The youngest Jewish leaders of tomorrow haven’t started school yet. They haven’t yet gone to camp or visited Israel on an organized trip. Every one of those experiences will shape who they are — and it’s up to us to make those experiences as available and meaningful as possible.
And while we’ve indeed made enormous strides in making camps and Israel trips more enriching and accessible, Jewish day schools — an extremely powerful avenue to deep and sustained Jewish engagement — have remained out of reach for far too many. Scholarships, though they exist, are rightfully distributed to those struggling the most financially.
We know two important facts: First, a disproportionate number of young Jewish leaders have attended day schools, suggesting that it really does make a difference in shaping their lives and the lives of those they influence in the broader Jewish community. Second, day school tuition is a hardship for all but the most affluent, making it a very difficult or impossible choice for too many families.
We have to do better. And we are.
UJA-Federation has long-recognized the need to create a mega-fund, a signature initiative in this area that would represent a paradigm shift in how we, as a community, support day schools. Our challenge has been to overcome the pervasive and deeply embedded belief that the financial burden for day schools is principally the responsibility of individual parents or grandparents. Moreover, even those who support a particular type of day school are frequently disinclined to support Jewish education writ large.
Paradigm shifts don’t come easy, but with persistence change can happen. After much effort and with thanks to the incredible generosity and foresight of a small group of visionary philanthropists who committed $50 million, UJA-Federation recently launched its $200 million Day School Challenge Fund.
The initial $50 million will be used to match 1:3 new endowment funds raised by participating schools. So, if an individual school raises $1 million in new endowment funds, it will receive a matching gift of $333,000. In other words, we’re challenging schools to raise an additional $150 million in endowment funds. And if we succeed, a total of $200 million in new endowment funds will be there to support our day schools.
I want to publicly recognize the first movers who collectively committed the $50 million to fund this initiative. In addition to UJA-Federation, which earmarked $20 million from its endowment, the funders are The AVI CHAI Foundation, the Jim Joseph Foundation and several individual philanthropists including, Giti and Jack Bendheim, Alisa and Dan Doctoroff, The Gottesman Fund, George Klein, and Pamela and George Rohr.
Sixty percent of all day school students in the nation go to school in the area served by UJA-Federation, and an approach like this has never been tried with so many schools at once. Also, while I’ve stressed affordability, the other issue is academic excellence. Jewish day schools can’t just “get by” if they are to offer their students the best education possible. They need the resources to support teacher recruitment and professional development, enhance the quality of the schools’ total Jewish and secular academic experience, and implement long-term strategic and financial planning.
While raising the $50 million and launching the fund represents an enormous milestone, we know there is still a long way to go to reach our end goal. But think of how far we’ve come in supporting Jewish summer camps and Birthright Israel. Day schools are the next frontier, and the potential long-term impact is profound.
What the Day School Challenge Fund represents is not just an investment in our schools — it’s an investment in our shared future. Hopefully, one day we’ll mark this moment as the beginning of a new and important chapter for our community.