When Al Ashley first began peeking inside Los Angeles’ Jewish day schools to review their business practices, it was partly for personal reasons: He wanted to make sure his three children would get a sound education.
“I thought, hopefully, it would be a benefit to our children, our friends’ children and the community,” recalled Ashley, 88, a Brooklyn-born CPA.
That was 30 years ago. Since then, Ashley’s volunteer efforts with BJE — Builders of Jewish Education have blossomed into a pro bono second career helping day schools reform and strengthen their financial systems. Over the past three decades, Ashley has spent thousands of hours creating fiscal and operational guidelines that the BJE has compiled into two editions of its “Guide to Governance, Finance and Tax Issues for Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivot,” which is now distributed nationally. His work has made a profound and lasting impact on Jewish education in Los Angeles and beyond, colleagues say.
Just don’t praise Ashley too publicly (he initially shied away from being interviewed for this article). “I’ve always liked to stay in the background,” he said with a dismissive wave and a smile.
Ashley honed his expertise in money matters during a 45-year career in the entertainment industry — first, as treasurer of the Ashley-Famous Agency (now ICM Partners), founded by his brother, Ted Ashley; then, as chief financial and administrative officer of Warner Bros. television distribution operations. When he began joining his wife, Hilda, at BJE meetings in the early 1980s, he brought with him a principle upon which he had come to rely: Always do things correctly, the proper way.
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Not long into his tenure on the BJE board, Ashley became the agency’s go-to “troubleshooter” for local schools, said Miriam Prum Hess, director of BJE’s Centers for Excellence in Day School Education and Jewish Educational Engagement. He served on so many BJE committees, “I’ve lost track of them,” Ashley added.
For the past eight years, Ashley has headed the Day School Finance and Governance Committee, a team of lay leaders that visits BJE-affiliated day schools, assesses their fiscal policies and suggests improvements to bolster their viability into the future. As of last year, Ashley has personally visited 39 BJE-affiliated schools at least twice.
Each school visit is a hefty time commitment. Ashley first spends five or six hours reviewing the school’s bylaws, articles of incorporation and financial records. He and other committee members then meet with school leaders to offer feedback, which takes at least four hours. Factoring in the time it takes to write up his findings afterward, Ashley estimates that he spends 15 hours on each school assessment. He has undertaken this task more than 75 times.
“We have manuals this thick now — all kinds of documentation,” he said, holding up his fingers. “Government regulations. Best practices. There are rules you have to meet. And we’ve come a long, long way.”
The BJE owes a lot to Ashley’s “dedication, the incredible amount of work that he does for this project and how much he has helped strengthen Jewish day schools in Los Angeles,” Prum Hess said. “We are so fortunate, as a community, to have someone of Al’s caliber and passion.”
Ashley’s no-nonsense approach stems from another lesson he gleaned from his years in show business: “You have to be tough, but you have to be a good person.”
His volunteering track record speaks for itself. “I believe in doing this,” Ashley said. “We’re doing something meaningful. It gives me satisfaction to see what we’ve accomplished.”