entries tagged with: Matt Holland
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.
“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
• 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 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.”
“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.”
The national recession has resulted in decreased donations to charities across the board, but it has also spurred local Jewish organizations to enter a cost-sharing initiative that could save hundreds of thousands of dollars.
UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey convened a July 29 meeting at its Paramus headquarters to highlight its successes in the year-old Kehillah Cooperative — the federation’s role in the wider Kehillah Partnership — and draw new organizations to the program. To date, 29 organizations have signed up and collectively saved more than $300,000 on electric bills. (The Kehillah Partnership is a group of community organizations banded together to realize savings in cost and programmatic resources.)
“The sole purpose [of the cooperative] is to try to save the Jewish community money,” said Dan Silna, former president of UJA-NNJ, as he welcomed attendees.
The federation expects participating organizations to save another $125,000 by the middle of next year, said Matt Holland, UJA-NNJ’s community purchasing manager, who explained the program to some 50 representatives of more than 30 communal organizations.
Eight organizations have recently signed contracts to join the electricity cost-sharing program, while four more are reviewing the program, which could lead to annual savings of $125,092 for these 12 groups, according to UJA-NNJ.
The federation solicits bids from companies for electricity, shipping, credit-card processing, and office supplies, among other providers, Holland explained. The company with the best prices then becomes the supplier for the entire cooperative. For electricity, for example, the federation arranges for a single supplier, such as ConEdison or Suez, through PSE&G. Supply costs can account for 78 percent of an electric bill.
New vendors include Systrum, which Holland said could save $200,000 of a $2.5 million annual communal gas bill; FedEx, which he said could save $150,000 annually on shipping costs; and iPayment, a credit-card processing service that Holland said could save between $65,000 and $150,00 for the cooperative.
Participating organizations do not, however, have to sign up for every service offered, he said. More participation means more leverage, though, he added.
“The more participation we get, the easier it is for me to go out and swing a big stick,” he said.
Holland stressed that there is no fee to join the program, nor does the federation receive any fee from the vendors.
The program appears to have already had a small impact for Jewish education.
Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey in River Edge, Yavneh Academy in Paramus, Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, and Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland saved a combined $24,000 through the cooperative’s electrical group-purchasing plan, according to UJA-NNJ.
The Kehillah Cooperative has saved 16 organizations $304,874.61 in electric costs from July 2009 to June 2010, according to UJA-NNJ.
The Frisch School and Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, and The Moriah School in Englewood, also recently signed up.
“We really believe this is a value to the community, something we’re set up to do,” Miriam Allenson, UJA-NNJ’s marketing director, told the Standard. “It’s something we can give back to the community.”
Since last week’s meeting, Holland has received at least 25 e-mails about the program. The economic downturn has been a driving force, he said.
“When everybody’s doing very well, people aren’t looking at this closely,” he said. “To think outside the box and join together as a community — the economy drove that.”
Attendees at the meeting who were already active in the Cooperative appeared happy with their choices.
“You can see what the savings have been and what the potential is,” said Lisa Fedder, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, one of the groups participating in the cooperative’s gas and electric aspects.
“This is what federation should be doing,” said Wally Greene, executive director of the Jewish Center of Teaneck and former director of the federation’s Jewish Educational Services. “I look forward to seeing more.”
The following organizations are part of the Kehillah Cooperative:
Bergen County Y, a JCC
*In addition to these synagogues, supplementary or nursery schools operating within these institutions are independently participating in the Kehillah Cooperative.
|Liron Karass, youth shlicha at Bergen YJCC, standing, goes over story that was recorded by Hebrew-speaking scouts from Fair Lawn. Charles Zusman|
Sunday was a day for feeling good and doing good, as some 1,500 volunteers fanned out in North Jersey for the annual Mitzvah Day coordinated by the UJA Federation of North Jersey’s Jewish Community Relations Council. The November morning’s chill was dispelled by the warmth of “mitzvah” activities at some 40 sites, bringing a smile to seniors, a helping hand to those with special needs, and an assist to nature and conservation groups.
To cite just a few of the mitzvot, youngsters dressed as clowns entertained seniors at the Jewish Center of Teaneck. Teenagers gathered at the Bergen YJCC in Washington Township to record a story, in Hebrew and English, for blind children in Israel and New York. Volunteers helped to put away canoes and kayaks for the winter for the Hackensack Riverkeeper, an environmental group.
