Day-school fund off to good start, organizers say

Day-school fund off to good start, organizers say

The community organization launched last month to raise and distribute money to the area’s day schools reported this week that it is on track to deliver $250,000 a year, if donations remain at their current pace.

NNJKIDS, whose full name is Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, has signed up almost 500 families through its Website, The average donation has been just more than $40, said Gershon Distenfeld, chair of NNJKIDS and treasurer of its parent organization, Jewish Education For Generations. The organization has approximately $40,000 in pocket now, he added.

“We’re very excited about the successful launch of the kehillah fund and the momentum it has generated,” he said. “These are challenging times, not just for day schools but for educational institutions in general, and in response to the challenges faced by schools in our community, it has been inspirational to see so many people step up to the plate, donating their time and funds in support of NNJKIDS.”

The organization has encountered some challenges, Distenfeld acknowledged. He cited questions from those who no longer have children in the day schools as to why they should contribute to the fund when they had already struggled to pay tuition for their children. Also, parents of children still in school question why they should pay into the fund on top of their children’s tuition.

Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools launched its Website last month to raise money for area day schools.

“Younger families view this as a tax on them, but the truth is exactly the opposite,” Distenfeld said. “Currently, younger families support almost the entire burden through their tuition dollars. The whole purpose of NNJKIDS is to broaden out the funding, making it more of a community responsibility.”

To do that, the organization must persuade the wider community – including those without children, those who do not use the day school system, and those who have already put their children through school – that it is to their benefit to contribute.

“We’re trying to change the mindset here,” he said. “Re-education takes time, but in the long run, shifting part of the funding burden from parents to the community at large is essential for the long-term viability of our day schools.”

Kevin Lemmer, a lay leader who represents New Milford’s Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in JEFG, acts as NNJKIDS’ liaison to the area’s Conservative rabbis. So far, only three Conservative shuls – Kol HaNeshama of Englewood, Temple Beth Sholom of Teaneck, and the Glen Rock Jewish Center – have signed on to the program, but Lemmer said he expects that number to jump in coming weeks.

“We’re still in the process of meeting with the rabbis and explaining the goals of the fund,” he said. “The Schechter schools [of the Conservative movement] are equal participants in JEFG and very enthusiastic about it.”

In addition to SSDS, the kehillah fund is working with Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of Northern Jersey in Oakland, and the area’s Orthodox elementary schools: The Moriah School in Englewood; The Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge; Sinai School at various sites; and Ben Porat Yosef, Yavneh Academy, and Yeshivat Noam in Paramus. While the fund is still building momentum among the area’s Conservative rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which represents all of the area’s Orthodox rabbis, gave its full support during a meeting in May.

“This is a specific community effort,” Lemmer said. “Despite the Conservative shuls getting a later start than some of the Orthodox shuls, we expect substantial and enthusiastic participation.”

Distenfeld said he expects NNJKIDS to make its first allocation in November and continue after that on a quarterly basis. In mid-October the schools will certify their enrollment numbers for the 2009-10 school year and NNJKIDS will use those numbers for the next 12 months. The organization’s allocations will be pro-rated based on the number of local children at the elementary schools. The organization is using the boundaries of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s catchment area – Bergen County and a small area of Passaic County – to determine the number of local children enrolled. The funds will be earmarked for the schools’ scholarship funds, which should eventually mean less money the scholarships take from tuition dollars.

“There is pressure on everyone involved that we have to have demonstrative results,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, JEFG’s rabbinic adviser. Parents are unlikely to see any impact on their tuition in the coming school year, Goldin added, but if funding continues at its current pace, NNJKIDS could begin to affect school budgets by the 2010-11 school year.

The kehillah fund is just one part of a larger strategy, he said. JEFG is in talks with UJA-NNJ to create a mega fund of large donors. Yeshiva University has also begun working with JEFG, Goldin said, to discuss cost-cutting and fund-raising. (See related story, Report criticizes day schools’ lay leaders.) JEFG is planning a separate organization that can work on the political level, lobbying for some state funding for the schools – something JEFG cannot be involved with because of its nonprofit status.

Goldin added, “The community can be proud of what we’ve accomplished until now but it’s just the beginning.”

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