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Conference confronts ‘new reality’ for day schools

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More than 550 educators from across the United States and Canada gathered in Teaneck earlier this week for the North American Jewish Day School Conference. Photos by Robert A. Cumins

In a time of economic uncertainty, when fund-raising campaigns are down and school tuitions are up, members of the North American day-school community crossed denominational lines to come together for one big powwow in Teaneck this week.

The heads of the four major day-school networks — RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, the Institute for University-School Partnership at Yeshiva University, the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, and PARDeS: The Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools — spent 2009 organizing the three-day North American Jewish Day School Conference at the Marriott at Glenpointe that wrapped up on Tuesday. With the theme “Thriving in a New Reality: Klal Yisrael, Community, School, and Home,” the conference drew more than 550 participants from across the continent, surprising organizers who expected a much smaller turnout because of the economy. Excluding accommodations, registration cost between $550 and $595 per person, depending on how many participants each school sent. Some 200 participants received subsidies of 50 percent from the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, the Covenant Foundation, and the Kohelet Foundation.

“We’re all dealing with the same challenges of trying to make quality Jewish educational experiences for children,” said Scott Goldberg, director of the Institute for University-School Partnership. “That commonality drove our programming from the macro-level — needing to do more with less and really forcing us to reassess how we do things.”

One of the challenges facing the day-school system is how to maintain relevance in the wider Jewish community. With affordability issues abounding, other options such as charter schools have grown in popularity.

“There is no alternative to day school,” Goldberg said. “There’s day school and there’s not day school. Day school is the most effective means of keeping the community vibrant. Other things will come along that will contribute to the perpetuity of the Jewish people, but they’re not [as good as] day school.”

Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, said that while the four sponsors may disagree on aspects of halacha, they all agree that day schools are the best way to promote Jewish identity, and they worked from that premise.

“We put all our cards on the table and saw most of us were holding the same cards,” he said. “There are lots of different ways people express themselves Jewishly. I don’t think anyone gave up [anything] in order to make that happen [at the conference].”

Organizers would not comment on the conference’s budget. The final costs — and how they would be divided among the sponsoring organizations — have yet to be determined, they said.

In addition to workshops on best-practice issues such as hiring and dealing with school boards, many of the sessions focused on cooperation — between schools and federations, schools and government, schools within the same network, and schools from different movements. In the wake of what is now recognized as a tuition crisis in the day-school movement, many of the collaborations focused on finding new sources of funding.

“The cost of Jewish education has been growing faster than income for a very long time,” said Nathan Lindenbaum, a trustee at the Moriah School in Englewood and Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, during a Monday session on community collaboration. “We believe the current model is not sustainable. It’s impacting across denominations.”

Lindenbaum introduced session participants to Jewish Education For Generations, a group of North Jersey rabbis and educators representing the Orthodox and Conservative day schools in the area who banded together to create alternative funding. One result is Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, commonly referred to as the kehillah fund.

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The conference represented the four main day-school organizations coming together across denominational lines. From left are Scott Goldberg, director of the Institute for University-School Partnership at Yeshiva University; Elaine Cohen, executive director of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association; Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network; and Jane West Walsh, executive director of PARDeS.

The group collects donations through its Website, nnjkids.org. It has made one distribution to the area’s eight elementary day schools and intends to continue distributing funds quarterly.
“Our fundamental belief is there is nothing wrong with our educational model,” Lindenbaum said. “Our educational model is wonderful. What’s wrong is our funding model.”

Also on the panel were Uri Cohen, director of development at the Solomon Schechter School Manhattan, and Elaine Suchow, director of development and coordinator of the Tri-State Consortium at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens. The Consortium brought together area Schechter schools for a joint branding campaign, the first such cooperation for the schools.

“In the landscape of day schools, collaboration is not assumed,” Cohen said. “There’s not an expectation that the schools work together, so any collaborations at any level is a step in the right direction.”

The tuition crisis is the “subtext” for the entire conference, said Elliot Prager, principal of the Moriah School in Englewood, but the event should become a model for future collaboration between the movements. The day-school community as a whole has shifted its focus in the past two years from innovation to simply remaining viable, he added, and that is a major challenge for everybody.

“Each movement may have its own visions and its own priorities, but ultimately we’re all guided by the same goal and ideal of ensuring the future of the Jewish people,” he said.

“Working across the denominations is a wonderful success and breakthrough,” Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, principal of Yavneh Academy in Paramus, told The Jewish Standard. “We are all jointly invested in Jewish continuity. We all know the No. 1 indicator for successful Jewish continuity is a Jewish day-school education. It’s exciting [to have everybody together].”

Others echoed Knapp’s sentiments.

“It’s incredible that we have all these different networks coming together,” said Susan Weintrob, head of school, Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, Calif. “It becomes much better for the Reform, the Conservative, the modern Orthodox, and community day schools. We find we have a lot of common ground. We have a diversity of ideas.”

Weintrob, who recently stepped down as president of RAVSAK, noted that RAVSAK and PARDeS held a joint conference last year in San Francisco.

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Nathan Lindenbaum, a trustee at Moriah and Yeshivat Noam, spoke about Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, the area’s day-school kehilla fund, during a panel on community collaboration.

Ariella Allen, Judaic coordinator at Yeshiva Atlanta, said that upon her return she would begin looking into new technologies she learned about at the conference, such as video-conferencing between classrooms in different regions.

The conference was “a great opportunity to learn from one another,” she said. “We have excellent educators all over the field. People have been more than willing to put aside their differences and gain from what everyone has to offer.”

