Whatever our age or stage of life, the post-Labor Day week is still synonymous with back to school.

In simpler days, we arrived at school with freshly sharpened pencils and new lunch boxes. The excitement of reconnecting with old friends was second only to the nerves around meeting new teachers. Who would we get for math? For history? At Jewish day schools (of which I’m a proud graduate), a good Chumash (Bible) teacher could make your year; a great one could change your life.

Teachers pour their hearts and souls into the classroom — and for a relatively modest living. Some even struggle to make ends meet. During the pandemic, we saw how they heroically put aside their own personal challenges, pivoted to online learning and then in-person, often shifting back and forth, with little notice. Our teachers deserve proper benefits. They deserve decent healthcare and a comfortable retirement. They deserve to know that our community appreciates everything they do for our children.

Which is why for 44 years, the Fund for Jewish Education (FJE) has been a phenomenal resource to ensure Jewish day school educators can access critical benefits — including life insurance, medical insurance,and pension plans. And a little known fact: UJA has been the largest funder of FJE since its inception. We’ve provided approximately $156 million to date.

Also, as of July 2022, UJA assumed full responsibility for administration and operation of the fund.

FJE began as the brainchild of Joseph Gruss, a towering and visionary philanthropist who fled Poland in 1939 to escape the Nazis. In the 1970s, when UJA and Federation were still two separate entities — one funding globally and the other locally, but both focused heavily on supporting social services — Mr. Gruss came to the heads of each organization and made the case for the importance of Jewish education. He said there would be no Jewish community without a sense of Jewish identity and communal connection. And he spoke of the critical importance of incentivizing schools to provide appropriate benefits for their teachers.

Mr. Gruss put up $500,000 and challenged each organization to match him, which they did. And thus FJE was born, with UJA-Federation (separately and now as a merged organization) providing 2/3 of the annual funding, and 1/3 coming from Gruss Life Monument Funds.

Today, FJE provides free life insurance, medical insurance reimbursement programs, and pension contributions for 6,500 Jewish educators across the New York community. Importantly, it incentivizes schools to provide employees with additional benefits. In the beginning years, that meant schools needed to offer social security as a condition for applying to FJE; more recently, they’ve needed to offer a certain level of health insurance. The fund has represented a sea change for Jewish educators.

Our community is deeply indebted to the enduring vision of Joseph Gruss. Because of that vision, generations of Jewish children will learn to think critically about the world and Torah.

Today, they're nervous and excited, with backpacks that are bigger than they are. Tomorrow, they'll grow up to become the teachers who inspire, the leaders we need to carry our community forward, the philanthropists who change the world.     

Shabbat shalom