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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.

 
 

Non-Orthodox day schools are no ‘shandah’

 

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.”

 
 

Frisch school-bus accident brings focus on safety

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This bus brought students from Rockland County, N.Y., to The Frisch School in Paramus on Wednesday. Lloyd de Vries

Tuesday’s school bus accident involving high school students heading from Rockland County to Jewish schools in Paramus has raised questions about school bus safety.

The bus went onto the center median just south of exit 171 on the Garden State Parkway in Woodcliff Lake Tuesday morning, hitting a guard rail and trees. The 13 students on the bus and the driver were taken to The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood and Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, where they were treated for minor injuries ranging from a concussion to a broken nose.

The issue of school bus safety is complicated further because the 12 Frisch School students and one Bat Torah student were coming from one state into another.

In New Jersey, local public school districts are required to provide bus transportation to students attending nonprofit private schools, so long as they live between two and 20 miles from the school, and the district provides busing for its own students.

In New York, the range for K-8 students is two to 15 miles and three to 15 for high school students. The Frisch School is about 12 miles from the East Ramapo Central School District, which was providing the transportation for the students involved in Tuesday’s accident, and about 15 miles from the central pick-up spot.

Each school day, three buses bring students from that Rockland County area to Frisch.

“To the best of my knowledge, it’s the first [bus] accident” involving Frisch students, Rabbi John Krug, dean of student life and welfare, told The Jewish Standard.

New York State requires that students going to private schools be picked up not at their homes, but from a central point, which in this case was the Grandview School in Wesley Hills (Monsey), N.Y.

Parents may pay for bus transportation if the distance to the private school is less or more than these parameters.

There is a limit on how much a New Jersey school district may spend on transporting a student; currently, it’s $884 per year. If the cost of transportation to a nonpublic school exceeds that, the district pays that amount to the parents or guardians, who then make up the difference.

The bus in Tuesday’s accident was operated by Chestnut Ridge Transportation in Spring Valley, N.Y., owned by The Trans Group.

The East Ramapo school district referred questions to the New York State website. Chestnut Ridge Transportation did not return several calls.

New Jersey and New York school buses are inspected at least twice a year, according to government websites.

Only six states require school buses to have seat belts, but New York and New Jersey are two of them. New Jersey is the only state, however, that requires their use by student passengers.

About 40 percent of the students at the Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford are brought there by bus, although none comes from Rockland County. Some of the transportation is funded by public school districts.

“We make sure that when our students get on the buses that they’re seated properly,” Larry Mash, middle school principal at Solomon Schechter in New Milford, told the Standard. “We have less control over the ride in the morning.”

Whether the students remained buckled up is the responsibility of the bus driver, said Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck administrator Rachel Feldman.

Some of the bus transportation for students at Ma’ayanot is arranged by the school, some by the students’ parents, and none by public school districts, Feldman told the Standard, but in all cases, the bus companies must meet certain standards, and she has copies of their insurance certificates on file.

“The companies that we use, as far as we know, have good records,” said Schechter’s Mash.

The Schechter school probably will review school bus safety after the Frisch accident, as it does routinely. Students periodically participate in school bus safety drills, such as how to exit from the rear of a bus, Mash added.

“Thank God, it’s a much happier ending than it could have been,” Elaine Weitzman, Frisch executive director, told the Standard.

And Krug related that happy ending on the sixth day of Chanukah to the holiday.

“We could change nes gadol haya sham, ‘a great miracle happened there,’ to nes gadol haya po, ‘a great miracle happened here,’” he said.

 
 

Ethan Tucker: Torah belongs to Jews, not denominations

Solomon Schechter studies Torah with Mechon Hadar

The seventh-graders sat around the tables in the bet midrash — study hall and synagogue — of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford. They were studying from hand-outs of rabbinic texts.

At each table was a guest, a fellow at New York City’s Mechon Hadar. Together, the students discussed the texts in front of them in light of questions posed by Rabbi Ethan Tucker, co-founder and rosh yeshiva of Mechon Hadar. (See related story.)

“It made me feel that I was on a high level,” said Yael Marans, “because I was studying with someone who chooses to go to a yeshiva and I just go to seventh grade.”

