Under Gelfand's leadership, Federation funds were directed toward Jewish summer camps and teen trips to Israel. But the million-dollar allocation stood out as the centerpiece of his efforts, a near-doubling of the money The Federation devotes each year to Jewish education.
Local educators applauded the money, then officials set about divvying it up. Three years later, The Journal interviewed administrators and teachers to find out where the million went each year and whether Gelfand's bold step remains as popular now as it was then.
The $1 million allocation, first made available in 1998, is now beginning its third year. It is distributed through the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), which also administers the $1.1 million that The Federation has annually budgeted for Jewish schools since the early 1990s.
Nearly a decade ago, when the local economy was wracked by recession, BJE funding was slashed across the board. Now that the community's economic health has improved, half of the new $1 million allotment is being spent simply to restore each school's share to its pre-recession level. This means that every BJE-accredited day school and supplementary school, whatever its denomination, gets an increase in its basic funding. A small slice of the $500,000 "restoration" money is also available for school improvement grants, through which schools can implement suggestions made during the accreditation process.
The remaining $500,000 of the new allocation is being parceled out by the Jewish Educational Grants and Scholarships Committee (JEGS), composed of Federation and BJE professionals and lay leaders. Gil Graff, BJE executive director, emphasizes that "no fast and fixed formula is attached to this $500,000," which is meant to be "flexible, dynamic and responsive to critical needs."
The committee, led first by Mark Lainer and now Jonathan Cookler, has been careful not to overlook supplementary schools, but Los Angeles' 35 Jewish day schools get the lion's share of the money. In each of the past two years, $190,000 has been set aside for need-based day school scholarships. And $200,000 has been dedicated toward day schools engaged in "expanding capacity," favoring those which have embarked upon major building projects to serve a growing middle school and high school population. In 1998, Heschel West Day School and Milken Community High School received capital grants for construction projects.
Certainly there were a few angry rumblings from less affluent schools when Milken, well known for its prominent backers, received $100,000 of The Federation's money. In the words of Lois Weinsaft, currently The Federation's director of community development, "allocations are always political and always seen politically."
But even critics of the grants couldn't deny Milken's success in bringing higher education to Jewish students. Barbara Gereboff, head of school for Kadima Hebrew Academy in Woodland Hills, does not view the Milken grant as a case of the rich getting richer. Instead, she focuses on the possibility that some day soon, when Kadima is ready to replace its own somewhat dilapidated campus, Federation dollars will be there to help. As she puts it, "knowing this fund of money is available is very encouraging."
And Orthodox fears that the capital grants program would be directed solely toward "liberal" schools were put to rest when 1999 recipients included Yavneh Hebrew Academy and Shalhevet High School, along with the Conservative movement's Sinai Akiba Academy. As Mark Lainer notes, "The good news is that as the years go on, there'll be more and more schools that are participating."
The Federation's remaining $95,000 has for two straight years been directed toward supplementary schools, with the focus on programs that serve teenagers, in response to research done by Dr. Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion stressing the importance of the teen years in molding long-term Jewish identity. Initially, stipends were granted to teens attending approved weekend retreats. But it quickly became clear that these $60 to $100 grants, though welcomed by teens and their parents, were not a determining factor in keeping young people connected with the Jewish community.
So 1999 saw the launch of a brand-new Teen Retention Initiative, for which educators have high hopes. In what will be a three-year project, two local religious schools with high levels of post-bar and bat mitzvah retention have been named demonstration schools. Educators at Congregation Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks and Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge will scrutinize their own success in keeping teenagers involved Judaically, then share their secrets with other congregations.
Meanwhile, three other religious schools -- at University Synagogue in Brentwood, Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, and Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood -- have been chosen for an innovative pilot project. Each has received $20,000 to develop new strategies geared toward teens.
The beauty of this approach lies in its common-sense acknowledgment that each institution is unique and thus requires solutions tailored to its own population. Tifereth Israel has chosen to affiliate with Los Angeles Hebrew High School for a new teen educational program containing a healthy dose of Sephardic culture. Temple Aliyah, while revamping its pre-confirmation curriculum, will also seek to involve older teens through activities related to college preparation.
At University Synagogue, religious school principal Janice Tytell has already consulted with Ahavat Shalom's Rabbi Barry Lutz on how to convince congregants of the need for ongoing Jewish involvement by teenagers. Tytell, who had long wanted to improve her synagogue's record in this area, considers the long-term Federation grant "found money." Says Tytell, "We can actually try this. And if it works, we've got time to work it into our budget so we can make this an ongoing program."
The Federation's Lois Weinsaft believes that the Teen Retention Initiative is "the most interesting thing we've done." Its flexibility and multiyear timetable allow for what she calls "mid-course corrections," through which unsuccessful strategies can be rethought and reimplemented.
Of the 80,000 Jews of school age in Southern California, BJE figures state, fewer than 10,000 attend day schools. The rest will get the bulk of their Jewish education in supplementary schools. These numbers explain why some Federation staffers are convinced that the $95,000 spent for the Teen Retention Initiative will make a bigger difference in the long run than the money spent on day school scholarships and capital grants.