Nellie Harris, upper school principal of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Westchester in New York, said she was particularly interested in the conference’s theme of how Jewish education will adapt to the 21st century. She called the conference “a balance between theory and practice,” as educators figure out how to move forward.

“There was an opportunity for us to not only talk about those skills but what is unique about Jewish day schools,” she said.

As the conference concluded Tuesday evening, organizers had already begun to receive the positive feedback they had hoped for. A decision on whether to repeat the conference is still far off, though, Kramer said.

“We are leaving open the door to all the possibilities,” he said.

Renee Salzberg, of the Hebrew Day Institute in Baltimore, said she hoped that the conference would lead to more collaboration.

“It’s a great beginning,” she said.

 
 

Local students get into the act

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Yavneh student Leora Hyman in a play by Sam Shepard.
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In another scene from“Les Miserables” were, from left, Nediva Susman, Ari Krischer, Yakira Markovitch, Aleeza Katz, Zehava Seidman, and Talya Kornbluth. Photos by Tim Decker

Elliot Prager, principal of the Moriah School in Englewood, is a firm believer in “multiple intelligences.”

“Some children are outstanding in math and sports,” he said, “while others have a real talent in the arts.”

With that in mind, two years ago Prager sought out Matt Okin, director of the Englewood-based Black Box Studios, which provides collaborative theater workshops in local schools.

Some 30 students now participate in Moriah’s middle-school theater program, which is run as an afterschool club.

“They love it,” said Prager. “The proof of their receptiveness is that kids who participated in the first half [of the year] in both years have all come back for the second half.”

Okin — who has led groups at Moriah, Yavneh, and Yeshivat Noam — noted that the general plan is for schools to put on two shows each year, one musical production and one drama. At Yavneh, however, which mounts a Holocaust play each spring, he chose instead to present five short plays by Sam Shepard during the fall semester.

Yavneh eighth-grader Leora Hyman of Teaneck played a variety of roles in those productions.

“I really enjoyed the group,” said the 13-year-old, who was featured both as a cowboy and an alien.

“I always loved to act,” she added, noting that she has participated in the Rock Musical Theater Camp Okin runs at the Jewish Center of Teaneck each summer.

In addition to learning more about acting, Leora said, she learned about “different ways to speak. I had to have a strange accent” while playing the alien, she said, “but it wasn’t really hard.”

Leora, who said she will attend the JCT camp again this summer, added that the school acting club is “really cool.” Rather than having to “work all the time, we take a break and do something fun.”

“It improves lives, providing an important opportunity for students to express their talents and interests in areas not covered by the curriculum,” said Prager.

He pointed out that while the arts are included “to some extent” in the curriculum through, for example, visits to museums or lectures, “when it comes to the theater arts, we haven’t had an opportunity to incorporate that.”

Prager spoke warmly of Okin’s rapport with the students.

“Matt is not only a gifted theater person, but he has a wonderful way with kids — bringing the maximum amount of talent out of kids in a warm, supportive way.”

Moriah eight-grader Malka Schnaidman clearly loves the experience. The 14-year-old Teaneck resident, who has played roles ranging from Noah’s daughter-in-law to Javert in “Les Miserables,” said she loves to sing and act.

“A lot of kids like to act,” she said, “and a lot of schools have plays.”

Malka pointed out that even shy students become confident on stage.

“My friend was self-conscious, but not on stage,” she said. “It was amazing.”

Malka said she has made many new friends, of all ages, through the theater club.

“All that matters is that you love to act,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how smart you are or what grade you’re in.”

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Rebecca Epstein, Nediva Susman, Malka Schnaidman, and Sara Fogel in Moriah Drama Club’s production of “Oliver!” last spring. Photo by Ira Machefsk

Barbara Rubin, assistant principal of the middle school at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, said Okin and his colleague Mandy Decker met with students two hours a week during the school’s fall semester, teaching “the methodology and technique of acting,” from speech development to characterization.

The afterschool club, embracing students from 11 to 14, “enabled students to reach within themselves and allow the acting piece to come out,” said Rubin. “It made a wonderful difference in their lives.”

Not only did the students “present the plays beautifully,” said Rubin, “but they were very comfortable.”

She noted that Black Box Studios takes the details of the production upon itself, ensuring that the sound systems are in place, designing publicity posters, and providing scenery.

Suggesting that “children do perform naturally and this gives [a production] a true air of credibility,” Rubin said that while Black Box will not launch a production at Yavneh in the spring, she hopes that the school will create some variation of the program for the spring semester, focusing perhaps on speech development and methodology.

According to Okin, the afterschool program is still very new. This year, he began work in a number of new schools — all of which mount different productions.

“I try to keep it exciting for all of them,” he said. “Every year we do different shows across the board since there’s a crossover of kids” from school programs, drama clubs, and workshops such as those offered at the Jewish Center in Teaneck.

“There’s been a huge jump in numbers there,” he said, noting that the shul offers seven classes for both children and adults, drawing participants from both day schools and public schools.

He pointed out that while Moriah and Yavneh run the program as an afterschool club for middle-schoolers, Yeshivat Noam makes it available to younger children, in grades one to five.

For its fall performance, Moriah students performed “Les Miserables,” he said — “the authorized version for school kids.” This semester, they are tackling “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

Addressing the issue of religious sensibilities in a cast including both boys and girls, Okin said, “we go with the flow.”

While productions in secular and day schools are “not much different, we make it accessible for whatever level of religion you follow. Whatever the religious sensibility, we work around that.”