That was a mission accomplished for Rabbi Fred Elias of Schechter, who teaches Judaic studies to the eighth grade and who helped organize the visit.

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Schechter seventh-graders Eric and Noah Martz study with Ross Weissman of Mechon Hadar. Courtesy SSDS-BC

“We want to demonstrate to our students that studying Torah can be a part of their everyday life even long after they leave Schechter,” he said.

The visit from the Hadar fellows, which took place in November, is part of an ongoing partnership between the two schools which will continue with a visit by Schechter students to Mechon Hadar in March.

Most recently, Tucker came to New Milford on Feb. 16. In addition to teaching the school’s seventh- and eighth-graders, he led a workshop for Judaic studies faculty and presented a public class to a full house of 65 adults that evening.

Mechon Hadar follows the model of a traditional yeshiva bet midrash study hall, rather than that of a university classroom. Students mainly study texts in pairs, or chevruta. Only a small part of the school day is spent in a lecture.

Schechter has recently similarly transformed its seventh- and eighth-grade Talmud curriculum “from a frontal model,” lecturing, “to the bet midrash approach,” said Elias.

The partnership with Mechon Hadar makes sense, said Elias, “because we’re both using an inquiry-based approach to Jewish learning.” In that approach, he said, “we present texts that encourage … the students to ask questions instead of just factual memorization or regurgitating answers on exams.”

“Even though Mechon Hadar is not labeled Conservative,” as is Schechter, “it represents many ideals of the Conservative movement: its learning, its ideas of egalitarianism, tefillah — traditional prayer — and social action. We find ourselves quite similar in many respects,” he said.

 
 

Ethan Tucker: Torah belongs to Jews, not denominations

Mechon Hadar founder seeks to integrate halacha and ethics

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Rabbi Ethan Tucker

Rabbi Ethan Tucker has created an institution, Mechon Hadar, that combines the free-form Torah study of the Orthodox yeshiva with the co-ed, egalitarian ethos of liberal Conservative Judaism. Mechon Hadar identifies with neither denomination although its faculty, students, and lay leaders overlap with both.

Tucker stumbled into his career as non-denominational institution-builder in 2001, when he invited friends to informal Shabbat services in his apartment. This was not the first minyan to bring together young participants from the Orthodox and Conservative worlds on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, with a combination of traditional davening and egalitarian participation, but for whatever cultural and demographic reasons, Tucker’s initiative tapped a tremendous demand. Sixty people showed up. Three weeks later, there were 100 participants and an urgent need to find a larger space. What took shape as Kehilat Hadar — from the Hebrew word meaning splendor and honor — became the vanguard of a wave of independent minyans across the country. These communities are the subject of a recent book, “Empowered Communities,” by Conservative-ordained Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, Tucker’s partner in founding the minyan.

The success of the minyan marked Tucker and Kaunfer as leaders. They received major grants from the Avi Chai and Harold Grinspoon foundations that enabled them to launch Mechon Hadar in 2006, initially as an intensive summer program. Mechon Hadar is now in its second year of offering full-time learning for the nine-month academic year. It has 22 fellows, mostly recent college graduates, who receive stipends to support their Torah study, and 50 slots for this summer’s program.

“We want people to think about spending significant time studying Torah,” said Tucker. “The vision is to create a community of adult learners. We are not a rabbinical school nor will we start one.”

Hadar students are “a fairly representative sample of what American Judaism looks like in terms of denominational background and geographic diversity,” Tucker said. “No single denomination comprises a majority of the background of our students.”

Tucker himself eschews denominational labels. He graduated from Harvard, studied in Israel for three years at the liberal Orthodox yeshiva in Maale Gilboa, and was ordained by Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. He received a doctorate in Talmud from the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where his father, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, had served as rabbinical school dean and still teaches.

Tucker acknowledges the good and important work that denominational organizations do for the Jewish people, but says that “denominational labels threaten to make Torah sectarian. I think the Torah paints on a broader canvas. The Torah is the property of the entire Jewish people and speaks to the entire Jewish people. That means that all Jews, irrespective of their background, have the right to demand that the Torah speak to them and address who they are and give them guidance based on the lives they actually lead. It also means that the Torah commands and has expectations for all Jewish people.”

