Photo Credit: Marc Gronich
Rabbi Yehoshua Pinkus, Agudah’s director of Yeshiva Services (left), and Rabbi Ami Bazov, its coordinator of Education Affairs.

Running a yeshiva these days is filled with intricate educational mandates and funding deadlines from local, state and federal governments. It could make your head spin if you’re a novice looking at the complexities of this universe.

This universe is also replete with a typical bureaucratic alphabet soup with acronyms like BEDS, CCDBG, SSDM, SSDM, AEL, DUNS, OGS as well as legal citations such as Article 43 and 47.

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In order to keep up with all the nuances, Agudath Israel of America, under its Yeshiva Services program, conducts a seven-hour seminar including eight plenary sessions and networking time with yeshiva administrators from across the state, although mostly from the New York City metropolitan area.

This year’s Yeshiva Summit 3.0 was titled “Knowledge is Power” and one can understand why after attending the session. If you don’t have the power to control your own destiny as a learning institution you are left behind the knowledge curve.

“The yeshiva summit provides information about important programs that are available, important laws that are applicable and the situations that arise from the everyday administration of a yeshiva,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudah’s executive vice president. “It’s also an opportunity for the schools to get together and I don’t know of another gathering where you would have as large of a cross section of the yeshiva community from across the state but mainly from the NYC area, that gather together and draw strength from one another in a sense of camaraderie and community with our colleagues from all across the education spectrum.”

The greatest challenge facing yeshivas today is government over-reach, and all eyes are watching the yeshiva community in case there is a momentary slip-up.

“Governmental efforts to be very prescriptive about curriculum in our schools in terms of scheduling and courses that have to be offered. That’s a very serious challenge,” Zwiebel told The Jewish Press, the only media outlet covering the summit. “Making sure that whenever we have access to government funds that we use those funds for the purpose that they were in fact intended and not for other purposes. There has always been a spotlight on the yeshiva community but never before as it is today. Never before has the yeshiva community been in the glare of the public spotlight as it is today. This is something people, including reporters, are sniffing around about. If there is a concern about erlichkeit and a concern about how funding is used properly, it’s so important for yeshivas to be sensitive to that.”

There was also a warning to librarians that if they don’t use their allocation of funding to purchase books, they’ll lose that money.

“The deadline for this program is going to be sometime in March. The money that is not used does not roll over,” said Debra Zachai, director emeritus of education affairs for the Yeshiva Services division. “That means if you’re planning on using your library funds, whether it’s for secular books or Jewish-oriented books, if you haven’t ordered yet, you should order now. Spend down your money now. Don’t wait. You want to utilize your full allocation and not lose any funds.”

School administrators are also upset with the vendor chosen by the New York City Department of Education for supplying books to yeshivas, the Westchester, IL-based Follett Corporation.

“It seems to be taking longer for them to get it together and you don’t want to lose the funds. You have to be on top of Follett and all correspondence with them should be done in email form with your rep so if there is a problem and they say we can’t source these books then we have an email trail that I can send to the BOE,” Zachai warned administrators. “The contract with Follett will expire in about a year. Follett has been the vendor of choice by default. I showed the Board of Ed documentation that Follett was not able to deliver on culturally sensitive Jewish-oriented books. I showed them actual documentation. I’m not talking about religious books, a Chumash, a siddur, we’re talking about nonreligious types of books like historical novels or books of that nature.”

The BOE got back to Yeshiva Services stating if schools are having trouble ordering through Follett and the order does not come in within 30 days, school administrators should tell Yeshiva Services, which tells the BOE, and they will “get on Follett’s case,” Zachai said.

Another major topic of discussion was a ruling last month by state Supreme Court Justice Peter Lynch clarifying the public school busing of private school children when public school is not in session. The case was brought by the United Jewish Community of Blooming Grove against the Washingtonville Central School District and the NYS Education Department.

