NEW YORK — Parents losing their Wall Street jobs, benefactors with plummeting portfolios scaling back on donations — it’s a one-two punch that has sent many Jewish day schools reeling in recent weeks.
At the prestigious Ramaz School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the financial forecast has prompted officials to slash the budget for an upcoming annual dinner dance, which usually raises about $4 million for scholarships and programs. More than a quarter of the school’s 1,057 students receive financial aid towards their $27,000 tuition; administrators project that dozens more will need help this year.
“We have families that are now requiring additional tuition assistance,” said Kenneth Rochlin, the school’s director of institutional advancement. “We’re looking for alternative revenue sources.”
Brainstorming budget strategies over kosher sandwiches and pickles, Rochlin and three other Ramaz officials recently joined counterparts from more than 40 other Jewish schools for a summit at the Orthodox Union headquarters in downtown Manhattan.
In addition to challenges facing parents and donors, some schools are also struggling with their own crashing real estate and portfolio losses; Ramaz had $6 million — a full one-third of its endowment — invested with a firm associated with Bernard Madoff, the financier accused of fleecing Jewish organizations and others in a multibillion dollar Ponzi scheme.
The financial turmoil hitting Jewish day schools is just one indication of the damage from the estimated $2.5 billion lost by Jewish charities that had trusted Madoff to safeguard — and grow — their money.
The impact on schools is especially hard on the Orthodox Jewish movement, which relies on a vast network of schools to transmit the demanding requirements of an observant faith from one generation to the next.
There are about 800 Jewish day schools — mostly yeshivas associated with the Orthodox movement — across the country, with about 200,000 students paying annual tuitions ranging from $5,000 to $30,000. Because most Orthodox families have three or more children, a 12-year yeshiva education is especially pricey even for the movement’s own audience.
In the New York City region, with its large Jewish population, schools traditionally compete to lure top students, but those rivalries must be put aside during this financial crisis, panelists said. They urged administrators to work together to plan and implement budget cuts, avoiding a scenario where one school keeps its curriculum and faculty intact just long enough to draw applicants away from the others.
“The days of going it alone are over,” said Joshua Elkin, director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, an Boston-based organization that plans to host two conference calls about the economic challenges facing Jewish schools.
“Above all, we have to create synergy and we must, must, must avoid duplication.”
Like Ramaz, the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, which has almost 1,000 students paying roughly $13,000 in tuition, has scaled back its upcoming fundraising dinner.
Officials have also asked rabbis to push congregants to direct more of their charitable contributions towards day schools, and are exploring options for sharing supplies and staff.
But Gershon Distenfeld, a board member at the Rosenbaum school, said he believes the economic downturn and Madoff scandal only sped up the inevitable “tuition crisis.” The only way to keep the schools affordable for middle-income families, he believes, is to move to a community-based support model rather than one in which parents pay an increasingly hefty price to give their children a Jewish education.
“The yeshiva day school business model is broken,” he said. “If we don’t solve this, there simply won’t be a Jewish community in America in 50, 100 years. This has to be our No. 1 community issue. Nothing will exist if we fail to fix this.”
Responding to the crisis, the UJA-Federation of New York, a Jewish organization, recently announced a $1 million scholarship fund to help students in the 280 Jewish day schools in New York City, Long Island and suburban Westchester County.
The Orthodox Union may also create an education fund to provide emergency resource for schools suddenly unable to make a mortgage payment or pay a utility bill, and perhaps to give out loans for temporary cash-flow problems. But in exchange, schools would have to allow complete access to their books so donors could track the funds, officials said.
Schools will also have to strategically — but visibly — cut costs and share resources in order to convince their remaining deep-pocketed donors that they are making good faith efforts to use contributions wisely, said Saul Zucker, director of the Orthodox Union’s education department.
At the Manhattan strategy summit, administrators agreed to lobby state leaders to ensure that private school funds are protected from government budget cuts. They also advised seeking reimbursements for special education and other mandated programs, explore grant options and seek competitive bids for construction and supplies.
In the meantime, administrators from Ramaz and other schools said that although large donations have slowed down, they have started seeing an upswing in small contributions from concerned alumni and community members, including many first-time donors moved to action by the publicity surrounding Madoff and the economic downturn.
“Out of bad things, sometimes come some good things,” Rochlin said.
“People tend to reconnect with what’s important.”
By Nicole Neroulias
Religion News Service
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