Since the Yeshivat Noam program is for younger children, “we try to find short pieces that are not often done,” said Okin, noting that they have used small plays based on “semi-famous folk [and other] tales.” For example, they are working on a play that tells the Peter Pan story from Captain Hook’s point of view, as well as “a hip version of ‘The Princess and the Pea.’”

“Schools have noticed our work and have come to us,” he said. “We started in Moriah two years ago and then the word spread. Day-school dual-curriculum students need creative outlets. They’re hungry way for this. They need something to [help them] let loose and build confidence and self-esteem.”

Okin said that while day schools have traditionally placed an emphasis on sports, “some students don’t shine in sports.” While he is “not trying to find the next star,” he said, he is “absolutely finding talent. You can see it right away.”

“Some students don’t even know they have it,” he said. His theater groups “put them in a comfortable environment, so they’re free to take risks.”

Okin said he relies on team teaching to mount the school productions in the limited time available. For example, in producing “Les Miserables” at Moriah, he was joined by a musical director, production manager, and a professional working in the performing arts.

Using more staff makes Black Box “able to do a lot more in a shorter period of time without overtaxing the kids,” he said.

An Englewood resident for 13 years, the director said that Black Box Studios is built around a core of four people who have worked together in producing Off-Broadway shows in New York City. Okin, who began his career as a writer and theater director, “fell into teaching” five or six years ago when he was approached by Deborah Roberts of the JCC on the Palisades to start a program there. Later, he was invited in by the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies. He now leads theater workshops full time, though he works on larger theatrical projects on the side.

His workshops are “all about self-esteem, group dynamics, and collaboration,” said Okin, noting that while the groups are taught from an acting-based point of view, they touch on as many areas as possible, “literary, design, lighting, set design, costume, and analyzing scripts.”

He recounted the story of a sixth-grade girl on the technical crew at Moriah — who was not familiar with the Broadway production of “Les Miserables,” which used a revolving stage — who “came up with the idea” of using such a stage for the school production.

“We went ahead and did it,” he said. “Let the kids have their dreams come true.”

 
 

Day schools laud Ridgewood principal for Facebook stand

It seems like everybody these days is on Facebook — well, almost everybody.

Anthony Orsini, the principal at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, made worldwide headlines last week after he sent an e-mail to parents urging them to take their children off the social networking site. Speaking to The Jewish Standard earlier this week, Orsini said the general reaction from the local community has been one of gratitude. Some parents have heeded his advice while others have ignored it, he said, but his e-mail succeeded in getting people to talk more about Internet safety with their children.

“I was simply imploring them to look out for the safety of their kids,” Orsini said. “I also made very, very clear that obviously it’s a family choice and I respect any choice a family makes.”

The Standard turned to area day-school leaders to see if they agreed with the principal’s actions.

At Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland, Facebook is blocked on all of the school’s computers. Social networking, said Robert Smolen, general studies coordinator and middle school director, is meant to be face to face.

“We know that the Ridgewood principal is correct,” he said. “The use of the Internet for communication that can be very negative and bullying and provocative is something we are not in favor of. We have gotten feedback from time to time about children using it inappropriately and taken them to task for that.”

Smolen acknowledged that Facebook can be used positively. But children, he said, don’t always keep things in perspective, and the site can have a negative impact and lead to cliques.

A recent “South Park” episode lampooned those who get so caught up with the site that their non-virtual relationships are defined by their popularity status on Facebook. In the episode, the main character Kyle befriends a third-grader named Kip Drodry who has no other Facebook friends. Kip is ecstatic, but Kyle watches as his own friends count drops because of his association with this perceived outcast.

At Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, the sixth- and seventh-graders receive formal education in Internet use, said Larry Mash, principal of SSDS’s middle school.

“Our position is we encourage smart use by our students and we encourage careful oversight by parents,” he said. “The parents need to be aware of where their kids are on the Internet and how much they’re using the Internet.”

The Moriah School in Englewood holds a program every year, with local police, on the dangers of Facebook. The school has in the past urged parents not to let their children use the site, but realizing that’s not always realistic, the school asks parents to monitor their children on the Internet, said principal Elliot Prager.

“What a child does in his or her free time, if it involves another child in the school [negatively], Moriah will take all necessary steps, including expulsion from school if necessary,” he said.

Last year Moriah instituted a new cyberbullying policy, considering cyberbullying an offense whether it takes place in or outside of school. After letters about the policy were sent home the school issued a handful of suspensions for violations, but has not had to respond as harshly this year.

“From what we can see and what we know, the policy has had a very positive impact on the behavior of the kids,” Prager said.

Arthur Poleyeff, general studies principal at high school Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck, not only agreed that middle school students should stay off Facebook, but added that high school students should not use the site either.

“There is very little benefit for students being on Facebook in middle school or high school,” he said. “Parents should take control over what their kids are doing online and not allow them to have computers in their bedroom where they’re locked away all day and night.”

Gerrard Berman’s Smolen urges parents to closely follow what their children do on the Internet. Facebook, he said, is just one of many opportunities children have to interact online and if it’s taken away, they can easily find another vehicle.

“Parents have given their children a tool, and the children need to have an accountability for that tool,” Smolen said. “IPhones, iPods, and iTouches all have Internet capability. It’s like giving them the keys to the car and letting them go wherever they want.”

Orsini said he has heard from more than 100 parents about his e-mail. Some have disagreed with him but most have been respectful. He is amazed, he said, that news of his request has grabbed international headlines.

“It hit a nerve,” he said.

 
 

NNJKIDS launches awareness month to raise money for day schools

In order to increase responsiveness to their goal of stemming the rise of yeshiva tuition, the committee behind North Jersey’s day-school kehilla fund has declared May NNJKIDS Month.