“Mitzvah Day is a powerful event,” said Sari Gross, event chairwoman. “It gives people an opportunity to do good and bring joy to themselves and others.”
The event has come of age, so to speak, this being its b’nai mitzvah year. It began 13 years ago with some 300 volunteers and has grown five-fold, said Alice Blass, event coordinator. Other organizations have followed the North Jersey model, but not on the same scale, she said.
“There is something for everyone, including your friendly pet,” Blass said, noting that warm and fuzzy “therapy” animals are a hit with seniors.
Also, she said, the beneficiaries of Mitzvah Day are not necessarily Jewish.
The day had special significance for Vardit Cohen, 17, of Fair Lawn, one of a group of Israeli-born scouts called Tzofim doing the recording at the YJCC. She has a cousin who is blind, Vardit said. When a lot of people join together to do good deeds, the effect is multiplied, she added.
The book chosen for the reading was especially appropriate, said Liron Karass, youth shlicha (emissary) at the Bergen YJCC. “Bone Button Borscht” by Aubrey Davis is about a beggar who comes to a small town that has fallen on hard times. The beggar’s tall tale of how he can make soup out of buttons works to bring the townspeople together.
The scouts recorded the book in Hebrew, and that recording will be sent to a library in Netanya, Israel. The others recorded it in English, and it will be sent to New York.
The scouts taking part in the Hebrew reading were, besides Vardit, her twin sister Sarit, Bar Begev, Noa Moshe, Gal Shaya, and Liran Yarkoni. Volunteers recording the English version were Alex and Ben Weiss, Anya Gips, Jacqueline Gold, and Dara Liebeskind,
A similar program was held at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly with another group of Israeli scouts, Karass said.
At the Teaneck Jewish Center, Abby Steifel, 12, was brimming with brightness and color in her clown outfit. “It’s really fun to make people smile,” she said, and smile they did.
“Lovely, lovely,” said Yafa Weiss of Cliffside Park. “The kindness, the costumes,” she said, explaining that she has been coming to the program for five years.
Eli Szafranski, 12, of Teaneck, wore his clown outfit and makeup like a pro, even though he had just been trained. He deftly twisted a long balloon into the image of a dog, then pulled a marker from his pocket to draw the facial features.
The youngsters were trained by Areyvut, a program guiding youngsters in ways to help others. Its director, Daniel Rothner, also decked out in clown attire and facepaint, watched over his 12 young charges as they worked the room with smiles and chatter for the seniors.
“The goal is to get kids involved,” not just for the day, but on an ongoing basis, Rothner said. A clown outfit brings a smile to people’s faces, he said of the “Mitzvah Clowning” program.
The program in Teaneck is under the umbrella of the Center for Elder Adults at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades and the UJA.
Earlier in the day in Secaucus, Dan and Laura Kirsch and Matt Holland joined other volunteers in helping to store the Hackensack Riverkeeper’s canoes and kayaks for the winter.
Hugh Corolla of the Riverkeeper staff explained that his group promotes clean water, and that goal is served by educating the public about the watershed and waterways.
By extension, therefore, Laura Kirsch said, helping the Riverkeeper contributes to the well-being of those living in the area. “It’s important in terms of ecology. They do a wonderful job,” she said.
That sentiment was echoed by Dan Kirsch, a kayaker himself, who said the Riverkeeper organization does “a wonderful job of education.” He is the chairman of the regional JCRC and his wife is on the UJA-NNJ board.
Holland, UJA-NNJ community purchasing manager, said, through teeth that weren’t quite chattering as a breeze blew off the river, “I am wearing seven layers…. We’re helping … do some good.”
As Corolla will affirm, you don’t have to be Jewish to benefit from a mitzvah.
“It’s such a success every year,” Gross said Monday, assessing the events of the day before. “You bring people together, and it’s a rich experience for the volunteers and recipients.”
As an engineer for Black and Decker, Matt Holland held 19 patents.
“The plaques hang proudly in my basement,” said the Highland Park resident, now community purchasing manager for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Kehillah Partnership Initiative.
Holland is the man responsible for negotiating savings for the JFNNJ catchment area’s nearly 160 eligible groups — including synagogues, day schools, affiliated agencies, and community centers. He says his technical knowledge has come in handy.
