As Purim approaches, thousands of Israeli children and families grapple with poverty
Schools have multiple missions. They primarily exist to educate children, to provide knowledge, and to develop skills that stimulate intellectual growth and prepare youngsters for a productive adulthood and success in life. They also serve a socialization function, inculcating in children behavioral patterns and attitudes that foster respect and the acceptance of appropriate norms and rules.
These are not easy responsibilities, especially in view of home conditions and societal pressures and influences that frequently undermine the capacity of children to learn. When schools fail, children suffer, as does the larger society.
Jewish schools share these two core responsibilities and they are charged with two additional tasks. Their educational role obviously includes Jewish and religious study, the part of the curriculum that forms the basis for their existence and which at least in Orthodox schools has priority. They also provide for religious socialization, for the development of an outlook and a behavioral pattern that are crucial for the religious development of the students whom they educate.
All of this constitutes a daunting challenge, particularly because of the diverse capabilities of students, as well as diversity in background, interests and emotional health. A further barrier is the severe financial hardship that is the lot of most yeshivas and day schools. While the dedication of faculty and other staff often compensates for conditions that limit the ability of our schools to properly perform all of the tasks that are required of them, at the end of the day Jewish schools face an uphill struggle as they seek to adequately perform their educational and socialization functions.
The consequences of financial hardship are inescapable. I know that parents are saddled with large tuition bills that keep on rising despite endless talk about the tuition crisis. There are schools that, so to speak, are in the chips, schools that charge $20,000 or more per year and for whom the word “scholarship” is scarcely in their vocabulary.
These institutions, primarily located in the more modern day-school sectors, are far more the exception than the rule. For yeshivas in the New York area, the average tuition is considerably below $10,000 and most provide meaningful scholarship assistance. This for a dual curriculum. By comparison, the average per student expenditure is about $15,000 per year in New York’s single curriculum public schools.
In the best of economic times, most Jewish schools struggle to meet their obligations and they are not able to provide or forced to cut back on services and educational options that would enhance the learning experience. A declining share of the typical Jewish school budget is met through contributions, a condition that reflects the creeping abandonment of the great principle that had been maintained since the Talmudic period which mandated that basic Torah education is a fundamental communal responsibility. In the current economic downturn, the outlook for our schools is scary.
American Jewry is blessed with a vast and richly endowed philanthropic sector, encompassing Federations and a growing number of private foundations. By and large, however, basic religious education is not a Jewish philanthropic priority. There are other causes, such things as museums, Holocaust memorials, camps, community centers and much more that take precedence over the needs of our schools.
There are philanthropic exceptions. I am privileged to be involved in the Avi Chai Foundation, which was established a generation ago by Zalman C. Bernstein of blessed memory, a remarkable man whose legacy is an outstanding foundation that gives priority to day school education in North America. Avi Chai’s support of day schools is a glorious chapter in the annals of Jewish philanthropy.
Another exception is the Gruss Foundation, and it is a vital aspect of its work, plus Avi Chai’s commitment, that generates my enthusiasm about a significant development affecting our most vital institutions. This foundation was established by Joseph Gruss of blessed memory. His intellectual and financial contributions to our schools are legendary and they will be lasting.
There are several distinctive characteristics to Gruss philanthropy, starting with the nearly exclusive commitment to day schools. Mr. Gruss understood that the best and possibly only path to Jewish survival on these shores is to support and strengthen religious schools that provide a meaningful dual-curriculum education to our children. He was not interested in fads or exotic approaches to Jewish continuity, believing that what had proved reliable in Jewish life over the generations was the product that he had faith in and in which he would invest.
A related aspect is the directness of Gruss philanthropy, the understanding and acceptance of the simple truth that our children are taught in schools and classrooms and if the aim is to promote Jewish education, the focus of philanthropy must be to directly help and improve the classroom experience. Mr. Gruss had no faith in educational bureaucracies that feed off the foolish notion that the self-enrichment of so-called experts somehow improves the quality of day-school education.
Unfortunately, this critical insight is shunned by too many in our community, so that we have a proliferation of sterile agencies and projects whose disappearance would not result in fewer Jewish children being taught in Jewish schools.
When yeshivas and day schools apply for Gruss assistance, they are not confronted by a formidable or intimidating packet of forms to complete. The Gruss method is simple, consisting of clear and concise instructions and documentation. This is accompanied by a hands-on approach that entails frequent school visits by staff members that give the foundation a direct window into what occurs in institutions seeking or receiving its support.
These visits also serve as an opportunity for Gruss staffers to serve as consultants to the schools, offering them guidance about how to improve their educational product. I am at times astounded by the number of school visits made by Jason Cury and Joel Beritz, Gruss’s top officials, and by the staff of the foundation’s critical new offshoot, the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education, ably directed by Mrs. Judy Lebovitz.