Lynch “issued an order that a school district must provide transportation to nonpublic school students on days when [nonpublic] schools are in session,” said Rabbi Ami Bazov, coordinator of education affairs for Yeshiva Services at Agudath Israel. “Yeshivas started three weeks, close to a month, before the public schools did. That means for that period of time our parents had to do carpools to drop off the kids. That was based on New York state defining the law that the only time a school district has to provide busing for nonpublic schools is when the [public schools] have busing. The judge came out in this case stating the school districts were reading the law wrong and as long as the schools are open and it is not on a legal holiday, they [the private schools] could get busing regardless of the public school schedule.”

“We are expecting that this will be challenged. It’s still going to be a bit of a process but it’s great news and we hope it’s going to impact everyone positively. The main question still left is, how does this affect New York City?” Bazov added.

Attending the summit was Senator Mike Martucci (R-New Hampton, town of Wawayanda, Orange County), a bus company owner before winning his Senate seat last year.

“What was always so impressive to me about transporting children in the Orange County area was what a great sacrifice families make to send their children to yeshiva,” Martucci told The Jewish Press. “You’re talking about families who pay a tremendous amount in property taxes each year for public schools. Then these families don’t send their kids to public schools but rather save all their money to send their children to nonpublic schools. These families, if they used that money elsewhere, could be driving fancy cars and go on some very nice vacations but instead make great sacrifices because they really believe in the quality of the education and that’s clear here today.”

Other elected officials made appearances at the summit including Senator Elijah Reichlin-Melnick (D -Nyack, Rockland County), Assemblyman Michael Lawler (R-Pearl River, Rockland County) and Aron Wieder (D-Spring Valley, Rockland County), a member of the Rockland County Legislature and Chairman of its Public Safety Committee.

Another major topic of interest to the yeshiva administrators was the fate of the numerous yeshiva programs in New York State. That topic was tackled by Christina Coughlin, assistant commissioner for the New York State Education Department, office of school governance, policy and religious & independent schools. She is the point person at the behemoth education department who strategizes with public and private school leaders to find solutions for financial issues, so that the educators can focus on their core mission – teaching their students, according to her Facebook page. Coughlin did not make herself available for an interview but she did speak at a plenary session and huddled privately with dozens of school administrators during a break in the action.

Yeshiva Leaders huddled with Christina Coughlin, assistant commissioner for the New York State Education Department.

One school official from upstate New York was impressed by the variety of vendors at the summit.

“There are a lot of resources for funding and school curriculum here that are good for yeshivas and day schools,” Rabbi Yossi Rubin, director of development for Maimonides Hebrew Day School in Albany. “Networking over the phone and now seeing these folks face-to-face is important and to see all the programs there are for helping schools in curriculum, in funding, security, different things. We did get a security grant and we are using part of it and we’re looking to implement the rest.”

Security was another major topic at this conference.

“If you received a securing community against hate crimes award in the past, you are not eligible for it this year for the same facility,” said David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, who advises schools about the nuances of the Nonprofit Security Grant Program. “If you got a federal nonprofit security grant program grant, apply. You can get money. It’s there. Nonprofits that used a previous grant for one building can get a grant for another building.

“If this wasn’t complicated enough, there are e-grants that you can’t use. They moved the administration from state Homeland Security to Criminal Justice Services. They have their own GMS (Grants Management System) system. You need to download the manual and tutorial when you’re ready to apply. Do not wait until the last minute because this is a new system and if your computer crashes you won’t know what to do. The deadline is noon on January 7. The nonprofit security grant program has been around since 2005. We don’t know what’s going to happen with this program because we don’t know what’s going to happen in Washington. This is something Congress has to work on.”

The grants cover items like perimeter lighting, door hardening, locking, alarm systems, camera-based security systems, access-control systems, fencing, window-hardening, duress buttons, panic buttons, and lock down systems.

David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

“The state grants clearly allow for public address systems and our CIS [Center of Internet Security] team recommends you have a public address system because how can you tell everyone there is an emergency is you don’t have a way to do it? If you have an active shooter coming in, are you going to send staff running to different corners of the building?” Pollock added.

