As Purim approaches, thousands of Israeli children and families grapple with poverty
The subject I address in this column is very close to my heart and touches the soul of the Jewish people.
One of conditions I posited for accepting the position of executive vice president of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York (BJE) in 1970 was that I would be free to establish a direct grants program for Jewish schools — because New York was the only city in North America where the local Jewish Federation did not provide direct funding for Jewish schools.
Recently I have been reading about the decision to terminate the direct grant program to Jewish schools. I bring to this issue my experience as the initiator, in 1971, of the Joseph S. Gruss funding program for Jewish schools in New York, which provided for building renovations of Jewish day schools and yeshivot with matching grants from Federation.
In 1973, the program was expanded to provide funding for other yeshiva and day school needs. During that year, in cooperation with Mr. Gruss, UJA-Federation formed the Program Development Fund for Jewish Education to respond to the fiscal needs of Jewish day and supplementary schools, with the lion’s share of the support going to yeshivot and day schools.
Since 1978, the Program Development Fund has been known as the Fund for Jewish Education (FJE) which includes UJA-Federation matching funds to Joseph S. Gruss support for Jewish schools. The Program Development Fund and FJE were both administered by the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York.
It was my privilege to chair meetings of the Professional Advisory Committee of the Program Development Fund in which Joseph Gruss participated actively. The meetings of the Professional Advisory Committee took place every six weeks for five years (1973-78) in my BJE office.
The composition of that committee is noteworthy: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik; Dr. Gershon Cohen, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Dr. Eugene Borowitz, professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, spiritual leader of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue; Dr. Isidore Twersky, head of Judaic Studies at Harvard University; Saul Litt, UJA-Federation lay leader and former president of the Jewish Welfare Board; Sanford Solender, executive vice president of Federation; and Mr. Gruss.
The diversity, in both background and affiliation, of these prestigious committee members was intended to guarantee total Jewish communal acceptance of the new Jewish education founding approach.
The Professional Advisory Committee developed program guidelines for funding of Jewish schools and guided the distribution of grants for: a) Jewish educators (health insurance, life insurance and additional pension support); b) Jewish day school and yeshiva building renovations (primarily to eliminate health and safety hazards and assure a secure environment conducive to learning); c) transportation assistance to yeshivot and day schools; d) support to Jewish schools providing programs for children with special needs; e) specialized programs for Russian immigrant pupils; f) creative school programs and special projects; and g) formula grants to schools, based largely upon school enrollment.
Funding was limited during the program’s early years. In 1978, however, with the appointment of a special lay committee to oversee the grant program administered by BJE, annual funding increased substantially until Joseph Gruss was contributing millions of dollars a year, matched by three million dollars annually from UJA-Federation.
In 1991, when I retired as executive vice-president of the Board of Jewish Education, the Gruss funding program was reorganized as the Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Monument Funds in partnership with UJA-Federation.
The BJE staff that administered the distribution of FJE funds was engaged to administer independently the grant program of the Gruss Monument Funds. (The reasons for the reorganization, and the dramatic story of the remarkable Gruss family funding, are subjects I plan to describe in my next book on Jewish life and Jewish education.)
The current FJE supervision is serious, objective and well meaning. It is deserving of accolades from the Jewish community for its continuing helpfulness to the cause of Jewish education. However, more financial support to FJE is desperately needed so that life insurance and health-care benefits to Jewish educators can be increased substantially and extended to all eligible Jewish educators currently not in the program.
Moreover, there should be more funding to make the formula grant program more meaningful. Concurrently, the criteria of eligibility for the formula grants should be reviewed and made more relevant to present conditions.
Training day school, yeshiva, and supplementary school lay and professional leadership to help secure long-term stability; improving the clinical supervision of teachers; and establishing mentoring programs for teachers to help schools provide more quality education are ideas whose time has come — in fact, it came long ago.
FJE is to be praised for making recommendations to achieve these goals essential for a healthy Jewish education system. But they should not be instituted at the expense of formula grants needed desperately by many schools.
With regard to the training programs for Jewish educators, UJA-Federation must take the lead in procuring the necessary funding for agencies engaged in educational activity — especially the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York — to help them address important personnel challenges more effectively, particularly the educational needs of Jewish day schools and yeshivot.
In sum, increased funding is vitally needed to help FJE accomplish its purposes of supporting and improving Jewish education. This can best be done through a more meaningful monetary partnership with the Gruss Monument Fund and the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York.
Concerning the Jewish day school, my pioneering volume The Jewish Day School in America, published in 1966, detailed the history, value, achievement, problems and prospects of Jewish all-day education on the North American continent. It brought the attention of the broader Jewish community to this educational instrumentality and motivated many Federations to consider support to this vital institution. Since that time, I have advocated greater school board and Jewish communal support to yeshivot and Jewish day schools.
The basis for my advocacy was and still is that there are four levels of responsibility for the support and maintenance of Jewish all day education. In priority order, these are: 1) the parents and students; 2) lay boards responsible for the conduct of individual schools; 3) the local Jewish community, especially Federations; and 4) the federal, state and local governments.
Parents should be the first level of financial support for the education they choose for their children. School boards bear the second level of responsibility for the fiscal viability of the institutions they volunteer to lead and maintain.
The local Jewish community – the local Federation – must respond to the fiscal needs of schools that parents and school lay leadership cannot meet after expanding their best efforts to support their respective institutions. This has not always been the case in New York and other cities.
Jewish communal support is vital because the Jewish day school contributes significantly to Jewish continuity in North America and to the cultural and spiritual enhancement of each local community. Jewish community support for day schools must be viewed as an investment in the Jewish future and not as a consumer good whose value is only for the purchaser or consumer.
The Jewish day school has proven its worth to American Jewry. My three-volume study, The Jewishness Quotient of Jewish Day School Graduates, published in 1994 by Yeshiva University, clearly demonstrates the value and role of Jewish all-day education vis-à-vis the Jewish behavior, observance, and communal involvement of young Jewish adults who were schooled in Jewish all-day educational institutions.
My findings showed that whereas the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, published in 1992, revealed a 52 percent intermarriage rate among young Jewish adults across America, the overall intermarriage rate, during the same time period among similar age cohorts who graduated from Jewish day elementary and high school programs (Orthodox, Conservative and Communal), was only 4.5 percent. For Jewish day high school graduates, the intermarriage rate was significantly lower.
The fourth level of support must naturally be forthcoming from the larger American society to whose cultural, professional, and economic enhancement the Jewish day school, through its graduates, contributes so substantially.
Moreover, since the federal, state and local governments do not participate in the direct funding of these schools, they have a responsibility, based upon the child benefit theory, to see to it that they can be maintained financially.
Although several organizations, especially Agudath Israel and the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York, have tried valiantly to obtain substantial governmental support for yeshivot and Jewish day schools, only some specialized financial assistance to some schools in New York State has materialized.
The limited prospect of greater governmental support in the future leaves to the organized Jewish community, particularly Federation, a larger obligation to insure the continuity of Jewish life via Jewish education.
About the Author: Alvin I. Schiff, Ph.D., is Irving I. Stone Distinguished Professor of Jewish Education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration of Yeshiva University; Executive Vice President Emeritus, Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York; and the author of 14 books on Jewish life and education -- including 'The Jewish Day School in America' and 'The Mystique of Hebrew' -- and more than 300 articles, essays and editorials.
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