NNJKIDS, or Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, is the community fund of Jewish Education for Generations, a non-profit group formed last year to explore ways to lower tuition. To date, the organization has received more than 1,000 donations and distributed more than $300,000 to eight area day schools.

“What we’ve seen in the past year is a step change in the impact you can have when you tackle the issue collectively rather than individually,” said JEFG chair Sam Moed. “The effectiveness of what you can do is magnified when you pool all of the resources and tap into broader community infrastructure and capabilities.”

More than 60 area businesses — including restaurants, salons, and hardware stores — are displaying signs advertising NNJKIDS Month, and customers will have the option of adding donations to the fund to their bills. Each school is sending letters to parents encouraging participation in the fund. The schools are also promoting learn-a-thons during Shavuot for students to raise money from sponsors for the number of hours they spend learning during the holiday.

“The idea is a multi-pronged strategy to reach people wherever they are,” said Jennifer Miller, an officer of JEFG. “The community lives in the retail establishments, they live in the synagogues and respect what the rabbis promote, and of course the community lives in the day schools. We wanted to hit every constituency at every level.”

NNJKIDS has made two distributions so far, with a third planned later this month. The organization intends to hand out money quarterly to the eight elementary day schools within the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey catchment area, based on the number of students each school has from that area.

“The funds we’ve received from NNJKIDS have enabled us to keep tuition increases at a very low level for the coming year,” said Elliot Prager, principal of The Moriah School in Englewood, who said the school has scheduled a 1.9 percent increase. “It would have had to be higher.”

There are 926 students in K-8 this year, and 22 percent of Moriah’s families receive tuition assistance. The school has seen an increase in applications in the past two years, said Prager, who expects the percentage to remain about the same for next year.

Yavneh Academy in Paramus has approved a $200 increase to its $14,000 annual tuition, said the school’s executive director, Joel Kirschner. Without JEFG’s contribution, however, the school would have had to increase tuition an added $200, he said. Yavneh has received more than $100,000 from NNJKIDS to date.

“If it wasn’t for that, quite frankly, I don’t where we’d be,” Kirschner said. “People really need to get behind this effort, because this is hopefully going to change the face of education in the community.”

Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford has received less than $10,000 from the fund to date. The funds have not had a major impact on scholarship levels, said head of school Ruth Gafni, but seven families were able to receive scholarships that allowed their children to remain in the school instead of withdrawing midyear.

“How blessed we are to have people in our community willing to spend an enormous amount of time on what may save Jewish education in years to come,” she said.

Beyond the money, Gafni praised NNJKIDS for bringing the tuition crisis to the forefront and uniting the area’s Orthodox and Conservative day schools.

“The message is you’re not in it alone,” she said.

Recognizing that all the schools are in this situation together is a major part of the organization, said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, JEFG’s rabbinic adviser and religious leader of Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah.

“It’s encouraged a level of cooperation that’s really wonderful to witness,” he said. “It’s opened up lines of communication between the communities that’s beginning to extend to other areas of education as well.”

NNJKIDS leaders appeared pleased with what they have accomplished so far but also warned against complacency. The ultimate goal, they say, is to get 100 percent participation from the community.

“We’ve taken a good first step,” said Gershon Distenfeld, chair of NNJKIDS and treasurer of JEFG. “Clearly there is a lot more education that has to be done. We’re still only reaching a small percentage of our target audience, but the initial results are certainly promising.”

For more information on NNJKIDS, visit www.nnjkids.org.

 
 

Local youths score as Bible scholars

Two Bergen County teens took top honors in the national and international rounds of the prestigious Hidon HaTanach (Bible Contest).

Isaac Shulman, a Torah Academy of Bergen County junior from Englewood, placed second in the high school division last Sunday in Manhattan.

Joshua Meier, a home-schooled Teaneck 14-year-old, came in sixth in the international round on Israeli Independence Day, April 20, in Jerusalem (see sidebar).

In addition, Ben Sultan from The Frisch School placed fifth in the high school division and Elisha Penn of Yavneh Academy placed seventh in the junior high division. Both schools are in Paramus.

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Isaac Shulman

Isaac qualifies for a free trip to Israel for next year’s International Bible Contest. Initiated by David Ben-Gurion and overseen by the World Zionist Organization, the annual event is open to young scholars from across the world who place first or second in national rounds on each levels. Finalists this year included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son.

TABC Principal Rabbi Yosef Adler called Isaac “a real ‘ben Torah’ and mensch who excels in Judaic and general studies.” Isaac play tennis and soccer, competes on TABC’s Torah Bowl team, and reads the Torah at Cong. Ahavath Torah’s early Shabbat services.

The son of Elliot and Victoria Shulman, Isaac said he had attended an after-school Hidon preparation class with Rabbi Neil Winkler when he was at The Moriah School of Englewood, but never passed the qualifying test. This time, he added, “I studied.”

Based on a syllabus that included Genesis, Samuel I, and parts of Hezekiah and Psalms, contestants had to identify common themes and details, such as matching biblical grandsons with their grandfathers. Isaac sometimes studied with friends Sruli Farkas and Yakir Forman. Yakir won fourth place in the international round in 2007 when he was a Moriah eighth-grader.

Sunday marked the 20th consecutive year that Moriah has sent finalists to the nationals. Its students compose a large percentage of past winners.

Principal Elliot Prager said that Winkler “has transformed an after-school club into an annual focus of pride and excitement for all of our students. Above and beyond his superb command of Tanach, and the knowledge and text analysis skills which he imparts to his students, it is his ‘ahavat Torah’ — the passion for Torah learning — which Rabbi Winkler embodies and which has produced several generations of Hidon finalists and winners at Moriah.”

