Recession Hits Jewish Education

Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit, a Conservative school, is raising its tuition by $1,000 for next year — more than twice the usual rate of increase — to make up for shortfalls in its endowment revenues.

The Rabbi Jacob Joseph Schools in Staten Island, N.Y. and Edison, N.J., which are Orthodox, are experiencing a 50 percent decline in fund raising since Sept. 11, had to raid their endowment to meet costs and expect to raise their tuition more than usual this year.

The Pardes Jewish Day School in the Scottsdale/Phoenix area, which is Reform, is facing increased requests for financial aid at a time when fundraising is “very taxed.”

Whether from slashed fundraising revenues, heightened requests for financial aid or forced tuition hikes, day schools throughout the United States are feeling the pinch of the recession.

At the same time they are facing additional financial burdens from new security requirements in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Tuition increases come as Jewish day schools are already under pressure to keep tuition low in order to attract more families that have opted for public schools to save money.

Tuition varies widely, but generally ranges from $5,000 to $15,000 a year.

A recent American Jewish Committee study, “The Cost of Jewish Living,” estimated that it costs approximately $30,000 a year to belong to a synagogue and send two children to day schools and Jewish summer camp — a bill beyond the reach of the average Jewish family.

However, with talk of the economy showing signs of revival, schools are hoping the worst is over.

Schools report a variety of cost-saving measures, ranging from “doing without a secretary” to freezing wages to delaying implementation of strategic plans.

So far, there are no reports that it is affecting day school enrollment, which had boomed nationally in the past decade.

Approximately 185,000 American Jewish children — and a vast majority of Orthodox ones — attend day schools.

And not all schools are hurting or raising tuition. The Perelman Jewish Day School, a Conservative school in suburban Philadelphia, received a record-breaking $20 million gift this fall for its endowment. Two new high schools — one in the San Francisco area and one in North Carolina — have raised enough money to offer completely free tuition for their first few years.

Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), said the recession has “certainly impacted” day schools.

“There are families that need tuition assistance that didn’t a year ago,” he said.

But Elkin is not expecting a long-term impact on the day school movement, which he said is maturing and becoming better at marketing itself to a wider group of students and donors.

Founded in 1997, PEJE advocates for Jewish day schools and provides consulting and matching grants. In the past year, it has stepped up training and matching grants to help day schools with fund raising and marketing. Seventy day schools attended a PEJE resource development conference last spring. The recession is hitting day schools in different ways.

Detroit’s Hillel, which has approximately $2 million in endowments — an unusually large endowment for a Jewish day school — was hit hard by the stock market plunge.

Hillel had few reserve funds and had budgeted for 6 percent to 7 percent returns on its endowment, according to the Detroit Jewish News.

“But lo and behold, the spinoff on that was closer to zero percent,” Mark Smiley, the school’s headmaster told the Detroit weekly.

Few Jewish day schools have sizable endowments, however, so market declines have had a more indirect effect on them — hurting donors, who in turn are less willing or able to donate to the school.

Many schools say fundraising — which supplements tuition revenues — has been especially challenging this year.

Rabbi Harvey Well, superintendent of Associated Talmud Torahs, an agency for Traditional and Orthodox day schools in the Chicago area, said, “Schools are very nervous; fundraisers are working very hard and dinners are not producing the same success that they did.”

Many Chicago-area schools are raising tuition more than usual as a result, he said, noting that one suburban school — which he declined to name — has raised tuition from $7,500 to $9,600 for next year.

The number of students receiving financial aid has risen to an estimated 45 percent systemwide, up from 35 percent to 40 percent, Well said.

Bonnie Morris, head of Pardes and president of the Progressive Association for Reform Day Schools, a North American network, said, “It’s harder to find those angels to give money.”

The economic downturn appears to have one small silver lining.

Recruitment of personnel — long a major challenge for day schools, exacerbated by the competition from more lucrative careers in the economic boom — is becoming a little bit easier.

“It’s very clear that I’m receiving more applicants than ever before, and a large number of the applicants are people … switching jobs and looking to get into education,” said Rabbi Lev Herrnson, head of Temple Beth Am Day School, a Reform school in Miami.