For example, when he tells a synagogue board member how the shul can save money on an electric bill, “I can go through the fine print on a PSE&G bill and make the average congregant understand it.”
Born and raised in Baltimore, Holland studied mechanical engineering at Philadelphia’s Drexel University before taking a job at Black and Decker, where he worked for eight years. After five years as a developmental engineer, “It soon became clear to those around me that I had a talent for negotiation.
“I moved into the purchasing world,” he said. “My personality was different from that of the standard engineer. When I went to China — and all over the world — as an engineer, the people I traveled with realized that my personality was suited for negotiation and vendor development.”
Holland met his wife, Shelley, in college. Living in Baltimore while working at Black and Decker, the couple decided to move to Highland Park — a place they knew well from previous visits and where they have lived for the past six years.
Leaving Black and Decker, he got a job as the “purchasing person” at Echo Unlimited.
“It entailed indirect spending — back-office stuff that people take for granted,” he said, adding that he was able to streamline purchasing for the company, putting the process online. Subsequently, he was asked to manage the facility.
When the economy began its downward trend, Echo — as did so many businesses — felt the negative effects. “We were closing facilities, retail and distribution centers, and putting a freeze on spending,” he said. “I could see the writing on the wall.”
As he began to look for other employment, he did some “soul-searching,” resolving to “look outside the box.” Fortunately, he said, Robin Greenfield, JFNNJ’s chief financial officer, saw his resume.
The federation “had been looking to do group purchasing for years,” he said. “They realized that they needed someone to do it on a day-to-day basis, to have somebody living and breathing it every day.”
With his background, he said, “It was a great fit.” As an observant Jew, he welcomed the opportunity to work for a Jewish organization.
One of the first cost-savings areas he investigated was utilities, looking to leverage volume purchases to save the community money on electricity and gas.
“I love math,” he said. “I get excited about crunching numbers on a big spreadsheet. It’s nice to help organizations understand how they could save money. I can talk technically to people who aren’t technical.”
Holland said his “big passion” is running, although, with three young children — Jonas, 5, Nina, 3, and Bella, 6 months — he does not have as much time to do this as he used to.
“I also love landscaping,” he said, noting that he not only mows his own lawn, but knows a good deal about hedges, bushes, and other plants. In addition, he said, “I’m a huge Baltimore sports fan.”
More than just launching initiatives
Holland said he is gratified that there are now close to 100 community organizations participating in his joint purchasing initiatives.
“There were 16 when I started,” he said, adding that he has so far rolled out nine initiatives: electricity, natural gas, shipping, credit card processing, office supplies, telephone service (voice and data), janitorial supplies, waste removal, and financing.
To date, said Holland, participating groups have saved a combined $1.2 million.
“We have shown that working together can truly impact our bottom lines, as well as create leverage when negotiating with vendors,” he said, suggesting that the program has spread primarily by “creating successes people can look at.”
Joining the program is simple, he said. “All organizations have to do is call or e-mail me and I’ll walk them through our offerings and explain the process to move forward. They just have to supply me with their invoices so I can do a savings analysis. There’s no fee to participate. It’s really a no-brainer.”
“This is how the federation can bring people together,” he said. “It’s about forming relationships. That’s what it’s all about.”
New initiatives this year will include maintenance services and solar power.
School savings seen
“Yeshiva University and the Jewish Education for Future Generations are currently looking at areas that would lower costs among our day schools in northern New Jersey, and maintenance services is one of these areas,” he said. “A few schools have already implemented this and are realizing significant savings.”
For solar power, he said, “I am working behind the scenes with about seven institutions.” If enough organizations participate, combining their kilowatt usage in aggregate, “Solar companies may be willing not only to offer competitive rates but to cover the cost of new roofs for these institutions.” Not only will utility bills be less than what these groups are currently paying, “but they’ll be going green and getting a free roof while saving additional dollars.”
In addition to initiating joint purchasing ventures, Holland has also become a “purchasing sounding board,” advising Jewish organizations on buying items such as new copiers and resolving ongoing vendor issues.
“It’s more than just rolling out initiatives,” he said. “People are looking at their expenses more closely.”
For example, he said, one big synagogue that is doing construction realized that it was being charged for a meter that is not active. Holland worked with all the parties involved, helping the synagogue get a $17,000 refund from PSE&G.