Winkler has taught Judaic studies at Moriah for 32 years and has offered his weekly prep class for a quarter-century. Many of his Hidon protégés went on to become prominent rabbis and teachers.

He does not stress winning, Winkler said, but encourages his students to “enjoy and absorb the forest of [biblical] knowledge. In the end, you will know the material so well you will know every tree in that forest.”

Six students qualified for the nationals by answering multiple-choice questions such as: Which of the Egyptian plagues was described in Psalms as having entered “the royal chambers”? What practice was said to have become “a law and statute in Israel”? Why did David accuse Abner and his men of deserving of death? How high did the waters of the flood reach? Which gifts did Abraham not receive upon leaving the house of the Pharaoh?

Promising Israeli students get half-days off from school to study for the nationals, while foreign students lack that luxury. “You can tell which kids have a fire burning within them and push themselves to study on their own time,” said Winkler, who is rabbi of the Young Israel of Fort Lee. “When kids pick up some passion for it, then my job is finished.”

 
 

Learning curve

Community confronts day-school tuition crisis

Students have closed their books for summer but schools and parents alike are working to make the grade in the next stage of the day-school tuition crisis saga.

Raising one child can cost a middle-income family $19,380 to $23,180 a year, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And if that family is dedicated to a day-school education, which can cost anywhere between $8,000 and $60,000 a year, then it’s time to start getting creative. According to UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, 4,822 students attended kindergarten through 12th grade in one of Bergen County’s 13 yeshiva day schools during the 2009-10 school year.

The country’s economic downturn pushed the tuition crisis out of the shadows of griping around the Shabbat table and into a very bright spotlight. Beginning with an early 2009 educators conference at the Orthodox Union in New York, teachers, administrators, and parents heeded the call to action to ease what many described as an increasing burden on day-school families.

Throughout the past year, several key players emerged, each with ideas on how to solve the problem. Indeed, the community saw a number of initiatives put forward; some gained momentum while others fizzled.

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NNJKIDS

“The community’s voting with its feet and saying the model of day-school education is not broken,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, rabbinic adviser to Jewish Education for Generations, a non-profit group created last year to explore new funding options. “It’s the model of funding that’s broken.” (See page 16.)

JEFG’s main project has been Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, or NNJKIDS, a fund-raising initiative meant to shift the burden of tuition off of the parents and make it a communal priority. Formed in May 2009, NNJKIDS handed out $300,000 to eight area elementary schools throughout the course of the past school year. Organizers declared May NNJKIDS Month, a fund-raising push in the community that netted about a quarter of a million dollars.

“There was a tremendous increase and uptake in the amount of awareness around NNJKIDS,” said Sam Moed, chair of JEFG.

More than 60 businesses participated in the month-long program. Business-owners asked customers to contribute to NNJKIDS at checkout, and day-school children collected pledges for a learn-a-thon during Shavuot. One donor had promised a matching grant of up to $100,000 and NNJKIDS organizers reported that the full match would be collected.

“If anyone would have predicted when we began that we would be this far along, I would not have believed it,” Goldin said. “To be able to get all the schools to sit down and cooperate to the level that they have and get the communal support from various institutions and garner the support on the grassroots level is very encouraging.”

JEFG leaders said their donations mitigated tuition by $200 per student.

“NNJKIDS was a strong contributor to our ability to moderate the increase in tuition,” said Rabbi Yehuda Rosenbaum, president of the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge. “The funds from NNJKIDS were considered after all other economic considerations and had a real impact on lowering tuition increases for next year.”

JEFG isn’t resting on its laurels, however.

“We’ve got to continue to work on this and not in any way take our focus off different funding models and different approaches to all models of day schools,” Moed said.

United Jewish Communities of Metrowest in northwestern New Jersey has successfully created a community mega-fund. The $50 million campaign began with $13 million in contributions from 11 families in 2007 and sparked an idea within JEFG to replicate the endowment fund here.

David Moss, assistant executive vice president for endowment at UJA-NNJ, who has been working with JEFG on the mega-fund, said the idea is still being explored. The hope, according to Moss, is that such a fund would contribute not only to North Jersey’s day schools, but to congregational Hebrew schools as well.

“A lot of details have yet to be determined,” he said. “We’ve been, as a Jewish community and a federation in particular, particularly pleased with the efforts that JEFG is undertaking. When we’re ready to move forward with the mega-fund for Jewish education, it’s going to make the project that much more manageable.”

While he is a firm believer in day schools, Goldin said expanding the mega fund to include congregational Hebrew schools is a demonstration of JEFG’s commitment to educate every Jewish child.

“None of us is on an island,” he said.

Indeed, NNJKIDS has pulled together representatives of the area’s Orthodox and Conservative day schools and earned the support of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which represents the area’s Orthodox rabbis, and the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which represents the area’s Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis. Ruth Gafni, head of school at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, told The Jewish Standard during NNJKIDS Month that the organization has created a sense of community.

“The message is you’re not in it alone,” she said.

The government — navigating the separation of church and state

More than 170,000 students in New Jersey attend some 1,200 non-public schools, according to the Orthodox advocacy group Agudath Israel of New Jersey. Of those, about 80 percent attend religious schools. The government provides $137 in aid per private-school student — $72 for nursing services and $65 for textbooks. A handful of groups is exploring options to expand that funding within the confines of the separation between church and state.

