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.