Chicago developer launches campaign to make Jewish day schools free

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NEW YORK — George Hanus has a 5 percent solution for the country's Jewish day schools.

The Chicago real estate developer wants to persuade all Jewish day schools to start endowments and all American Jews to bequeath 5 percent of their estates to those endowments. It's a campaign he calls "Operation Jewish Education/ The 5 Percent Answer."

He dreams of raising $11 billion — enough to guarantee a free day-school education for all American Jewish children — by building "the largest Jewish political group in this country," a network of day-school supporters from all streams of Judaism.

"We as a Jewish society are under an affirmative obligation to educate our children, but the current day-school system has such high tuition that it's an economic barrier of entry except for the most wealthy and most religious," he said.

"We can predict with statistical accuracy that Jewish society as we know it will lose 1 million children spiritually unless we do something."

Hanus is doing something by setting up a New York office for his campaign and is urging rabbis to talk about the program from their High Holy Days pulpits. He also is creating a database of every day school in the country, offering pointers to day schools seeking to create endowments and urging federations to establish community scholarship endowments.

Hanus burst onto the national scene two years ago when he convened a conference on the day-school funding crisis. That conference led to the formation of the National Jewish Day School Scholarship Committee, which Hanus chairs.

The committee, together with the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, pressed the Council of Jewish Federations — which recently merged with the United Jewish Appeal to become the United Jewish Communities — to adopt a resolution at its 1997 General Assembly. The statement recommended that each community "fulfill its commitment to Jewish education with dedication and resources consistent with its significant importance to the survival of the Jewish community."

Instead of voting on the resolution, federation officials decided to form a task force comprised of national federation leaders and representatives from day-school advocacy groups and foundations.

In June, that task force released a report urging significantly more funding for Jewish day schools.

Hanus, vice president of his local federation and chairman of a modern Orthodox day school in Chicago, has a vision that has alienated some federation leaders. Many argue that other community needs — including the afterschool religious programs attended by 60 percent of children receiving a Jewish education — deserve attention, too.

But the way Hanus sees it, the correlation between day-school attendance and high rates of Jewish identity makes the schools the most important investment for a Jewish community that he believes is poised to lose 1 million children to assimilation and intermarriage.

"Why isn't this at the top of the agenda for everyone?" he asked. "This is a solvable problem. If there were an external enemy, we'd mobilize all forces."

To be sure, Hanus is not the only person concerned about the future of day schools.

A new report of the United Jewish Communities and Jewish Education Service of North America urges philanthropists, day schools, religious movements and federations to work together to fund the schools, to raise the quality of their instruction and to encourage more Jewish families to consider enrolling their children in day schools. The report, however, also says funding for day schools "cannot come at the expense of other vital communal needs and responsibilities."

Most federations are already increasing their support for day schools, which are enjoying growing enrollment. Day schools are serving not only their traditional core of Orthodox children, but growing numbers of Conservative and Reform children. Foundations are exploring ways of recruiting new families to Jewish day schools and also are looking at ways to make them more affordable.

But the changes aren't happening fast enough for Hanus, who said he does not think "we can rely on federations, which are having a hard enough time trying to define themselves" to dramatically improve the lot of day schools.

Instead, he is plunging forward with his 5 percent plan, which he sees as a modern-day "kehillah tax," an obligatory community contribution that should apply to Jews of all incomes.

Day schools in Chicago already have set up endowments and are publicizing the 5 percent plan through a community campaign, while schools in Long Island and Miami are discussing how they will implement Hanus' plan. The executive committee of the Rabbinical Council of America, the rabbinic arm of the Orthodox movement, has agreed to press members to discuss the issue from their pulpits during Rosh Hashanah.

Hanus estimates that $20 million has been raised for day-school scholarship endowments around the country in the past year and a half. Although the funds were not raised by Hanus' scholarship committee, he credits his organization with putting the idea on the table.

But others suspect Hanus is exaggerating his — and his organization's — role.

Michael Steinhardt, a founder of the day-school grant maker, Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, and a multimillion-dollar philanthropist, said he supports Hanus, but "the jury is still out" on whether the plan will succeed. It is unclear whether free or reduced tuition would be enough to attract most liberal Jews to Jewish day schools.