By Jacob Berkman
NEW YORK (JTA) — Jewish day-school officials are looking at a recent $15 million tuition-relief grant from the Baltimore-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore as a trend-setting move to alleviate one of the biggest challenges facing Jewish education.
The grants will start in 2007, but the foundation also announced that it would immediately give an additional $1 million to the schools.
There are more than 200,000 students in 750 Jewish day schools across the country, and Baltimore — with some 6,000 students in a community of roughly 100,000 — has one of the highest concentrations in the country, according to Lawrence Ziffer, executive vice president of the city’s Center for Jewish Education, which worked with the foundation and the federation to write the grant.
In the past, the foundation had made individual grants to 10 area schools, foundation trustee Barry Schloss told JTA.
“But we said, ‘This doesn’t meet the needs of our community,’ ” Schloss said. “We all realized there needed to be more.”
Over the past 10 years, the federation’s allocation for Jewish day schools has grown from $900,000 a year to over $3 million as the school system has blossomed, federation President Marc Terrill said.
Still, more than $300,000 of needs went unfunded, Terrill said. The schools cost between $6,000 and $12,000 per year, according to the Center for Jewish Education, and the new grant will double the amount they get through the federation.
“The need is rather pronounced,” Terrill said. “There are people that are unfortunately victims of harsh economic times. There are also those who are relatively affluent, but when you factor in two, three, four or five kids for which they’re paying full tuition for day schools, it’s not the prettiest of pictures. It’s almost like self-imposed poverty — although it’s poverty with an enlightened purpose.”
Just over half of the students at Baltimore day schools receive some kind of financial aid, Ziffer said. The money from the new grant is to be used only for scholarships.
Recipients must demonstrate need, and the foundation has required that schools still maintain their current levels of scholarship giving, Schloss said. He added that over the next five years the foundation would like to see the community create an endowment fund to subsidize Jewish education.
There are no official plans to do so yet, but continuing to subsidize the school system at about $3 million per year would take a $65 million fund.
The Weinberg Foundation and the Baltimore federation are not the first to tackle the day-school tuition issue. The Avi Chai Foundation, a private New York- and Jerusalem-based foundation aimed at increasing Jewish learning, ran a program that gave $3,000 vouchers to students at four day schools in Atlanta and Cleveland between 1999 and 2000. Numerous family foundations across the country have started funds either to cap tuition or provide tuition relief at local Jewish schools.
The largest individual gift came from a group of anonymous families who made a $45 million donation to three schools in Boston, $15 million of which was to be used for tuition relief.
In Milwaukee, the Helen Bader Foundation set up a similar fund — though on a much smaller scale, at $500,000 per year for three years — to help the area’s 600 Jewish day-school students, according to Tobey Libber, the foundation’s program director.
Other Jewish communities, such as Los Angeles, MetroWest New Jersey and Chicago, are in the process of deciding how to tackle the tuition problem with similar grants, according to Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.
But the Weinberg grant is an important one, he said.
“I believe that there is momentum building, and I believe that this grant is not only part of a trend, but this is a pace-setting decision that Weinberg has made,” Elkin said. “It’s not simply the size of the grant; it’s the fact that it’s partnered with the federation and is intended to be spent over the next five years. It provides an immediate infusion.”
The Baltimore grant “hopefully will become a model,” said Yossi Prager, Avi Chai’s North American executive director. “Affordability already is the single largest concern of the day-school community, and the crunch is likely to get worse since budgets for schools, Jewish and non-Jewish, are rising faster than inflation. This is a tremendous start in tackling a very serious problem.”