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Jewish Journal

The Hidden Co$t ofJewish Education

by Jane Ulman

August 23, 2001 | 8:00 pm

My husband Larry and I could be creating a retirement portfolio, renting a vacation villa in Tuscany or buying badly needed furniture.

Instead, we are investing in our four sons, ages 10, 12, 14 and 17. More specifically, we are investing in their Jewish education by shelling out a total of $64,917 -- after-tax dollars, for the 2001-2002 school year only -- to Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge and Milken Community High School in Los Angeles.

Plus, we will be shelling out another couple thousand dollars for books, trips, lunches and a myriad of incidentals as well as fundraising drives, dinners and wrapping paper sales.

Originally, Larry and I selected Jewish day schools for the convenience of "one-stop shopping." But we quickly discovered, as our oldest, Zack, then in kindergarten, confidently belted out "Dovid Melech Yisroel" in the checkout line at Ralphs, that Jewish day schools give youngsters a solid Jewish identity.

And that identity, as Zack begins his senior year at Milken, has only intensified. "If you're going to call yourself a Jew," he says, "you need some foundation in Jewish principles and some understanding of modern Jewish thought."

Indeed, day schools, as described in the 1995 Report of the North American Commission on Jewish Identity and Continuity, are "arguably the most impactful single weapon in our arsenal for educating Jewish children and youth."

"Except that they don't have tackle football teams," Danny, 10, complains.

"Jewish mothers don't allow their sons to play tackle football," I answer.

But Jewish mothers -- and fathers -- do allow their children to attend Jewish day schools, in increasing numbers. According to Dr. Gil Graff, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), 9,885 students in the Los Angeles area were enrolled in Jewish day schools in grades kindergarten through 12 during the 2000-01 school year. That number has more than doubled from the 4,219 enrolled for the 1980-81 school year.

The increase is a nationwide phenomenon. The latest figures, a day school census released by the New York-based Avi Chai Foundation, published in January 2000, puts the 1998-1999 day school population, for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, at nearly 185,000. This is an increase of more than 25,000 from a study done a decade earlier by Israeli demographer Sergio Della Pergola.

But while both the need and the benefits are obvious, the costs are staggering. And tuition doesn't even begin to cover them.

In Los Angeles, according to Graff, expenses for the operating budgets of all the Jewish day schools during the 2000-01 year, "not building campaigns, but paying the salaries, keeping the lights on, janitorial service, etc.," came to $96 million. Tuition accounted for $73 million, with 39 percent of all day school students receiving some kind of tuition assistance, which varied from $500 to as much as $8,000. As a result, schools had to scramble to make up the $23-million deficit, with fundraisers, donations and grants, including a $2.3-million contribution from the BJE. And some had to carry on with large deficits.

The problem will only worsen, especially in light of the well-publicized teacher shortage. The Department of Education estimates that public schools will need at least 2 million new teachers in the next 10 years. Private schools face an even greater challenge -- 500,000 new teachers over the same time period.

Plus, Jewish day schools, with their extensive Judaic studies and Hebrew language programs, incur additional costs. "We are literally adding another third of a curriculum to an existing curriculum," says Dr. Rennie Wrubel, Milken head of school. "The dual curriculum costs money -- and that's our bottom line."

Wrubel, as well as other day school educators, is looking to the larger Jewish agencies to help with the ever-increasing costs, especially in terms of teacher salaries and benefits, and to help make day school education more affordable to more families.

There are some projects in the works. The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), a group of philanthropist partners, is committed to helping day schools across the country develop the resources and expertise to compete on a level of excellence with independent schools.

This October, PEJE is hosting its Second Donor Assembly, giving major supporters of Jewish day school across the country an opportunity to network and learn new strategies. Additionally, PEJE is introducing the Resource Development Expertise Program, which will provide specific day schools with the services of specially trained development consultants. A test program rolls out this fall, beginning with 15 schools.

Locally, The Jewish Federation intends to become more active in this arena. According to Bill Bernstein, executive vice president for financial resource development, there are plans that are part of a larger effort to seek donors to fund specific programs, including day schools.

"The money is there," says Hillel Korin, PEJE's director of resource development initiatives. "There isn't a community in the country that can't support a day school, or two or three or four."

But until Jewish day schools create endowed funds for salaries, scholarships and facilities, families are stuck paying hefty tuitions. For families like ours, affording day school is a matter of changing priorities and making some sacrifices.

But given Judaism's historical and heartfelt commitment to education and given the success of Jewish day schools in promoting Jewish identity and continuity, many educators and parents believe that a day school education should be a right rather than a privilege. And that's a decision that will ultimately have to be made by the entire Jewish community.

"The road to learning is endless," Jacob Ben Asher, a 14th-century rabbi, says.

"Endlessly expensive," my husband points out.

He then adds, "But with four boys, it wouldn't make sense to invest in new furniture."

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