Schools struggle to stay open in US

By Paul Berger, September 3, 2009

Ray Levi, head of the Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School, has had to increase aid for struggling parents, freeze teachers’ pay, reduce benefits and cut support staff.

So it is perhaps a sign of how fragility has become a fact of life for American Jewish day schools that Mr Levi is upbeat. “Despite all the problems we face, I think there is a lot of promise for day schools in America,” he says.

Enrolment remains high and his primary school has strong communal support. But others are not so fortunate.

Some schools, like Beth Jacob in Brooklyn, are several months behind in paying their staff. The Morasha Jewish Day School in California closed in June. And in July, weeks before the start of term, a Florida school sent a letter to parents warning that, because of the loss of a major funder, it could not resume in the new school year.

Such problems have been blamed on the economic crisis, as Jewish schools in the US are private and can cost up to $30,000 a year to attend. But the causes may be as complex and diverse as America’s Jewish day schools themselves.

Middle-class Jewish families, who until recently received very little aid, have struggled with day-school fees for years. Some, particularly liberal families, are considering switching to free state education.

Meanwhile, many schools are either badly run or simply too small to be viable. The financial crisis was the final blow. According to Steven Krauss of the Jewish Education Service of North America: “Maybe some of these schools shouldn’t have been open in the first place.”

Solutions have been varied. Some schools have merged campuses. Farsighted boards have cut costs and increased aid to parents.

The Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Florida distributed $2.2 million in aid last year. The Jim Joseph Foundation recently donated $11 million in emergency grants to families in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington DC and Boston. And in June, the Helen Bader Foundation created a $10 million scholarship endowment in Milwaukee.

In what now must seem like a far-sighted move, the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest, New Jersey, is campaigning to set up a $50 million endowment for three day schools.

Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, says the majority of schools are resilient. Indeed, if demand is an indicator, the schools ought to be celebrating. The preliminary results of a census to be released this autumn show that Jewish day-school enrolment has risen 11 per cent since 2004 — and 25 per cent since 1999 — to almost 230,000 students.

But Dr Marvin Schick, who conducted the census on behalf of the Avi Chai Foundation, warns that many schools face huge financial problems. He says: “For most schools, the story is one of struggling to make ends meet.”

Last updated: 1:51pm, September 3 2009