Day-school fund spreads the wealth
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Day-school fund spreads the wealth

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More than $180,000 to area day schools is just the beginning, said JEFG chair Sam Moed. Josh Lipowsky

After five months of fund-raising in 31 synagogues, Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools made its first distribution of funds during a ceremony Monday night at The Moriah School in Englewood. The community organization, known as NNJKIDS, dedicated to lowering the cost of day-school tuition, distributed more than $180,000 to area schools.

The country’s economic crisis brought the long-festering problem of high day-school tuition to the forefront last year, sparking the Orthodox Union to convene day school leaders and advocates in January to seek solutions. At the same time, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood began organizing local day school leaders, parents, and rabbis from the Orthodox and Conservative movements. The result was Jewish Education for Generations, a nonprofit organization created in May to explore solutions to what many deemed a tuition crisis. NNJKIDS, the organization’s community fund, is one of several options the group is pursuing.

Eight area elementary day schools received a share of NNJKIDS’ $183,809:
Ben Porat Yosef, Paramus
Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey, Oakland
The Moriah School, Englewood
The Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, River Edge
Sinai Schools
Solomon Schechter of North Jersey, New Milford
Yavneh Academy, Paramus
Yeshivat Noam, Paramus

“The [economic] crisis was a blessing in disguise in at least one regard,” said Sam Moed, chair of JEFG, in his introduction to the event. “It took a silent crisis around affordability of Jewish education and brought it to the forefront.”

NNJKIDS’ goal, he continued, is to change the day-school model by shifting the tuition burden from the parents to the larger Jewish community.

“The schools had to morph to a different model and think as a network,” he said. “We had to make sure we could find common ground – to work across schools and denominational lines.”

“This is the future of Jewish education – to reshape the model we’ve been using,” Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, spiritual leader of Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck and president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, told the gathering of some 50 people. “The only way we will continue is by remembering that we are here shaping the future of the Jewish people.”

The rise of the day-school system changed the American Jewish community, Rabbi Kenneth Berger of Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Sholom said at the podium. More people are studying Jewish texts than ever before in history, he continued. As for NNJKIDS, “It’s raised a drop in the ocean of what’s really needed, but it’s been a tremendous beginning,” he said.

NNJKIDS is working through Orthodox and Conservative synagogues to encourage donations. The organization plans to make four distributions to the schools each year, with the allocations based on each school’s percentage of students from the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey catchment area. This first distribution represented more than 800 donations from $5 to $500, according to Gershon Distenfeld, chair of NNJKIDS and treasurer of JEFG.

“We think we’re going to build momentum with this event,” he said. “The shuls, the rabbis of the shuls are very supportive. We have plans and volunteers in every shul to drive participation even further.”

NNJKIDS distributed all the funds it had collected through the end of October. With about $30,000 raised since then, the group is on pace to deliver $370,000 annually to the schools, according to Distenfeld. The average donation is $40, he added.

“On the one hand we’d like to have a lot more people signed up,” he said. “On the other hand, if you had told any of us we’d have 800 families signed up in five months you would have been laughed out of the room. In just five months, with the help and support of rabbis and other community leaders, we’ve done a lot of good, made a lot of progress.”

Speaking to The Jewish Standard after the ceremony, Goldin acknowledged that the group needs to make more inroads to the Conservative community. He pointed out that NNJKIDS is gaining attention across the country.

“This model is unique,” he said. “If [it continues to get noticed nationally] people in our own community will hear about it and be encouraged to participate even further.”

Representatives of the eight day schools appeared happy with the program. Neither NNJKIDS nor the day school heads would disclose the specific amounts distributed.

“It’s a very significant milestone for a whole community to be able to get together like this and realize the value of Jewish education,” said Rabbi Harvey Horn, Judaic studies principal at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge. “The initiative was quite an outstanding achievement.”

Elliot Prager, principal of Moriah, praised NNJKIDS for its community outreach.

“There’s a real genuine understanding of why this is necessary,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind that consciousness has been awakened as to the need for this issue of yeshiva education to be approached on a community level and not only by parents paying tuition.”

What impact the money will have will depend on future fund-raising, Prager said. He doubted the funds would be able to lower tuition, but he remained hopeful that they would help mitigate future tuition increases.

“There’s no question that the more participants in the program, the greater will be the impact on our ability to keep tuition increases to very low levels,” he said.

NNJKIDS’ biggest accomplishment has been creating unity among the community, said Rabbi Tomer Ronen, rosh yeshiva of Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus.

“We all feel we’re facing the same problem,” he said. “This is real unity. We’re not fighting against each other, we’re coming as one group.”

For more information on NNJKIDS, visit www.nnjkids.org.

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