With the encouragement and participation of a growing number of yeshivot and day schools across North America, the Orthodox Union is quickly moving ahead with a two-pronged approach to respond to the crisis in Jewish education in the current economic environment. The results will be noticeable as early as the school year beginning in September. The two aspects of the plan are as follows:
• To assist the schools in making savings in non-academic areas while at the same time finding new sources of income at a time of reduced philanthropic giving; and
• Providing an alternative to parents who cannot afford to pay $15,000 (average of nursery school through high school tuition) annually for each child, through establishment of schools offering a strong basic education but without a complete complement of programs such are offered by day schools now, and thereby charging about $6,500 per school year in tuition.
The first component is progressing rapidly, with the OU in close communication with some 135 schools across the continent, whose administrators are enthusiastic about the plan and are committed to involvement in some or all aspects for the upcoming school year. These schools participated in a conference call following Passover in which these plans were discussed and updated.
Meanwhile, regarding the second component, some local communities, most notably Englewood, NJ – a suburb of New York City -- have begun discussion of opening an alternative yeshiva in time for the 2010-11 school year.
The dual plans are being guided by Rabbi Saul Zucker, a former yeshiva high school principal and now Director of the Department of Day School and Educational Services of the Orthodox Union, and his assistant director, Rabbi Cary Friedman. They have tirelessly presented plans, first in part at a summit meeting at OU headquarters in Manhattan in January, whose live attendance was supplemented by educators calling in from distant communities, followed by a series of conference calls.
In addition, Rabbi Zucker spoke Sunday at the OU Synagogue Leadership Seminar of the OU’s West Coast Division in Los Angeles, at which time he elaborated on both aspects of the plan for the California audience. Both proposals were received enthusiastically by the educators and lay leaders present, he said.
“The plan we’re introducing to the schools is not cutting corners within the box, but it’s outside the box – a radical impact in terms of savings,” Rabbi Zucker declared before heading west. “We are prepared to present this plan to any community that is interested.
Components of the plan include: Part One
• Nationwide Health Insurance – The OU is working with a major insurer on a plan for yeshiva day schools. The schools would join a group of about 40,000 other participants, whose demographics would determine the premium. “When you join with a group of 40,000, it levels out the demographics of the yeshiva group to provide much lower premiums,” Rabbi Zucker explained. He estimated that the potential savings for any given school over the course of the year is “tens of thousands of dollars.” Schools had a deadline of May 4 to submit their application.
• Energy Cost-Cutting Measures: A switch to solar energy has already presented one school in New Jersey with a potential savings of $80,000, Rabbi Zucker says, emphasizing that schools will incur little or no costs in the conversion, through arrangements worked out by the OU and a provider.
• Grant writing – The OU has identified a grant writing firm that has successfully written proposals resulting in more than $2.5 million in grants to day schools; the firm is available to help schools with specific strategies to obtain grants for their programs, Rabbi Zucker said. Schools can promote their own programs, or partner with other schools or groups in getting the grants.
• Revenue-Generating OU Toolbar – It is "revenue-generating" because every time a person enters the Internet through the portal of the OU toolbar and performs a search (for airline tickets, shoes, books, etc.), corporate sponsors (who pay the search engine to advertise their websites at or near the top of the results list) pay a small amount into a fund that goes to the OU Education Fund for direct allocation to the yeshivot. Every cent collected, after the minimal administrative costs charged by the company that hosts the toolbar, will go directly to support day schools. The OU does not charge any administrative fee nor does it retain any of the money collected. A similar model toolbar raises hundreds of thousands of dollars per month for the Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
Regarding raising money, the OU is available to help each community set up a Kehilla Fund whereby as many members as possible of the local Orthodox community (with a goal of 100 percent) voluntarily participate in a fixed monthly contribution to support their local yeshivot, whether they have children attending or not. The average target, according to Rabbi Zucker, is $30 per family per month, which is collected as an automatic debit or credit from a checking account.
The program is designed in cooperation with Torah Mesorah, the organization of the yeshiva system, and Agudath Israel of America. As Rabbi Zucker explains, “The Kehilla Fund promotes unity; it brings in people who are part of the community who do not have kids in the school; it’s voluntary; and it is implemented through the synagogues, with the rabbis leading the campaign to get everyone involved.
Even with the cost savings, it cannot be expected that tuition will be reduced, Rabbi Zucker explains, given the need for the schools to maintain their academic excellence. This leads to part two of the plan, the reduced cost yeshiva.
Within the next few years, annual tuition increases will not be able to sustain themselves,” Rabbi Zucker says. “The financial burden will come crashing down on both parents and schools. Some schools may go out of business; some parents may have to pull their children from Jewish schools and send them to public schools, a process that is already beginning to happen.”
Thus, the concept of the reduced tuition school. It will operate as follows:
• Class size of 25, not 15-18;
• No fixed aides to every classroom in the lower grades;
• No after-school extracurricular programs unless staffed by volunteers;
• A cooperative model of education in which parents sign on to giving four hours per month in providing services to the school in different ways;
• Teachers’ salaries to remain competitive with the market; and
• A computer lab to be present but not one with “absolute star-quality cutting-edge equipment.”
Rabbi Zucker acknowledges that the presence of such a school in the community can create a caste system. Local rabbis must deal with such potential sources of discord by emphasizing Jewish midot, or values. The new school may also bring about concern on the part of administrators of the full cost school, under the impression that their institution may be threatened. Rabbi Zucker responds: “The proposal for the new schools is meant to complement, not supplant, existing schools. In fact, a reduced cost school will help to reduce tuition in the current schools since full-paying parents will not have to cover as much of the cost of scholarships as they currently do.”
Clearly the ball is rolling to developing a new yeshiva/day school system in North America, which offers survival for both the schools and the financial well-being of parents. Behind that rolling ball is the Orthodox Union.
According to OU President Stephen J. Savitsky, “It has been immensely gratifying to hear from people in the professional and lay leadership worlds of Jewish education that the Orthodox Union is now the address for schools and parents to talk to about alleviating the financial crises of the yeshiva system.”