Furthermore, Gruss is invariably in there for the long haul, which is a departure from the familiar philanthropic approach which dictates that support is provided for a limited term and then the recipient has to seek other sources of support or terminate the activity. The conventional philanthropic approach can, in fact, be justified on the ground that there are always more worthy causes seeking support than the available funds. Still, Gruss’s long-term commitment to the schools that it is involved in provides long-term benefits.
What Gruss apparently has in mind is a partnership arrangement, a relationship in which both the school and the foundation contribute ideas, funds and staff. For nearly all Gruss programs, participating schools must bear a small part of the cost. The aim is to ensure that they are not merely eager recipients of someone else’s money but are willing to demonstrate that what is being undertaken is critical to the school’s mission and it is necessary to do all within a school’s reach to achieve success.
As mentioned, the dual curriculum in day schools adds enormously to their financial burden. Orthodox schools comprise more than 80% of day-school enrollment. Invariably, the academic or secular studies component suffers, in large measure because it is regarded as secondary to the limudei kodesh or religious curriculum, which is appropriate because it is the religious curriculum that provides the reason for the institution’s existence.
There is an additional explanation, which is that it is difficult to attract top-flight or at times even barely competent faculty to teach language arts, mathematics, science and other important subjects. In truth, this is a deficit that exists today in a great number of public schools. Day schools are especially limited in their secular studies program because invariably they lack the financial resources or experience to incorporate into the curriculum technological and other developments that may enhance the classroom experience and results.
Gruss has acted with impressive creativity to offset these deficits. It established the Center for Initiatives in Jewish Education precisely for this purpose and CIJE has worked with leaders in the field of education and technology to develop programs that are tailor-made for Jewish schools. In the process, CIJE is transforming the secular studies landscape in more than one hundred Jewish schools. There are projects called SuccessMakers and Waterford that provide at different grade and knowledge levels computer-assisted instruction in language arts, mathematics and science.
In the school year that has just begun, 21,000 students are participating in CIJE-sponsored programs and the number will continue to grow. As important and impressive as is the quantitative side, there is the at least equally important and impressive qualitative dimension which points to major improvements in student performance on standardized tests and other indices of academic achievement.
The technology laboratories that are a key feature of SuccessMaker and Waterford have contributed to increased student motivation. These projects are being upgraded and the expectation is that the new versions that are about to be introduced will produce even greater educational benefits.
It is noteworthy that the participating schools comprise a wide spectrum of day-school education. It may be expected that they would be institutions that focus more on secular studies than a typical yeshiva does. In fact, a number of major yeshivas are enrolled in Gruss academic programs and more are asking to join. Some months ago, a respected dean at a yeshiva outside New York called me three times and asked for me to assist his school’s effort to be included in CIJE programs.
In this connection, it is well to note the point made by Rav Elya Svei, the Philadelphia rosh yeshiva and the outstanding figure in American Torah education for a generation, to the effect that if a yeshiva allows a secular studies program to be ineffective and cares not about the progress its students are making, the results is bitul Torah or the neglect of Torah study.
CIJE has developed programs aimed at stronger students who need additional intellectual and academic challenges. As an example, for grades 5-9 there is the Excellence 2000 or E2K initiative which facilitates skills development in science. Installed so far in 68 schools, E2K also encompasses special training of day school faculty to enable them to effectively teach and inspire students in science and technology.
Add to this the state of the art science laboratories that have been placed, as of this writing, in eighteen specially selected elementary schools at a cost of about $75,000 for each facility. Additional schools are being brought in.
Then there are the interactive SmartBoards that CIJE is placing in day schools around the country. The rage these days in elementary and secondary education, SmartBoards essentially are the union of the old fashioned blackboard and a computer, with smartly done software added to the exciting brew. As a rule, new approaches in basic education tend to be oversold, and this may turn out to be true of SmartBoards because technology can only accomplish so much in view of powerful societal forces that often undermine the capacity of students to learn. But anyone who has sat in on a classroom demonstration can attest to the impact that it has on students, making for them the ordinary learning experience something that is marvelously exciting.
The further good news is that SmartBoard software is being developed for Talmudic study and other Judaic subjects. The painful truth is that for too many students, this is the part of the curriculum where they sort of check out. Hopefully, for these students Gemara will be transformed into a challenging experience.
There is more in the offing from Gruss and CIJE as new creative ways are being sought to improve the curriculum at yeshivas and day schools. It is small wonder that there is now much to celebrate in religious Jewish education thanks to the Gruss Foundation.
About the Author: Dr. Marvin Schick has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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