In a 90-page online article — http://bit.ly/egalitarian — regarding women leading services, counting in the minyan, and reading from the Torah, Tucker examines classical sources and contemporary halachic discussions from both Orthodox and Conservative rabbis before concluding that Jewish law recognizes the possibility and perhaps even the necessity of a gender-egalitarian minyan in the context of a gender-egalitarian society.

For Tucker, a central challenge for Judaism today is to integrate the ethical and ritual realms into a single religious conversation.

“Can ethical behavior ever conflict with halacha?” asked the title of the class he gave for the community at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County last Wednesday evening.

He presented a text from Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner, an early 20th-century Hungarian Orthodox rabbi, concerning cannibalism. Is it better to eat human flesh — which the Torah does not prohibit — than the flesh of an animal explicitly prohibited by the Torah?

Tucker asked participants to study the text with a chevruta, study partner, and someone read it aloud as he mined it for meaning.

Glasner argued that it is worse to eat human flesh because the Torah assumes a baseline of acceptable human behavior.

“Anything reviled by human society in general, even if it is not explicitly forbidden by the Torah, is forbidden to us even more than explicit biblical prohibitions,” wrote Glasner.

Tucker summarized: “The Torah … when practiced properly will cause all the people around to look at you and say, ‘What an amazing way to live your life.’”

The Torah, he said, “demands a conversation that is completely and totally integrated, where I am not having one conversation about what the Torah and Shulchan Aruch demand of me, and another conversation about what my ethical qualms say about the issue, and there will be some kind of death match between the two. Understand that it’s one conversation, with the title, ‘What does God want?’”

For Tucker, “We don’t have the luxury of bifurcation. This is critical to what the religious world needs in the 21st century. We have to think, holistically and in an integrated way and with a passion, that the Torah speaks to us.”

It is this aspect of religiously and ethically wrestling with classical Jewish texts that animates the learning at Hadar, said Tucker.

University Jewish studies courses “completely lack the religious component,” he said. Also, in most religious settings, “certain intellectual pathways are closed off as being not worthy or beyond the pale.”

“There is a a deep thirst for the kind of learning we’re doing here, with an insistence on learning sources in depth, in the original language, with the same vigor and seriousness as would be applied to any serious intellectual endeavor — a willingness to have all questions on the table, where the process of learning is that one can ask any question and imagine any possible answer. We have that, in a very conscious and deliberate religious context. We’re not just academically exploring questions; we’re trying to understand in our learning what God wants from us in this world, how are we supposed to act, how do we make decisions,” he said.

For more on Ethan Tucker, including his favorite books of halacha and how Mechon Hadar differs from the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem, see Larry Yudelson’s blog at Jstandard.com.

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Rabbi Ethan Tucker discusses ethics and Torah at a Solomon Schechter community bet midrash. Courtesy SSDS-BC
 
 

Space odysseys at local schools

Conferencing with an astronaut at Ben Porat Yosef

Larry YudelsonLocal | World
Published: 07 December 2012
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A planetarium was set up in the Ben Porat Yosef library BPY

Did you ever wonder what it is like to work in outer space?

Three weeks ago, students at Ben Porat Yosef Yeshiva Day School in Paramus had the chance to ask astronaut Shannon Walker that question. Walker, who spent 161 days at the International Space Station in 2010 and served as co-pilot on the Soyuz flights to and from the station, spoke with students at the Paramus school via video conference. She showed them a space suit and answered the questions the students asked.

It was part of the school’s “Discovery Day,” which takes students out of the curriculum twice a year to focus on a specific scientific topic — this go around, space.

“We’re looking for stuff they don’t necessarily learn in the classroom,” said Cindy Wiesel, the school’s junior high science teacher, who helped organize the event.

Also on the day’s schedule: a chance to examine a real moon rock, on loan from NASA; the challenge of putting together a puzzle while wearing gloves in order to simulate what it’s like to work in a space suit; a look at models of the planets and their distances from the sun, and the chance to feel how much 100 pennies would weigh on different planets in the solar system.

“The whole experience was spectacular for the kids,” Wiesel said.

 
 
 
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