Schools that will receive part of a $221,367 allocation from the UJA Federation of Northern N.J. during the 2010-11 school year:

• Bat Torah – The Alisa M. Flatow Yeshiva High School

• Ben Porat Yosef

• The Frisch School

• Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey

• Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls

• The Moriah School

• Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey

• Solomon Schechter Day School
of Bergen County

• Torah Academy of Bergen County

• Yavneh Academy

• Yeshiva Ohr Yosef

• Yeshiva Noam

• Sinai Schools

In one of his final acts in office in December, Gov. Jon Corzine created the Non-Public Education Funding Commission to investigate how the state can aid non-public schools. Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) and George Corwell, director of education of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, co-chaired the commission, which turned in its report to Gov. Chris Christie last month. The 23-member commission also included the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, and the state treasurer and attorney general, charged with monitoring the church-state barrier. As of earlier this week, the commission’s findings had not yet been made public. Schaer declined comment until Christie’s office releases the report.

“Gov. Christie has received the commission’s report and we are currently reviewing its findings,” said Sean L. Conner, a Christie spokesman. “We are working to ensure every child in New Jersey has access to a quality education, no matter their zip code or family’s socioeconomic status.”

Howie Beigelman, deputy director of the OU’s Institute of Public Affairs, testified before the New Jersey Senate’s Committee on Economic Development in support of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bipartisan bill that would create scholarships to be funded by corporate donors and provide tax credits for those corporations. Similar programs have already been instituted in Pennsylvania and Florida, while the Maryland Senate recently passed a similar bill.

“That will be a great step forward for all of us,” Beigelman told the Standard. “Lower and moderate-income kids can get a scholarship to go to a better school of their choice.”

The IPA is focusing its efforts on the OSA and has all but abandoned the pursuit of school vouchers. Vouchers, according to Beigelman, are “a minefield. While we certainly think legally there are ways to draft it that are appropriate, we think tax credits are easier and in other states help public and non-public schools. We’re happy to help everyone at the same time.”

Josh Pruzansky, director of Agudath Israel of New Jersey and chair of the New Jersey State Non-Public School Advisory Committee, praised Christie’s stance toward school choice.

“It’s absolutely wonderful to have a governor like Gov. Chris Christie who understands the importance of having a child educated in a place where their parents decide is the best place to be educated,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for our community to start reaping increased funding for our students.”

Christie has drawn criticism across the state for slashing public school funding. More than half of the proposed school budgets across the state were voted down during April’s contentious school board elections. The elections were particularly contentious in Teaneck because of a slate of candidates for school board who didn’t have children in the public schools. This led to some accusations that some in the Orthodox community were willing to sacrifice the public schools to lower property taxes. This is not the case, Beigelman said.

“We are pro-public school,” Beigelman said. “We also want and need our folks — and everyone who’s in a bad school — to have options.”

The local community is beginning to enter the political arena as well. Jerry Gontownik, vice president of the Englewood-based pro-Israel NORPAC, earlier this year founded EDPAC, dedicated to promoting day-school funding in Trenton.

“We are a PAC that is limited to the state of New Jersey,” Gontownik said, “and focused on encouraging our state elected officials to support programs and funding that would assist families who want to send their children to non-public schools.”

He said one of the areas his group would push is to increase state funding for special education in parochial schools. Tuition at Sinai Schools — which is devoted to special education and has campuses at Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, Torah Academy of Bergen County, and Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, both in Teaneck — charges base costs of more than $40,000 for in-state students and more than $50,000 for out-of-state pupils.

“Some people choose for religious reasons to send their children to parochial schools,” he said. “But I don’t think that choice should cut off completely the right of those parents to receive some funding toward the cost of education for their children.”

Like other advocacy groups, EDPAC is waiting for the governor to release the non-public schools report.

“I hope that if and when there is legislation that would assist the community in paying for Jewish education, that the community will appreciate the potential for such legislation and will assist financially in bringing such legislation to fruition.”

The OU

The Orthodox Union first brought the issue to the public’s attention at a conference for educators last year. OU leaders promised action to stem the increasingly prohibitive tuition, and the organization has made some progress, said Cary Friedman, associate director of day-school and educational services at the OU.

Approximately 15 schools throughout the tri-state area have signed on to a joint health insurance program the OU is coordinating. The OU, Friedman said, has created a professional employer organization, Advantec, so that all staff of the schools in the plan become employees of the new, larger organization. That organization then negotiates lower insurance rates for all the employees spread throughout the different schools.

“The whole topic of health care is just a crushing burden for the schools,” Friedman said. “Even though we’re offering good rates, their concerns are if this is going to continue into the future.”

The Internet may provide another source of relief for day schools. Some states have online charter schools, which — if used for secular components of day schools — could represent cost savings of up to 30 percent, Friedman said. This could also be a way around the church-state issue for funding of secular education.

“That online participation a kid can do in his basement, in a public library, or in a yeshiva classroom next to 19 other kids also signed up for the charter classroom,” he said.

New York and New Jersey currently do not permit online charter schools.

The Chabad factor

Chabad on the Palisades in Tenafly has run a preschool for 13 years, but each year it has faced a dilemma of continuing education, said executive director Rabbi Mordechai Shain.

In recent years, Shain has noticed a trend among parents to put their children into public school after they finish at Chabad. Their argument, he said, is the high quality of Tenafly schools and the cost: Free.

“That’s our challenge,” Shain said. “How do you balance telling parents that they can have an academic education at no charge and telling them here we’re going to charge you thousands?”

In response, Chabad opened a kindergarten last year with 11 children. In November, registration for the 2010-11 year had reached 40 students. In response to the growth, Chabad created a first-grade class, which will begin in September with a class of 10 at a cost of $9,700 per student for first grade, and $9,400 for kindergarten. Both classes require a $770 registration fee as well.

