"We're moving," a couple casually told Rabbi Shlomo Gottesman.
The rabbi was at first puzzled. They were not leaving town or searching for new shul, the pair explained. Instead, they revealed that they had decided to give up their large home and move to a modest apartment so that they could afford to send their child to Mesivta of Greater Los Angeles, a Jewish day school in Calabasas.
While not every family makes such drastic concessions to pay for a Jewish education, many parents struggle to afford the high tuition at Jewish day schools. At the same time, many Jewish day schools must struggle to pay the high costs of accommodating and educating students.
In a system that prides itself on trying to accept all prospective Jewish students regardless of financial status, Jewish day schools face the daunting challenges of trying to cut expenses to keep their operations going, while at the same time attracting donors to help underwrite the costs of student aid and keeping the school doors open.
Making Jewish day school affordable will be one of the key issues on the agenda of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) third Donor Assembly, to be held Feb. 2-3 in Century City. The national assembly will bring together educators, philanthropists and Jewish community leaders to increase funding for day schools and raise awareness that paying for day school is a Jewish communal responsibility.
In cities such as Los Angeles, the issue is particularly critical. There are approximately 9,700 students in Los Angeles Jewish day schools. The average tuition costs range from approximately $10,000-12,000 annually for elementary school and $15,000-20,000 for high school.
Of the students enrolled, 40 percent receive some form of need-based financial aid from the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), which annually directs $2 million to the area's 36 day schools. Of that figure, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles supplies $1.25 million, which amounts to $105 per pupil in kindergarten through eighth grade, and $211 per student in high school. The Milken Family Foundation, the Simha and Sara Lainer Scholarship Fund and the Candiotty Endowment Fund, supply the remaining $750,000 that BJE distributes.
In addition, private donors and school fundraising activities provide additional financial support to sustain both the students and schools.
Despite this funding, Los Angeles still is in a difficult situation, said Dr. Bruce Powell, head of the New Community Jewish High School and president of Jewish School Management, a day school consulting company. "Our Bureau of Jewish Education [in Los Angeles] is probably among the lowest to fund day schools," he said. "I'm not saying that as a critique. This is a communitywide issue, and it's nobody's fault."
Mark Lainer, chairman of the Jewish Community Foundation and founding president of the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, is a major philanthropist who supports many Jewish causes. To garner more day school support, Lainer believes there must be a change within the donor community.
"There are [donors] involved with a particular day school, but they don't think in a global way," said Lainer, co-owner of a real estate investment firm. "Donors need to feel part of a movement."
Lainer hopes that the PEJE conference will invigorate donor interest in tough economic times and help benefactors band together to increase the affordability of Jewish day schools.
But selling Jewish day schools is no slam dunk. Howard Spike, education director at the private, nondenominational Fairfield School in Van Nuys, said that emphasis on a Jewish day school education is one-dimensional.
"I believe in a strong religious background, but I also believe in the separation of church and school," said the educator, who thinks that the onus of tuition should fall on day school parents. "I don't think it should be the responsibility of the Jewish community, because everyone is already paying property taxes for public school."
Some see a possible partial solution to paying for Jewish day school tuition through a controversial proposal involving the use of government vouchers. In that scenario, vouchers would only cover the portion of day school tuition related to general studies classes -- not religious studies.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, says government funding is a viable solution. "In other countries, like Australia, England, South Africa and some parts of Canada, government money helps to subsidize day schools," he said. "It's very different from the model in the U.S., but it succeeds."
Seth Leibsohn, policy director at Empower America, a nonprofit public policy group that promotes education reform, agreed: "[Vouchers] won't cover all of the cost, but it helps."
But many Jews remain skeptical of a voucher program that they claim could undermine funds for public schools.
On the other end of the spectrum, some Jews fear that promoting massive spending on day schools weakens the case for funding of Jewish summer camps and religious, or supplemental, schools, which proponents say can be more cost-effective in encouraging children to live Jewish lives.
Other critics of communal funding see possible conflicts when doors from one stream of Judaism see their contributions flowing into day schools whose teachings they oppose. Would a lesbian Reform Jew pay for the education of a black-hat yeshiva student, and vice versa, asked one critic.
In response to such concerns, PEJE published "Making the Case for Jewish Day Schools: A Compilation of Advocacy Writings," which can be ordered online (www.peje.org). The pamphlet provides donors with an arsenal of arguments on behalf of day schools.
For his part, Powell argues that supporting day schools is nondenominational. Rather, he said, it's about the preservation of Jewish life and culture.
"It has nothing to do with religion," Powell said. "It's about Jewish leadership and having a deep knowledge of who we are and what we stand for."
In the current absence of vouchers, many day schools are turning to a variety of methods to generate funds, above and beyond BJE grants and private donations. These activities include such things as banquets, candy sales, special lunch programs and other events, in addition to encouraging grandparent trust funds for students, as well as community endowment funds.
For example, Kadima Hebrew Academy in Woodland Hills stages "give or get" programs, in which families are encouraged to either donate money or raise a pledged amount above their own tuition to help cover school expenses, including financial aid.
With the help of individual philanthropists, some schools offer "tuition incentive grants," allowing enrollment discounts. New Jewish Community High School in West Hills, which opened in September, offered new students a "pioneer discount," lowering the $17,500 tuition by $2,000.
Emek Hebrew Academy in Sherman Oaks offers a bartering system, in which parents with areas of expertise provide services to the school in exchange for tuition reduction. Current participants include a plumber, electrician, computer programmer and a publicist, all of whom work part time for the school.
Other Emek parents, like former homemaker Sheila Sanfield, take on full-time jobs as teaching assistants. Sanfield, a mother of two, with a background in early childhood education, said that her job pays for 90 percent of her fifth-grade son's tuition. Without this opportunity, Sanfield and her husband, a database administrator, said they could not cover the $7,000 tuition.
"[Bartering] is a win-win situation," said Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, director of development. "Parents are grateful that there is a way with dignity they can educate their kids. It's a waste of resources, talent and opportunity for schools not to do this."
Still, Powell considers many of these solutions Band-Aids that don't address the larger problem. Day schools are a low priority for Jews, he said, because the community does not take Jewish education seriously.
"If we're serious about the day school enterprise in the non-Orthodox community, we need to attract huge donors so that every Jewish child has a birthright to be in a Jewish day school," Powell stressed. "The Catholics, the Episcopalians and the Quakers do it. Why can't we?"
The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education's third annual Donor Assembly will take place Feb. 2-3 at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Century City. For more information, call (617) 367-0001 ext. 43 or visit www.peje.org.