Financial wizard Michael Steinhardt is blunt in assessing the future of North American Jewry.
The next generation is "mostly Jewish ignoramuses," Steinhardt said. "We haven't convinced the general Jewish population of the value of a Jewish education."
Steinhardt's bleak assessment was aimed not at Jews in general, but at a select group: those who have donated at least $100,000 -- and as much as several million -- to Jewish day schools.
There are only 1,800 such major supporters of the country's approximately 700 Jewish day schools, however, and that, Steinhardt said, is "not enough."
"We need to double that number," he said.
Steinhardt was addressing the third annual Donor Assembly of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) held in Century City from Feb. 2-4, the day school advocacy group he launched five years ago.
For the first time, those big donors mingled with Jewish communal and day school professionals in a leadership assembly of more than 600 people, aiming to hammer out a national strategy to promote Jewish day schools.
The gathering comes at a time when many day schools, viewed as solid foundations for lifelong Jewish identity, are strapped for funds. And many who want to attend cannot afford the high cost of a Jewish education.
Some 200,000 children attend Jewish day schools in this country, 79 percent of them Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox.
Among the top goals of the philanthropists was finding new sources of money.
To bolster their advocacy effort, PEJE offered the initial findings of a survey of 177 of those big day school supporters. They also released the results of interviews with 65 other donors, potential donors and day school experts.
The survey, conducted in October and November by TDC Research of Boston, found that among current donors, 49 percent give to day schools because they see them as vehicles to "ensure Jewish continuity" and 13 percent were motivated to give because they had a personal connection, such as a child or grandchild in day school.
But among donors, nondonors and experts, the study found that: 81 percent believe that day schools ensure continuity; 78 percent supported day schools because of the Jews' "collective future"; 75 percent backed day schools because they "foster communities of committed Jews."
Of those who responded, 97 percent also gave money to their synagogue; 92 percent aided their local federation; 73 percent helped some kind of Israel-focused program and 59 percent backed their local Jewish Community Center.
The donors surveyed hailed from 29 states and Canada; were usually parents or grandparents of day school students and were sat on day school boards.
One such donor at the conference was Claire Ellman of La Jolla, whose three children attended the San Diego Jewish Academy, a pluralistic, 700-student school with students from kindergarten to 12th grade.
Ellman has just helped the school raise $33 million toward a new building, the largest single effort to date in the city's Jewish community.
Born in South Africa, Ellman said her grandfather started Cape Town's first Jewish day school and infused her with a love for Jewish learning.
But she believes not all donors support education for the same reasons.
"A lot of people are going to give to Jewish education because they feel so strongly about continuity," she said, "but also because of a guilt complex" that they personally failed to teach their children Jewish values.
The study did not reach that conclusion, though it did find that 10 percent of donors said the most important reason to back Jewish day schools was to teach Jewish knowledge.
Ellman, who is also vice chair of the Continental Council for Jewish Day School Education, a program of the United Jewish Communities and the Jewish Education Service of North America -- works to build ties among the day schools, Jewish federations, religious institutions and the general community -- welcomed the donor study.
"The study is critical, because for the first time we've asked donors and nondonors why they do or don't fund Jewish education."
Many of those who don't support Jewish schools said they either were not aware of them or found them too parochial, the study found.
But the study also recommends against trying to win this group over.
Instead, it recommends spreading the word to "neutral" Jews who may not have any personal ties to the school, but who believe education helps ensure a thriving Jewish community.
Meanwhile, Steinhardt pointed to statistics showing that only 20 percent of philanthropy by North American Jews goes to Jewish causes, down from 50 percent 50 years ago.
"What we lack is a sense of priority," he said.
But Michael Rosenzweig, a board member of the New Atlanta Jewish Community High School, said the fact that there are so few donors to Jewish day schools is both good and bad news when it comes to doubling their numbers.
"The good news" is that doubling their numbers is easy to do, he said. "The bad news is, it's easy to do because it's so small."
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