Donors brainstorm new ways to generate enrollment for the day school alternative

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Carol Nemo vividly remembers the day almost 20 years ago when her son came home upset from a Shabbat "honors" retreat for teenagers from various Atlanta Jewish schools.

As they were pulling his bag out from the luggage compartment of the bus, Dan stopped and said to her, "Mom, why didn't you send me somewhere where I'd learn something?"

He hadn't known any of the Shabbat prayers or the blessing after meals and "felt like a fool the entire weekend."

For Nemo, the comments of her son — who attended Hebrew school at a Reform temple — were "like a dagger in my stomach."

"He was saying in that one sentence what I'd felt all my life," said Nemo, who had always felt her own religious education was insufficient. "I figured out something had to be done."

Soon after, Nemo became enamored of day schools, which offer a more intensive Jewish education than congregational schools.

Although it came too late for Dan — who his mother proudly says "only dates Jewish girls" — Nemo played a key role in founding Atlanta's Reform day school, the Alfred and Adele Davis Academy, and went on to help create the New Atlanta Jewish Community High School.

Both schools are among the scores of non-Orthodox day schools that have sprung up around the country in the past decade.

Nemo was one of almost 300 major donors — people who had made a recent gift of $100,000 or more to Jewish day schools — gathered recently at a first-time national "donor assembly" sponsored by one of the leading forces in the day school movement, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.

The group, known as PEJE, was founded three years ago by 12 partners — including Michael Steinhardt, Edgar Bronfman and Charles Schusterman, who also recently came together for a philanthropy devoted to synagogue transformation and renewal — each committing $1.5 million over five years.

PEJE has largely focused on fostering the growth of new day schools, providing grants and expertise to 41 schools.

It is now looking to step up support for existing schools as well, and is planning to provide a consulting network for day schools as well as assist them with fund raising.

Day schools vary tremendously in terms of their operating costs and tuition, but according to a 1997 study commissioned by one of PEJE's partners, the Avi Chai Foundation, most function with far less money budgeted per pupil than is used in public schools.

Many day schools — which are generally funded through a combination of tuition, fund-raising from individuals and allocations from federations — are struggling with deficits while others survive financially only by charging tuition that middle-class families find prohibitively high.

A number of foundations, including Avi Chai, have experimented with providing tuition subsidies to encourage people who would not be eligible for financial aid to consider day schools.

This week's assembly was the first time day school donors — who mostly support local schools — met their counterparts from around the country.

Many were energized by the networking.

Before coming to the assembly, "we thought we were alone" in the various challenges day school leaders face, like garnering allocations from federations, said Scott Robinson, a donor to the Denver Campus for Jewish Education, a community day school from kindergarten through high school.

Central to the discussions in and out of the workshops was the need to raise additional funds and greater awareness for day schools.

Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of PEJE, estimates that 80 percent of American Jews have no connection to and little awareness about day schools.

"It's a message that needs to be brought out," he said. "People need to visit day schools and be brought closer."

About 40 percent of American Jewish children receiving a Jewish education attend day schools, a number that has steadily increased in recent years. But among liberal Jews, the vast majority attend Hebrew schools.

In a keynote speech to the donors, Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, urged day school leaders to make greater efforts to sell their cause to Jewish family foundations. Currently these foundations give less than half of their money to Jewish causes and about 2 percent to day schools.

In finding ways to build their ranks, day school leaders may draw some lessons from the experiences of Nemo and the other donors assembled.

Like Nemo, most did not attend day schools. But either through a desire for their children or grandchildren to get a better Jewish education than they had, general concern about Jewish assimilation and intermarriage or talking to friends who donate, they joined the cause.

Denver's Robinson, who is Reform, attended public school but got interested in day schools when it was time to send his children to school.

"Public school was more of an option when I was growing up," he said, adding that once he and his wife decided on a private school, Jewish day schools — with their emphasis on teaching values — stood out.

His second-grader already knows more about Judaism than he does, he said.

Steve Schanes, of suburban Detroit, also has been surpassed by his Jewish day school-educated daughters, one of which is a freshman at a just-opened high school, the Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit.

With 52 students, the school has the largest first-year enrollment of any non-Orthodox high school.

Now vice president of the Jewish Academy, Schanes said he initially sent his daughters to the local Conservative day school, Hillel Day School, because he and his wife wanted them to have a stronger Jewish education than they had received.

"When we were making that decision, I thought about what I had in the afternoon programs in the synagogue, and I wanted my kids to be able to speak and understand Hebrew, to know how to pray and the meaning of the prayer, versus just knowing how to read Hebrew and things like that," he said.

Now, they believe Jewish education should continue into the high school years and beyond. Schanes has added to his motivations a desire to increase the chances of future grandchildren being Jewish.

"We went in with reservations because we were both public school graduates," recalled Schanes. "We said, 'Let's give it a year.' That year became a few years, then both kids graduated from Hillel."

Shirley Kotler of Los Angeles said her commitment to day schools stems from her interest in "perpetuating Judaism."

"I'm frightened about assimilation," said Kotler, who funds the modern Orthodox Shalhevet school, which her grandchildren attend, and created an endowed faculty position at the Milken Community School. "I have a strong belief that my heritage must continue. Being born Jewish is one thing, but in these day schools children learn what it is to be Jewish, understand their heritage and are proud."

Some of the donors were swayed simply by the recommendation of a friend.

Jean Glantz of Longmeadow, Mass., said she funds day schools because Harold Grinspoon — one of the 12 partners in PEJE — approached her.

"Because of his laid-back philanthropic demeanor we thought we'd give it a chance," she said.

At the High Holidays, said Chase, Jews are urged toward "prayer, penitence and charity."

"On the first two I come up a little short, so I've got to do something that balances it out," he said laughing.