No excuses: invest for your children

By Leslie Wagner, July 16, 2008

We must be prepared to fund the teaching of Jewish Studies in our schools

The increase in Jewish schooling is Anglo-Jewry’s greatest achievement in recent times, and the entire community has a stake in the system’s success. So as the Jewish Leadership Council’s Commission on Jewish Schools, which I chaired, reports this week, there will no doubt be much attention paid to the prospect of non-Jewish children entering our schools, the impact of the opening of JCoSS and the proposals for changes in Redbridge, which we highlight.

Yet ironically, just as record numbers are attending Jewish primary and secondary schools, it is the Jewish Studies provision in these schools which is proving to be their Achilles’ heel.

As the JC reported two weeks ago, many parents cannot or will not make the financial contribution which pays for Jewish Studies. So the contribution from those who do pay is higher than it need be, and schools have to live with a great deal of financial uncertainty in planning their Jewish Studies work. Indeed, recent government publicity emphasising the voluntary nature of these contributions may result in more parents refusing to pay the full amount requested.

The Commission on Jewish Schools looked at this problem in some depth, and concluded that there was no viable alternative in the immediate future to parental contributions to fund Jewish Studies teaching. There are parents whose financial circumstances prevent them from contributing the full amount requested, and their numbers will increase in the current economic downturn. But there are many others whose lifestyle indicates that they can afford to pay yet do not.

Their children are receiving a free first-class secular education. However, Jewish Studies teaching, together with the other activities which create the Jewish environment of the school, and also, significantly, the revenue costs of security, cannot be provided from public funds. They are covered instead by the voluntary contribution of parents. Most parents choose a Jewish school to enable their children to learn about Judaism in a Jewish atmosphere and a safe environment. Yet many who can afford to will not accept the financial responsibility that makes that possible. They are in effect relying on charitable handouts from others.

In the short term we need to find ways, within the rules, of persuading more parents to accept their responsibilities, so that schools can be better funded for this vital work. In the longer term we have to find new sources of funding to give schools a more secure financial base for their Jewish Studies work. The Commission is recommending that all Jewish Studies teachers should be professionally qualified, and the aim of our proposals is to ensure that Jewish Studies is taught to the same high professional standard as the secular subjects in a school. This will require increased funding, but it will be money well spent.

The Commission has proposed that a Jewish Schools Endowment Fund be established. This would raise a capital sum, the income from which would contribute to the annual funding of Jewish Studies. How big does the fund need to be? Well, the annual cost of Jewish Studies in mainstream schools is in the region of £10 million. If the objective was to provide half the Jewish funding needs of schools, with the rest coming from parental contributions, around £5 million a year would be needed.

This could be raised in a number of ways. A £100 million endowment fund would do it — and if that sounds enormous, think of the funds being raised for one building, the London Jewish Community Centre. The Commission was impressed by schemes in other countries, particularly the USA. In Chicago, the Jewish Community Federation uses annual pledges to raise funds at low rates which are then invested to yield higher returns. It is not appropriate in current market conditions, but should be looked at for when better economic times return.

The American Jewish Funders Network encouraged one donor to pledge a large sum into a central pot. The pledge is only redeemable as matched funding. A number of smaller donors who had never given to Jewish schools in the past were then encouraged to put smaller first-time donations into the pot, obtaining huge leverage for a small donation. These smaller donors then began giving funds each year.

There are other schemes that need to be explored and our community is blessed with people with the expertise to advise on how an endowment fund might be set up and the different ways of raising funds. They should be set to work as soon as possible.  

There is one scheme which the Commission believes is essential to the proposal. Part of the proceeds of any building or other asset sold by a communal organisation should be donated to the Jewish Schools Endowment Fund. This would be a good test of whether the community will put its money where its mouth is.

Everyone agrees that the community’s future depends on the Jewish knowledge, pride and identity of our young people and that our schools are central to this purpose. Now we will be able to see whether our schools really are the first priority of the community.

Prof Leslie Wagner is chair of the Jewish Leadership Council’s Commission on Jewish Schools
Last updated: 11:13am, July 17 2008