September 18, 2019

With help, local schools grow their endowments

The endowment at Oakwood School, a private, nonsectarian day school in North Hollywood, adds up to nearly $20 million. Compare that to Los Angeles-area Jewish day schools and things just don’t equate — some have no endowment at all, and at many others, the endowment is, at best, insufficient.

“The Jewish community has done a wonderful job making sure our art museums and symphonies and colleges are around in the future and a very poor job at Jewish day schools,” said Sarah Shulkind, head of school at Sinai Akiba Academy in Westwood. “We really need to be investing in Jewish children if we care about the Jewish future.” 

A national program called Generations aims to change that, not just by making endowments a priority at Jewish day schools but also by giving leaders the tools to more effectively solicit gifts. The effort is a collaboration of several organizations: Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), the AVI CHAI Foundation and, here in Los Angeles, Builders of Jewish Education (BJE). (In other cities, the local Federation has participated.) 

“We’re making them make time for it and make it a priority,” said Rebecca Spain, Generations LA coordinator at BJE. “They then see the benefit and will want to keep going.” 

It started more than three years ago with about two dozen schools in Los Angeles, Boston, New York and Baltimore. Locally, the participating schools were Sinai Akiba, Cheder Menachem in South Robertson, Valley Beth Shalom Harold M. Schulweis Day School in Encino, Adat Ari El Labowe Family Day School in Valley Village, Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge and Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am, adjacent to Beverly Hills. 

These seven schools “graduated” in late 2014, raising over $10 million in cash and legacy gifts. Because of their success, a second cohort of Los Angeles schools started Generations LA: Beth Hillel Day School in Valley Village, Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Hancock Park, Kadima Day School in West Hills, Weizmann Day School in Pasadena and Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School. Because there were more schools that wanted to participate, BJE hopes to launch a third group later this year.

The three-year program offers participating schools significant hand-holding in building their respective endowments. Each school receives 40 hours of individualized coaching a year. Schools also participate in local meetings with representatives from their fellow schools and national training sessions. 

There are monetary incentives for hitting campaign benchmarks, which vary from school to school depending on the size of the student body. (The goal is to raise the equivalent of $4,000 per student.) In addition to the incentive grants, in Los Angeles, the Simha and Sara Lainer Day School Endowment Fund offers a 25 percent capped match on cash gifts.

For leadership at Cheder Menachem, a boys’ school with 315 students that had no endowment, Generations LA was simply too good an opportunity not to pursue. 

“This was an area which was underdeveloped in our institution,” Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum, dean of Cheder Menachem, said. “BJE was bringing it to the forefront. [They] provided a coach who coached us through the process of identifying donors and [have] gone with our solicitors to help work with donors. It was very valuable, between the coaching and constant networking with other schools and with PEJE, the various conferences they held.” 

Because of the success of the program, “We should be able to offer more scholarships and more benefits to our students and families long term,” Greenbaum said.

While Generations LA schools aren’t required to use endowment-generated income for tuition assistance, this particular use is top on many of their lists. And none of the schools are done building their endowments. The idea is that they now have the momentum — and the infrastructure — necessary to continue the endeavor, which was exactly what BJE hoped for from the start.

“Another long-term benefit,” Greenbaum added, “is the whole perspective on how to work with donors and be methodical about the process.”

Of course, raising endowment money is different from raising money for a new playground or computer lab. 

“It’s not tangible,” Shulkind said. 

Consequently, Sinai did “a lot of community education,” including parlor events and dinners. Peer pressure, of the best kind, was extremely effective. When one couple pledged $50,000 at a dinner event, others opened their checkbooks. 

Granted, the school was ahead of many of its peers to start, with an endowment of more than $8 million. It added nearly $3 million through the program, but its long-term goal is $40 million. “That would fully fund our tuition-assistance program as tuition goes up,” Shulkind said. 

One message that seemed to resonate powerfully with supporters of the school, where 31 percent of the 444 students receive some sort of financial aid, was this: “Imagine if one-third of students were not here,” Shulkind said. “Jewish day schools should not just be there for families who can afford it.”

Sheva Locke, head of school at Valley Beth Shalom Harold M. Schulweis Day School, which started with an endowment of $120,000 and added $736,000 thanks to Generations LA, likens an endowment to an insurance policy.

“It’s really for the future,” she said. 

But there are benefits in the here and now, too. 

“We reached out to alumni parents and grandparents. Their contribution to endowment was a way for them to reconnect to the day school and synagogue in ways that are meaningful to them. For me, that was the most exciting part of the whole process. It’s re-engagement.” 

This is key because the school, with an enrollment of 260 students, is giving out significantly more aid than it did in the past. “We’re giving out four times as much tuition assistance as five years ago,” Locke said.

It isn’t just local Jewish day schools that are behind in building endowments. According to the most recent available data from the National Association of Independent Schools, schools on the West Coast — which tend to be younger than their counterparts across the country — have the smallest endowments in the country on average: less than half compared to schools in the Midwest and New York and only a quarter of what their New England counterparts have. 

“Aside from the monetary benchmark, one of the main focuses of this program is creating a culture of endowment,” BJE’s Spain said. “It’s not something that existed in the past.”