At almost eight years old, Rory Katz of Teaneck, New Jersey, already knows where she wants to work when she’s older: Teach New Jersey, where her mother, Katie, serves as the executive director.
It’s a career that Katie Katz has been visibly passionate about since beginning her role in January 2020. Teach NJ is a division of Teach Coalition, a non-partisan grassroots organization that advocates for equitable government funding, security, and quality education for nonpublic schools, including 90 percent of yeshivas and Jewish day schools nationwide. Through the activism of close to 40,000 community advocates, Teach Coalition works to secure resources in areas such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), security, universal pre-K, special education, K-12 scholarships, and more.
Katz and her husband Ezra know firsthand about the stress experienced by families sending their children to Jewish day schools and yeshivas. In addition to Rory, they have two other school-aged children: Jonah, 6, and Ava, 3.
“I grew up in Teaneck and went to Jewish day schools here, and I feel very fortunate to be able to send my children to the same wonderful schools,” says Katz. “But I certainly feel the financial reality of what’s involved in that. It’s really expensive to raise a family in this community. While we are so privileged to have all the resources and incredible educational options, the cost of tuition is a tremendous amount of pressure.”
In her role, Katz works to alleviate that pressure for members of New Jersey’s Jewish communities by building relationships and educating decision makers in Trenton; helping schools navigate and benefit from all available government resources; ensuring that Jewish community members vote in every election; and fundraising and working with donors and volunteers.
While Katz’s children don’t fully comprehend what their mom does, they all know how much she enjoys going to work.
“I love what I do, and my family knows that,” she says. “I feel very privileged to be able to make a difference in families’ lives. We’re working to change the trajectory of Jewish day schools’ financial paradigms, which would be a gamechanger for our community. My kids see my passion for Teach NJ. It makes it much easier for me to juggle work and family life, which at times can be a balancing act.”
Katz also feels fortunate to have the support of her husband and her parents, Ronnie and Marc Schlussel, who live nearby and are very involved with her kids.
It was her parents and grandparents, says Katz, who inspired her to pursue tzorchei tzibbur (serving the needs of the community) as both a volunteer and a professional. In her “spare” time, Katz serves on the board of Yavneh Academy in Paramus, New Jersey, and co-chairs Teaneck’s Congregation Netivot Shalom’s capital campaign.
“I’m the first person in my family to work in the Jewish professional world,” says Katz. “But my parents and grandparents are deeply involved in Jewish life, Jewish educational institutions and giving tzedakah. My mother was the president of Yeshivat Frisch and my father was the chair of Cornell University Hillel. They are both very involved in our shul, Netivot Shalom, and many other organizations. So helping to shape and contribute to community institutions has always been a very deep value of mine.”
Katz also credits both sets of her grandparents, Gerry and Hannah Bacharach and Abraham and Sheila Schlussel, for having significantly influenced her career path.
“I was so fortunate to grow up near all four of my grandparents — three of whom are still with us today — and to witness the way in which they modeled communal leadership and benevolence.”
“My grandfather Abraham Schlussel, z”l, deeply valued Jewish education and made sure financial hardships wouldn’t prevent children in the community from attending Jewish day school,” says Katz. “The values of community and Jewish education are ones I hold dear as well.”
Katz originally considered pursuing a career in psychology but was bitten by the community service bug while studying at Brandeis. While earning a BA in Health: Science, Society, and Policy and minoring in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, she became president of the Brandeis Orthodox Organization.
“Serving in that Jewish leadership role was a really pivotal experience,” recalls Katz. “After exploring different career paths, this clicked and I thought, ‘How lucky would I be to be able to do something that I feel so passionate about full time?’”
She enrolled in fundraising classes as part of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis. The courses and her mentor, David Mersky, a fundraising consultant, inspired her to pursue a Master’s in Jewish Professional Leadership, and an MBA in Nonprofit Management from the university’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management.
Upon graduating in 2011, Katz worked in development roles at The New Jewish Home in Manhattan and The Englewood Health Foundation in New Jersey before landing her most recent position at Teach NJ — a job which is both meaningful and gratifying for Katz, who feels fully supported by the Jewish community.
“I’ve been involved in fundraising in other roles, and this is by far the easiest cause to fundraise for because our objective to make Jewish day schools and yeshivas more affordable and safer is so compelling,” she notes. “People really understand and feel the need just as deeply.”
Beyond the backing of the Jewish community, Katz draws tremendous inspiration from Orthodox Union Managing Director and Teach Coalition Founder Maury Litwack.
“The passion that he has for the work that we’re doing really lights a fire under the entire team,” says Katz. “It’s really motivating and uplifting to work with someone who always pushes us to aim high and never settle. There’s a real sense of urgency to our work every day. It’s a big reason that I love what I do so much.”
Since its inception in 2015, Teach NJ has secured millions of dollars for nonpublic schools. Yet Katz says the organization’s primary goal is to make Jewish day schools and yeshivas more affordable. Teach NJ strategically targets various policy approaches to address affordability and sustainability. She points to the groundbreaking STEM programs in NY and NJ — the first programs of their kind in history to provide state government-funded resources for secular education in nonpublic schools. In the state of Florida, every nonpublic school student now receives $8,000 in school scholarships regardless of family income; Teach NJ is advocating to bring tax credit scholarships to New Jersey too.
“To have these universal scholarships would be transformational,” she says. “We’re working to bring a program like that to New Jersey. I really believe that we can get there. I hope that one day we can look back as a community and say, ‘We’ve changed this trajectory for our children, grandchildren and for our whole community. We’ve made it much easier and more accessible to attend Jewish day schools and yeshivas here.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.