Elliot Prager, principal of The Moriah School in Englewood, the closest day school to Tenafly Chabad, said he does not expect the new school to affect Moriah.

Chabad’s school, Shain said, is not meant to detract from any of the existing day schools. He estimated that about half the enrollment of the kindergarten and 60 percent of the first-grade class comes from Tenafly or surrounding areas that don’t have large Orthodox populations or large percentages of students already in day school.

“To reach people here, in this community, there’s no other way if we don’t open our own [school],” Shain said.

The Staten Island option

One of the ideas floated around last year was to create a low-cost day-school that offered basic educational services without many of the perks — advanced computers, smartboards, extra-curricular activities — now common in day schools. This idea never took off, but it caught the attention of the Jewish Foundation School in Staten Island, which charges local students an annual tuition of $8,500.

Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools distributed more than $300,000 to area elementary schools during its first year. The following schools receive quarterly allocations from the organization:

• Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey

• The Moriah School

• Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey

• Sinai Schools

• Solomon Schechter Day School \of Bergen County

• Yavneh Academy

• Yeshivat Noam

JFS extended that tuition rate — which includes $2,000 for transportation — to Bergen County families. Uri and Devra Gutfreund of Bergenfield sent their three children — ages 6, 9, and 11 — to JFS this year and said they were very happy with the less expensive option.

“We were lucky to have found JFS,” Uri Gutfreund said. “One year after the decision, we are so glad that we made the move and we hope other parents investigate the option for their children.”

The school held two parlor meetings in the area last year and another two in recent months. One additional family has expressed interest in the school for the 2010-11 school year. JFS principal Rabbi Richard Erlich said he has been disappointed with the response so far from Bergen County, but he understands parents’ fears.

“This is a very big jump for a lot of people,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to decide to remove your children from the local institution and send them 45 minutes away to another state.”

The big stumbling blocks for parents, Gutfreund said, are the commute and social life of the child.

“The social issue is a big mental block,” he said. “It’s going back to the old days when you had shul friends and school friends and neighborhood friends.”

JFS will continue to offer the $8,500 tuition to North Jersey families, Erlich said. About half of the school’s 400-odd students from Staten Island and Brooklyn receive some form of scholarship, but none of those funds is available for New Jersey families. At a few thousand dollars less than the local schools, however, Erlich said New Jersey families are already receiving quite a bargain.

“I’m still surprised,” Erlich said. “Clearly the recession is as entrenched this year as last year. People who didn’t have jobs last year still don’t have jobs this year. I’m trying to figure out why there isn’t a much greater response to our offer.”

How the schools are coping

Funds from NNJKIDS mitigated tuition increases across the board by about $200 per child, according to JEFG and school officials. It’s a start, but many schools still had to raise their rates and find other ways to cut costs.

Bat Torah – The Alisa M. Flatow Yeshiva High School in Paramus is raising its tuition for the coming year to $10,000, an increase of $1,000 from this year’s rate. The school relies on its efficiency and goodwill of its parents to keep its prices low, said principal Miriam Bak.

One of the areas in which the school saves is by not paying teacher benefits. Most of the staff of almost 30 teachers is part time, though they are well-trained specialists and the school goes out of its way to accommodate schedules, Bak said.

At Ben Porat Yosef, which shares the old Frisch building with Bat Torah, tuition for pre-K rose $400 to $13,600, while tuition for first through fifth grades rose $400 to $14,200. The nursery school lowered its tuition by $1,300 to $7,900 and the toddler class lowered its tuition by $800 to $6,900.

The school has 215 students enrolled for next year, an approximately 40 percent increase from this past year, said Yehuda Kohn, vice president of the school’s board. Next year will also mark the school’s first fifth-grade class.

“Ben Porat Yosef is in a unique position in that we are in a vigorous growth phase,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Standard. “As a result, not only have we not had to cut any staff, but our current fixed costs are now becoming more cost-effective.”

The school held a scholarship walkathon recently that raised more than $60,000. BPY is also working with Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership to create new avenues for revenue without increasing tuition. In addition, the school is “actively pursuing” all cost-cutting ideas, Kohn continued.

“No line item on our budget is immune,” he wrote.

“We’re learning to do more with less. We’re going to have to take on that mantra,” said Joel Kirschner, executive director of Yavneh Academy in Paramus, who spoke with the Standard last month.

Yavneh raised its tuition for kindergarten to fifth grade to $13,300 and tuition for sixth through eighth grade to $13,975 — representing a $200 increase on both levels. The school’s allocation from UJA-NNJ has also decreased in recent years, Kirschner said. The federation gave it $105,000 for the 2005-06 year, while the allocation for 2009-10 was under $30,000.

The non-profit world has been one of the biggest victims of the economic downturn, but UJA-NNJ has increased its 2010-11 allocation to 13 schools to a total of $221,357 — an $8,520 increase from this past year.

“In a year when we kept slack most of our allocations, the day schools got a 4 percent increase,” said Alan Sweifach, the federation’s planning and allocations director. “It’s going to take a solution beyond the allocation. The allocation and the increase to Jewish education is an important message. At least it is a recognition and step in the right direction when the dollars are so limited.”

Tuition levels at Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck will remain at the 2009-10 rates, largely thanks to a 10 percent increase in the student body. Salaries were frozen during the 2009-10 year, but teachers can expect to receive “modest” salary increases during the 2010-11 school year, administrator Ceil Olivestone wrote in an e-mail to the Standard. Olivestone praised what she called “efforts to keep a tight control on programs and expenses.”

