Thursday, July 29, 2004

The Betrayal of Jewish Day Schools

For two-thirds of the last century, Federations across the country refused to assist Jewish day schools. There were exceptions, usually arising out of special circumstances such as in Cleveland. The dominant pattern was neglect and it was not always benign. The Federation world was strongly committed to a universalistic agenda that favored hospitals and secular activities and had little room for overtly Jewish programs. Day schools were targeted for special hostility because they went against the grain of the melting pot mentality, against our goal of total integration into American life. Day schools were for many Jews an embarrassment.

The situation began to change in the 1970's as a confluence of factors - Israel and Soviet Jewry, the Black revolution and the attendant acceptance of ethnic identity and fears about Jewish continuity - resulted in a new willingness to focus on parochial Jewish concerns. Day schools benefited from this change, although it would be a stretch to say that they were embraced by Federation leaders. A survey of key Federation people conducted several years ago revealed more than residual doubts about the legitimacy of all-day religious schools. Still, most Federations provided support for day schools and while the amounts were generally meager, they were helpful. But once a threshold of support was set, it remained a constant, constituting as a consequence a steadily reduced share of the typical day school budget.

Because of the great concentration of yeshivas and day schools in its service area, the New York Federation could not readily come up with a formula that would provide meaningful assistance to these schools. The situation was directly addressed by Joseph Gruss of blessed memory, the great philanthropist who fervently believed that meaningful religious education is the key - perhaps the only key - to Jewish survival. Through his own foundation he developed programs that directly assist day schools and educators. The hallmark of his creative philanthropy was simplicity and fairness, as he abhorred the cant and self-promotion that inheres in grantsmanship. He insisted on a level playing field and day schools and their faculty have benefited enormously from his vision and generosity.

Mr. Gruss insisted that the New York Federation had to do its share. Through his determination the Fund for Jewish Education was established twenty-five years ago. The FJE is a Federation-Gruss partnership, with the former footing two-thirds of the bill or $3 million a year and Gruss half of that. The $4.5 million provides fringe benefits to eligible educators in Jewish schools, including term life insurance and contributions toward medical coverage, and also basic grants to participating schools. Because FJE funding is essentially fixed, these initiatives have declined steadily as a percentage of the cost of medical coverage and day school budgets. Furthermore, the basic grants have been reduced. In 1982 they ranged from $3,850 to $22,000 for day schools. The range last year was $2,600 to $14,700.

Another consequence of the failure to add to the FJE pot was that for more than a decade its programs have been closed to additional schools.

The obvious way of dealing with the escalating needs of FJE programs is to increase the available funds, perhaps by aggressively seeking other philanthropic partners. While there has been a bit of additional funding, in an important sense this path has not been taken by Federation officials. I believe that the reason is that they never had much liking for the Fund for Jewish Education. When FJE came into being, I was told that Federation felt it had been duped and coerced by Mr. Gruss, that in addition to it putting up the lion's share of the funds, the funding formulas followed Mr. Gruss' dictates. It also did not help that more than 90% of the day schools in the Federation's service area are Orthodox.

Now in a shocking betrayal of their communal responsibilities, Federation functionaries abetted by some lay "leaders" have terminated the basic grants, perversely using the low funding level as a justification for this scandalous action. Simply put, the argument being advanced - and it was bought in an article last week in this newspaper - is that since FJE provides so little, it's right to cut off support to day schools. This betrayal of day schools and of the great legacy of Mr. Gruss is expressed without any embarrassment. We are being presented with a rhetorical smokescreen by public relations flacks that is pure sophistry and distorts the truth. The Jewish community is being deceived by being told that less is more.

This is happening at a time when most New York day schools are struggling to meet basic obligations, when in too many institutions underpaid teachers are behind in getting their paychecks, when educational services and maintenance are being scrimped on, when there are schools at the brink of collapse. Do Federation functionaries not recognize that a grant as low as $2,600 is a significant sum for many day schools?

My 1997 report on the financing of Jewish day schools clearly showed that basic grants are the primary mode of Federation support for day schools around the country. So far as I know, no other Federation has eliminated basic grants to day schools.

While the Federation world has never been seriously committed to meaningful Jewish education, it is still difficult to understand how Federation officials would take steps to hurt Jewish schools. The deed was announced in mid-July during the summer doldrums when most schools are all but shut down and few people pay much attention to matters such as this. The issue has received limited newspaper coverage and only the Jewish Press has criticized the harmful action.

The day school movement which not long ago in the aftermath of NJPS 1990 was trumpeted as the best bet we have to strengthen Jewish values and identity is in trouble and leaderless. The main Orthodox organization is preoccupied with adult education, grantsmanship, weekends and other diversions that allow it to ignore what is happening in day schools throughout North America. Astonishingly, this organization which once was in the forefront in insisting on Federation support for day schools has not issued a statement on the action of the New York Federation.

To make matters worse, funds taken away from struggling Jewish schools are to be redirected to "pilot programs" - itself a cliche for those who are clueless about Jewish education - that will subsidize mentoring and training projects. We can score one more for the already well-endowed Jewish education industry. We are awash in expensive training programs that lead nowhere, that do nothing for schools or educators and that are bereft of any standards to assess their effectiveness. The words "mentoring" and "training" are foolishly accepted as sufficient assurance that what is being undertaken and handsomely supported must be good.

The betrayal of day schools is cruel and it will be harmful. No public relations or sweet-talking will change this truth.