Matthew Maryles, a veteran board leader of a prominent Jewish day school in the New York area, once said that such an education is so fundamentally important to the community's future that its funding must be seen as a multi-generational responsibility.
Luckily, large-scale investment in Jewish day schools is not a new thing for Philadelphia. In addition to ongoing support from the Federation, these schools have benefited from the support of many individual families. Most recently, the Magerman family, through its Kohelet Foundation, has joined their ranks with generous grants to day schools throughout the area.
Day-school enrollment in Philadelphia is not nearly where it has the potential to be. With many Jewish families already considering independent school options, day schools need to communicate their unique value more clearly.
The current economic climate has exacerbated the affordability issue and has made even committed families think twice about keeping their children there. Across the country, schools are facing serious challenges, with staff layoffs, tuition increases and program reductions.
Day schools themselves need to move beyond "business as usual," and embrace proven governance and financial-management strategies. By adopting best practices and embracing their individual missions, these schools will be able to attract more families and financial supporters.
Given these times, the responsibility to invest in day schools -- a proven vehicle with high returns for our collective future -- becomes all the more critical.
Investment in day schools takes many forms. Parents who enroll their children -- aware of the powerful impact of day schools -- make the ultimate investment. Others volunteer their time to serve on boards and committees.
The investment of funders represents a third model, where individuals and foundations provide schools with much-needed fiscal resources. Day schools must work to expand these types of investments. Ensuring both excellence and accessibility must be among the highest priorities of the Philadelphia community.
What is the case for investment in day schools? Why has the Kohelet Foundation (and all who have come before) chosen to place day schools so high on the list of philanthropic priorities?
· Day schools work. They serve as gateways into Jewish life for countless students and families, and they nurture and educate committed young people. In recent research comparing day-school graduates to their non-day-school counterparts in college, the level of Jewish involvement of the day-school students was significantly higher. Day-school graduates also excel academically and engage civically, even beyond the Jewish community, at levels higher than their peers.
· Day schools are the Jewish neighborhoods of the 21st century. A brief visit to any school will reveal a tight connection not only among students and teachers, but among the parents, many of whom come from diverse backgrounds, extending the community beyond the school walls. Through lifelong connections and friendships, opportunities for community members to learn together and share meaningful experiences, day schools are a nexus for Jewish vitality.
· Day schools cultivate leadership among students and parents. Our community desperately needs more leaders who are Jewishly literate. Day schools have helped to educate -- and will continue to produce -- a disproportionately large cadre of leaders for the future.
· Day schools are a sound long- and short-term investment. It takes a day school to help build a community for the future -- one that's grounded in text and tradition, and imbued with the value system and ethics that are at the core of Jewish heritage. That takes years to build.
The encouraging news, even in these challenging times, is that so many members of the Philadelphia community are already investors in day schools. Many donors -- both longstanding and recent ones -- have stepped up to make investments.
But we must heed Mr. Maryles' words. We must encourage everyone to be part of these essential institutions of learning and values, even those without family members enrolled.
Day schools occupy a prominent place in the landscape of a positive and expansive Jewish future. The time is now to continue to grow the tent of supporters for the Jewish day schools of Greater Philadelphia.
Rabbi Joshua Elkin is executive director of the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. He will be the keynote speaker at the May 27 annual dinner for the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School.