From the Board: Working Together to Bring Jewish Day Schools to the Top
My wife and I are the proud parents of three sons. When it came time for our eldest to start school, we knew we wanted to send him to a Jewish day school. I had grown up in Montreal and had a very positive and formative experience at JPPS-Bialik. I wanted my children to have that same sense of community and strong Jewish identity. My wife and I have an interfaith marriage and are committed to raising our children as Jews. Thus, it was especially important for us that their school environment help us transmit Jewish culture and traditions to them.
Ultimately, we settled on Akiva School. With my business experience and passion for Jewish education, I was asked to join the school board. Around that same period, I was lucky enough to attend a PEJE conference, where I found a whole universe of people who were struggling with the same issues as Akiva, and approaching the challenges in interesting ways. That conference was a pivot. It permanently altered the way I looked at fundraising and tuition assistance, and changed my trajectory.
Even then, 10 years ago, there were signs that Jewish identity was changing. My kids’ generation had so many more choices than mine did, and Jewish experiences were competing with all kinds of secular opportunities. At the same time, a major shift was taking place in the field of philanthropy. Instead of just writing a blank check, donors wanted to be involved with organizations they cared about. They viewed philanthropy as a form of personal expression.
The Generations Fund was born against this backdrop. The problems facing Montreal’s Jewish day schools were extremely complex. So a group of young leaders in the community, including myself, sat around a table to try and break the issues into manageable parts. Under the professional leadership of Natana Shek, Federation CJA invested $1 million to pilot several communitywide programs, including what we now call the CAPS program.
CAPS stands for Creating Excellence-Promoting Success and, is a model focused on transparent, multiyear, dignified affordability for Jewish day school parents. Many Jewish day schools at the time were stuck in a Catch-22: They didn’t want to raise tuition and price out any students, but they also didn’t have the funds to bring the schools to their full potential, thereby opening the door for full payers to leave for elite preparatory schools.
It was a vicious cycle that we wanted to transform into a virtuous cycle. We realized that by solving the issue of middle income affordability, we could stabilize the Jewish day schools’ enrollment and invest in excellence, which would in turn keep the full payers there, because they recognized the value in our institutions. Believing that this model could create transformative change in our system of Jewish day schools, a small group of donors came together and committed $10 million each to pool funding, thereby creating a $50 million endowment fund to serve a system of Jewish day schools.
It wasn’t long ago that Jewish day schools in Montreal were in crisis mode and having price wars with each other. Now, they are working together in a culture that promotes continuous improvement. We even have a new, state-of-the-art high school being built on the JCC/Community campus, a separate $50 million project. It’s very rewarding to look back and see how far we’ve come. I know that the way ahead for all of us engaged with Jewish education is to learn from each other and support each other.
I joined Prizmah in 2016 and was asked to co-chair the strategic planning process, to assist with finding the best ways to help not just a community of schools but the larger field. Prizmah is now developing a fieldwide strategy, which we hope will support and inspire schools in communities across North America and beyond to take on bold initiatives of their own.
Joel Segal is a member of the board of Prizmah.