“While we have not affected any curricular or extracurricular program or expense that would compromise the quality and essence of the chinuch/education that we provide,” she wrote, “the budget was thoroughly reviewed by the administration and lay leadership.”

Fund-raising among parents of current and former students, as well as within the community, provides 10 percent of the school’s budget, Olivestone wrote.

Basic tuition at The Frisch School in Paramus for 2010-11 will increase to $21,950 from $21,250, according to the school’s president, Martin Heistein. About 27 percent of the families of the school’s approximately 660 students this year received some form of scholarship.

The school has also avoided layoffs, Heistein said.

“We’ve reviewed all the remaining aspects of the budget and tried to toe the line where possible,” he said.

Moriah has increased tuition by 1.9 percent across the board, bringing the total for kindergarten to second grade up to $13,380; $13,635 for third through fifth grade; and $14,050 for sixth through eighth grade.

Salaries stayed level this year and will remain the same into next year, he continued. The school did lay off “several” mostly part-time employees, though Prager would not comment on the exact number.

“It’s certainly something we didn’t want to do but felt in order to be financially responsible we had to tighten the staffing somewhat,” he said.

The school has cut back costs on color printing, energy, and is spending on only “necessary purchases” of educational resources, Prager said.

“In the short run, our cost-saving steps, together with whatever help we’ve gotten from NNJKIDS, has at least at the present time, we feel, enabled us to successfully meet the economic challenges we’ve faced this year and into the coming year,” Prager said. “As to what the long-range picture will be only time will tell.”

RYNJ cut 10 jobs and kept salaries flat during the 2009-10 school year. Along with a reduction of positions, responsibilities, and pay, the school avoided a tuition increase from 2008-09 by cutting $500,000 in costs, said the school’s president.

The school projects an enrollment of 970 children in preschool through eighth grade next year, an increase of 35 students, and an average increase of $150, or 1.1 percent, per student per grade, according to Rosenbaum.

The increase breaks down to $255 for grades four through eight, $125 for grades one through three, and no increase for preschool. No other increases are planned, according to Rosenbaum.

The school is also looking to restructure teacher compensation and benefits, including giving tuition breaks for children of employees.

“These efforts are having a one-time impact on our economics but once we get over the initial bump, will position us well in the coming years to manage our costs,” Rosenbaum said.

Sinai also moved one of its elementary programs into RYNJ last year, which has helped defray the costs of the school’s expansion, Rosenbaum said.

“Sinai has been a great addition to our school, and we look forward to finding additional ways to collaborate to reduce costs and run fund-raising programs together,” he said.

RYNJ is one of four schools that saved a combined $24,000 through an electrical group-purchasing plan under UJA-NNJ. The nine-month-old program also includes Yavneh Academy in Paramus, Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, and Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland.

Frisch, Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, and Moriah School also recently signed up.

“In these turbulent economic times, we recognize the value of working together as a community to reduce costs wherever possible,” said Matt Holland, UJA-NNJ’s community purchasing manager.

To make the program work, the schools turn their electric bills over to UJA-NNJ, which then arranges for a single supplier, such as Con Edison or Suez, through Public Service Electricity & Gas. Supply costs can account for 78 percent of an electric bill.

“We get multiple bids from potential suppliers. We select the supplier that offers the best product, service, and price,” Holland said. “We’re looking at annual savings up to $45,000 per school on electricity costs alone.”

The program began as part of the Kehillah Partnership, a group of community organizations that works to save on expenses and resources. The Kehillah Cooperative is the cost-sharing arm of the Partnership and it has netted savings for numerous community organizations.

“We started with electricity, saving $350,000 to date, and look forward to working cooperatively with all Jewish non-profits in northern New Jersey,” Holland said. “Our success so far demonstrates the opportunity the Kehillah Cooperative offers schools, as well as agencies and synagogues.”

Looking forward

“Do I think we’re living through tough times? Absolutely,” said Frisch’s Heistein. “It’s a constant challenge.”

One vocal day-school critic has taken to the Internet to vent his views with a blog called The $200k Chump, which takes its name from the high salary required to afford tuition. The anonymous blogger, who declined a telephone or face-to-face interview, claims to be a parent paying full tuition at one of the county’s schools and frequently writes about the “legacy schools” — Frisch, Moriah, and other established day schools — and why efforts to lower tuition there will not succeed.

“Like many here in town, I am struggling to pay the high cost of yeshiva tuition and want to use this blog to explore some REAL solutions to the crisis,” the “Chump” wrote in the blog’s bio. “Some of my proposals may not be popular with many of the administrators, teachers, board members, and scholarship recipients at our local day schools but that is life and I don’t really care much. The system is broken and we need real change before it is too late.”

The blogger has lashed out against school officials, as well as NNJKIDS for raising money the writer claims is used to hire more administrators. The Chump has also written about other alternatives, including charter schools, JFS, and “the nuclear option” — enrolling students in public schools.

Ideas for charter schools — an Englewood man has been trying to create a Hebrew language charter for two years — and after-school Talmud Torah programs — the Jewish Center of Teaneck has flirted with the idea and is ready to go if enough families show interest, according to Rabbi Lawrence Zierler — are not new but have yet to gain steam. The community has a responsibility to continue exploring all options, said JEFG’s Goldin.

The OU’s Friedman warned against complacency, even if the national economic picture looks brighter.

“The economy seems to be in a little bit of a respite, but nothing has changed,” he said. “If we delude ourselves and pretend it’s going away, it’s not going to go away.”

 
 
 
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