagogue religious schools are typically run at a loss, Kirshner said. If tuition is $1,000, the actual cost is likely to be $1,800. The synagogue fund is “so that we don’t penalize our members who choose to send their kids to Schechter,” Kirshner said.

“Besides my children’s health and their overall welfare, nothing matters more to me than their education,” Kirshner added. “If that means for me that I have to take a step down in the car that I drive, or the number of vacations I take, then I’m going to do it to make sure my kid gets the best education. For me, best education is synonymous with Jewish education.”

The Jewish Center of Teaneck, once the home of Metropolitan Schechter, began planning last month for a different kind of Jewish education model. Rabbi Lawrence Zierler announced plans to create an “open yeshiva,” a four-day-a-week after-school program that would be an option for children who for whatever reason could no longer continue in day school but still wanted an intensive Jewish educational experience.

The Jewish Center hosted an informational meeting Tuesday night that drew about 25 interested people. After the meeting, Zierler acknowledged the difficulty many parents may have in embracing this type of plan.

“There are a lot of people waiting, a lot who have not made up their minds,” he said. “It’s going to be a very late season in terms of decisions. We’re trying to have our ducks in order so we can be available when enough of a cohort presents itself.”

Although the program is a response to the increasing financial burden of day-school tuition, Zierler emphasized that it is not meant to detract from the day schools. It is, he said, an option.

“If there’s not a need for this and if people are able to keep their children in day schools, we’re completely fine with it,” Zierler said after the meeting. “Our reason for doing this is we want to be responsive.”

The center will distribute surveys to attendees from Tuesday’s meeting and gauge interest in moving forward. Zierler had originally planned to have the school up and running in time for the coming academic year, but he is willing to have it ready whenever it is needed, he said.

“Because it’s a new option, obviously, it can take as long as it needs to,” he said. “If there’s enough of a group to get started we’ll find the resources in terms of teachers.”

Raphael Bachrach of Englewood has been working for more than a year to create an alternative to the day school system. Last year he unsuccessfully tried to create a Hebrew language charter school. After the state board of education denied his application, he began exploring the idea of creating a Hebrew immersion program within an existing Englewood elementary school, similar to a Spanish program already in the district.

The program would use the standard district curriculum, but half the day would be spent in Hebrew. Bachrach reported on Wednesday that the immersion program has reached a standstill. In conversations with the president of the Englewood school board, Bachrach said, it became clear to him that the board would not support the initiative.

“They said they would take it to a vote and then withdrew the offer,” Bachrach said. “We’re disappointed. We thought it was workable.”

Bachrach recently resubmitted his charter school application to the state.

“That’s where we got started and that’s what we’re pursuing,” he said.

Another committee of parents from Englewood began meeting earlier this year to discuss the possibility of a low-cost day school model. The plan put forward envisions a tuition of $6,500 a year but with larger class sizes and fewer levels of administration and teachers.

Last month, the committee hosted Rabbi Richard Ehrlich, principal of the Jewish Foundation School in Staten Island. The school has offered to bus in students from Bergen next year for an all-inclusive price of $8,500, well below the average regional price tag.

To keep costs down, the school has fewer “frills,” Ehrlich said. For example, there is no dedicated art teacher, and music is offered only to the younger grades.

“It’s going to take a long time for people to realize that some of the things we’ve taken for granted as luxuries are not necessities,” he said. “It’s not a necessity to have an art program or a drama club or extras that have now become givens.”

Typical tuition at the school is $9,500, but with financial assistance most students pay an average of $6,500, Ehrlich said. A small contingent bused in from Brooklyn pays $7,000 per student.

“The culture of the school here is probably different than the culture of the schools in northern New Jersey,” Ehrlich told the Standard. “We’re extremely sensitive to the fact we need to keep our tuition down. [Staten Island] is not an affluent community; this is a working-class community. People cannot afford $15,000 a year in tuition.”

The OU’s Zucker, who has previously voiced his support for the low-cost model locally, said that none of the area’s day schools waste any money. Still, he said the current model needs alternatives to allow it to continue. Along with Goldin, he supports exploring any and all ideas that might alleviate the problem.

“No suggestions should be dismissed out of hand,” he said. “We have to take the best, most practical, and what promises to be the most enduring solutions and start to work on them now.”