Pollock then made his pitch to ditch the salespeople and use his services.

“We help you prepare your grants. We help you work with law enforcement. Our people have deep ties to law enforcement. We can make sure law enforcement is responsive. We can help you with planning. We can help you with training. We can help you with drills and exercises,” Pollock asserted. “It’s easier to get the grant than to spend it right. The most talented people in this security world are the salespeople who will assure you they can bring the Mashiach and totally protect your building and your people. All you have to do is just sign on the dotted line and give me [the salespeople] $100,000. These people who are talented salespeople do not necessarily know what they are doing and they are not necessarily selling you the right equipment. What we’ve done is added a person to our staff who is trying to figure out who are the bad guys and who are the good guys.”

With all these speeches, vendors were waiting school administrators to emerge and make their purchases during breaks in the program. Since fundraising is such an integral part of a successful yeshiva experience, there were two crowdfunding companies on site to help school officials raise money: Charidy.com and the Chesed Fund.

“Our emphasis is on the fund-raiser, on supporting the organization,” Yoshi Falber, CEO for the Chesed Fund told The Jewish Press. “We really partner with an organization and we get into what makes them tick. We audit the organization, all of their data. All of the alumni, all of the human resources. Anything we have that would be of benefit to them and we try to turn that information into actionable tasks and help them maximize their fundraising effort. The number one best asset any yeshiva has is its bochurim, its alumni. That’s the best asset any institution can have.

“We often build out strategies for the campaign that are totally new and will be a response to their set of variables that they presented to us and their set of unique challenges. The secret is partnering with an organization rather than just seeing this as just another campaign. Every time it is a new project. Everything needs custom attention and customized solutions,” Falber added.

School lunches are a necessity in any yeshiva.

“It’s been a year since we launched food items for schools,” said Moishy Bineth, owner of Crusters. “Heimishe items that kids would like and taste good and works for the lunch menu. We have cheese latkes, pizza rolls, mozzarella sticks and all sorts of snack stuff for the kids. We don’t have sugar-free items. We have gluten-free pizza dough and batters. We have whole wheat, multi-grain but not sugar-free. We don’t have sugar-free.”

Health is another concern covered by the vendors at the summit.

“We teach the teachers how to use the Epinephrine should they need it to counter an anaphylactic reaction and we sell defibrillators. We hope that nothing ever happens but we also hope that if chas v’shalom something happens we’re able to train the staff to know what to do in case of any type of an emergency,” Robert Lederman, President, Madison Programs told The Jewish Press. “A lot of people are afraid and they say they don’t want to take on that responsibility. You just turn it on and literally follow the prompts. The machine won’t let you defibrillate anybody unless everything is put in the proper way and it’s very self-explanatory. CPR definitely saves lives and every second counts. There are grants to help pay for this. It’s subsidized. There should be no shul, no public area, no school that doesn’t have a defibrillator available. Our recommendation for multi-level schools is to have one on each floor. The cost is under $2,000 for each defibrillator.”

For many companies in the print industry the challenges abound.

“There’s nothing like holding that piece of paper in your hand, looking at it and relishing it. They’re noticing now that social media ads are not really as effective as direct mail, which is picking up a lot,” said Benny Heinemann, CEO of Lakewood, NJ-based BP Print Group. We have to expand our business. We don’t want to be like Kodak doing film or BlackBerry. We are constantly looking at how we can do websites, social media and videos. All that kind of stuff is what we’re getting into.”

The keynote speaker at the summit was Rav Don Blumberg, rosh hakollel of Kollel Yisroel V’Shimson of the West Side and rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ohel Yaakov, who made the basic point, “You need siyatah d’shmayah you need the “Ribbono shel Olam’s help. The decree [is] that most of us have to struggle, but you have to struggle with the nisoyim she’mishomayim in the correct way and if you struggle in the correct way the Ribbono shel olam will help, but it has to be done in the correct way. If not, you strip yourself of that important element of siyatah d’shmayah.”

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Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.