When the day-school students in your life ask you to sponsor their Torah study this Shavuot, know that it’s not just about the money. It’s about the attitudes.
Raising money for day-school scholarships – the cause for which Bergen day-school students are soliciting pledges – is just one project of Jewish Education for Generations, the partnership of all eight of Bergen County’s elementary Jewish day schools. Last year, JEFG passed on $700,000 to the schools, representing a tenth of the money the schools needed for scholarships.
The money came through its subsidiary NNJKids (North New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools), which will be the recipient of next week’s learnathon donations. NNJKids is the JEFG coalition’s public face, and this month NNJKids is going especially public. In addition to the Shavuot learnathon, it is raising awareness through sermons by local rabbis and publicity in kosher restaurants.
Last year, NNJKids month raised around a quarter of a million dollars, said Sam Moed, president of JEFG. This year, he hopes to raise double that.
Going into this month, said Moed, NNJKids had 1,500 donors.
Signing up new donors to NNJkids is central to one of the attitude shifts JEFG wants to effect: making supporting day schools a communal responsibility, rather than just a concern of parents of students who attend the school. It wants every synagogue member in Bergen County to sign up to support day schools, ideally with a dollar-a-day monthly donation.
There are signs that this shift is happening. Last month, one of the organizers of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey’s scholarship reception attributed the success of the fundraiser to a new communal attitude.
But changing communal attitude toward paying for day schools is only one of the attitudinal changes JEFG seeks to make.
It is also working to change the attitudes within the schools toward all things financial, seeking to make the attitudes more professional and data-driven.
“You really need to tackle the problem of day school affordability on multiple fronts,” said Moed, president of JEFG, and that includes both revenues and expenses.
The broad-based fundraising exemplified by the learnathon is only one of JEFG’s approaches towards increasing school revenues.
Together with UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, JEFG is investigating setting up an endowment fund for the schools.
And JEFG is also helping the schools look at the expense side on the ledger.
“Efforts by individual schools and the collective network have driven savings of over $2.5million across the network in the last two years,” said Moed.
And with a grant from UJA-NNJ and the Avi Chai Foundation, JEFG has brought in consultants from Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration who are helping the schools change the way they do business.
“It’s an opportunity to take the best of the business world’s thinking and bring it to the day school world,” explained Scott Goldberg, head of Azrielli’s Institute for University-School Partnerships, who is overseeing the “benchmarking” initiative.
“It involves collecting data from all of the institutions in terms of their financials, to understand where there are school opportunities, as well as communal opportunities, for improvement. This leads to a multi-year financial plan for each school, so each board can make appropriate decisions moving forward to improve their economics.”
For some of the involved schools, this process represents “a cultural shift” since “most Jewish day schools have not done long-term financial planning.”
“The goal is to have a 10 percent improvement in three years. I believe it’s doable,” he said.
How these improvements work “takes many forms, depending on the opportunities that are revealed,” he said.
“The starting point is what does a school of excellence look like, what will work within the unique educational philosophies of the different schools. That’s why it’s important that it’s embedded within a school of Jewish education; we are not just auditors coming in and slashing budgets. We are not necessarily slashing budgets; we’re approaching the issue in a rational and responsible way with educational quality, that’s efficiently and effectively delivered, as the prize.”
Goldberg praised the cooperation Bergen County day schools evince in JEFG.
“It’s a unique model. It’s a grassroots effort of a group of schools coming together and creating their own umbrella,” he said.