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Affording Jewish Day Schools

Affording Jewish Day Schools

A long overdue program to lower day school costs gives hope for the future.

by

David Maggerman is a 40-year-old with a Ph.D. in computer science who recently left the technology industry to become an investor in the Greater Philadelphia area. His main investment vehicles these days are not financial instruments. Instead, he's investing in our future through Jewish education.

He's formed his own philanthropy called the Kohelet Foundation, because he sees the wisdom of Kohelet -- the Hebrew name for the Book of Ecclesiastes -- as offering a blunt reminder for the Jewish community to see the current situation as it truly is, without sugarcoating.

Maggerman understands what has long been obvious to anyone paying attention to contemporary Jewish life: The future of American Jewry depends on whether we provide our children with a Jewish education. Day schools that provide excellent secular studies alongside a comprehensive program of religious instruction and Hebrew language skills have long been proven to be the best possible venue for educating children to be Jewishly literate and have a sense of Jewish peoplehood.

Costs and Apathy

The problem is that too few children are allowed to take advantage of this opportunity. The reasons for this are twofold.

First is the matter of cost. The exorbitant tuition fees that schools must charge in order to survive make it difficult, if not impossible, for many middle-class families to afford them.

Second, and just as troubling, is that too many American Jews are either ignorant of the value of day schools or are uninterested in them because they see them as too sectarian.

While many have rightly focused on the urgent need to increase the amount of money available for scholarships, until we grow the market for day schools (both in terms of students and donors), the future of the movement will remain uncertain.

Maggerman's response is not just to aid the schools, but to challenge these institutions to grow.

The result is a pilot program financed by Maggerman's foundation that will center on the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day Schools, the largest day school in the Greater Philadelphia region.

The plan will offer families a $6,000 tuition reduction for every new student, regardless of income level, entering gan (kindergarten) at Perelman each of the next three school years, beginning in September 2009. Every child will also get the same amount off of their tuition in first and second grades, and then get $3,000 off from the third through the fifth grades.

The hope is that the lower tuition costs will attract not only families that would otherwise be intimidated by the costs, but also those who are currently sending their kids to non-Jewish private schools.

What Maggerman intends to find out is if such a substantial reduction will increase enrollment. There are precedents for this scheme. For example, in the mid-'90s, the Seattle-based Samis Foundation subsidized an across-the-board tuition cut, and substantially increased enrollment at a Jewish high school. Yet, the scale and the cost of Maggerman's initiative dwarf the Seattle experiment.

What we need to do is to invest in our children's education the way we invest in our business ventures.

Maggerman hopes to do more in the future for the local Orthodox schools, as well. Rather than merely giving cash, he is asking all the local schools to come up with a plan as to how they would use his money. Indeed, he says, what we need to do is to invest in our children's education the way we invest in our business ventures.

That's exactly right.

For a generation, the impact of the demographic decline of Jewish life has been apparent in rising levels of assimilation and intermarriage. But rather than embrace the need to fund day schools, effective action has been lacking, as many wealthy Jews have lavished money on vanity projects or secular causes that can flourish without our help. Though day-school enrollment has risen in recent decades, Jewish education has not been properly prioritized.

While there are other factors that can build Jewish identity, such as Jewish camps and trips to Israel, Maggerman has rightly identified day schools as the best investment in building the Jewish future.

Many have talked of an even-larger-scale plan that would lower costs for all of the schools in the region. But support from a critical mass of donors seems to have always been wanting. Maggerman deserves credit for choosing to act now on his own initiative rather than letting the status quo continue. Nevertheless, the end goal must be to create a system that will ensure that every Jewish child, regardless of his or her family's income, can have an affordable day-school education.

The real question about Maggerman's project is not whether it will succeed. It must. It's whether others with the resources to help will have the courage and the foresight to follow in his footsteps.

Published: November 22, 2008


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Visitor Comments: 22

(21) Anonymous, May 9, 2012 4:41 PM

Unseen benefits of JDS

We were aware of a local JDS when our three kids were young. We had and have friends who sent their four kids to the same JDS. Both sets of our children are now in their 30's and early 40's. All seven of them are monetarily successful. Mine are missing the sense that "we are all our brothers keeper" which I think that our friends children acquired at the JDS.

(20) Rachel, August 23, 2011 9:34 PM

What about Hebrew-language charter schools?

I've heard of one such school in NYC. Of course, they are open to all -- but some of the non-Jewish parents freely admitted that they were sending their kids there not because they had a burning desire for them to learn Hebrew per se, but because they know a school with a lot of Jewish students is going to be an excellent school with dedicated teachers, involved parents, and motivated pupils. Once they have the language skills, then perhaps afternoon Judaic studies programs at synagogues could take care of the religious aspect of their education. And it would be affordable.

(19) Dr. Clare Rose, April 5, 2011 9:13 PM

Evaluate the succcess of his theory

Is there an objective evaluation to determine the success of this plan?

(18) Anonymous, August 27, 2009 9:57 PM

i think the jewish community is squandering its money on jewish day schools

I think a fantastic afterschool program run through the synagogues at sufficient cost for parents to take it seriously as well as to maintain high academic expectations. Most Jewish Day Schools do a middling to poor job on both their Jewish and secular education. The problem is that the Jewish community has incorporated the rather vapid values to be found in the general secular community which essentially underscore the focus on true Jewish/Torah values. We are pulling our children out of Jewish Day School because they are not being taught basic fundamental academic skills and this will pose a huge risk to their future. As for their Jewish "connection" - I believe the key to a strong and vital Jewish identity is primarily the responsibility of the HOME ENVIRONMENT. Modern Orthodox parents have essentially institutionalized the spiritual aspect of their education of their children - and that simply doesn't work. I prefer to educate my children in a secular school and then give them their Jewish education through a combination of tutors and time spent with them teaching them and learning together. This enables the transmission not only of Torah knowledge but also of the deep emotional connection and hold that Torah values and learning has in our lives. It is a far more powerful approach to Jewish education and will lead to a more authentic and thoughtful Jewish soul.

heartbroken Jewish mother, August 23, 2011 9:30 PM

KEEP YOUR KIDS IN DAY SCHOOL IF AT ALL POSSIBLE

For purely financial reasons, our children did not attend middle- and high school in day schools. And now, neither of them is observant (one in college, one still in high school). We provided a shomer Shabbos, kosher home -- but once they got in amongst kids in public schools, and a lot of the social activities were on Shabbos, and they missed school and had a ton of work to make up after every Yom Tov -- they drifted away. The day schools would not take the younger one back even if we could afford it because of lack of Hebrew skills. (My husband and I do not have more than rudimentary Hebrew ourselves and could not teach them.) Bottom line: You can always pick up "basic fundamental academic skills" but it's a lot harder to reconnect with the community when you've dropped out.

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