Paula Gottesman and her husband, Jerry, believe that a thriving Jewish future requires educated Jews, and that it is a communal responsibility to provide the means for quality Jewish education. The Gottesmans are pioneers in the development of programs for middle-income affordability and day school endowments. They were among the first in the nation to provide a cap on tuition for students from middle income families at a Jewish day school, creating a ground-breaking program at the then-Hebrew Academy of Morris County in 1998.
Paula is a long-time leader of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and its endowment arm, the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ. In 2007, the Gottesmans created the largest program endowment in the history of the community by endowing the middle income tuition program and becoming founding donors of the Greater MetroWest Day School Campaign and of the Herskowitz Society, a day school donor society named in memory of members of Jerry’s family. The highly successful communitywide effort became the model for endowment development in communities across North America.
In other endeavors, the Gottesmans have been innovators in the field of Jewish camp, and they support many impactful Jewish education and social service programs in Israel. They endowed a position for a full-time Jewish student director at Vassar College, Paula’s alma mater.
Jerry is the Chairman of the Board of Edison Properties, a diversified firm specializing in mini-storage, parking and real estate development. Paula is a retired attorney.
Why are you passionate about day school education?
We can’t have a viable Jewish community without educated Jews. It’s that simple. For a long time in this country, we relied on immigrant families from Europe to be the educated leaders of the Jewish community. We no longer have that luxury. Today, we need to develop our own educated, committed Jews in order for the community to continue grow and thrive in a meaningful way.
When you think about the system of a day school, what role do you see a funder playing?
Jewish community leaders always talk about how we are a “community”: we take care of each other, we take care of our elderly, we take care of our children. Those are nice words, but in some ways empty words when it comes to educating children. The burden of the education is left largely to the parents. I think the community should bear the responsibility. Just as people pay taxes for public schools—and no one would say we shouldn’t do that—the Jewish community should tax itself for the education of our children. Our collective future should be the responsibility of the collective community.
Tell us about your relationship specifically with the school now named Gottesman RTW Academy, formerly known as Hebrew Academy of Morris County—why you believe in that school and how your relationship with it has developed over the years.
When we moved to this area about 40 years ago, two of our children went to the school. I got involved because the kids liked it and we were a community. The parents did a lot of bonding just as our children did. It’s the only Jewish day school in our county, and we believe a strong day school is important to maintaining quality Jewish life in the area. When we realized that the school needed a new facility to meet the needs of today’s education and for the future, we were happy to work with the school and its leaders and other families to make that happen.
You and your husband have been ahead of the curve on two major issues that have become common concerns at Jewish day schools across the nation: middle income affordability and endowment development. Tell us briefly how you became aware of these challenges and the approaches you took to address them.
Affordability has been a concern of mine for a long time. In the late 1990s, I understood that middle income families could not afford to send their children to day school. The day schools had scholarships for families who couldn’t afford to pay much, and the wealthy could of course afford to pay full tuition. There was a big group in the middle that was not “needy,” but day school education was just not within their budgets. These were families, making about $75,000 to $100,000 in salaries, but tuition for several children was too much of a burden. We knew one committed Jewish family with three children and we asked the father why the children were not in day school. He said, “I make too much to get a scholarship, but not enough make it affordable and provide a nice life for my family.” At the time, my husband and I were discussing important needs that we could help support with our foundation. One of our daughters said, “You care about Jewish day schools. Why don’t you want to do something about Jewish education?” It was that simple.
So, we went to the school (then the Hebrew Academy of Morris County) and asked if they wanted to set up a program to help middle income families. We asked what families would be able to pay comfortably and what they would need. We let the school set the parameters of the program. So, in 1998, when it began, tuition was about $7,500. The school asked middle income parents to pay $5000 per child a year, and we provided the difference. We called it “subvention.” Unlike with scholarships, we did not ask for detailed financial information. We didn’t want to put any stigma on those getting the subvention, and we told them that we were relying on an honor system. At the time, middle income was defined as a maximum of $120,000 a year. Every few years, as tuition rises, the school adjusts the guidelines of the middle income program. Today, families making as much as $250,000 who have several children in the school are considered “middle income.”
For many years, the school would renew its request for the middle income program. They told us how important it was to the families and that the families needed a sense of assurance that the program would continue. Jerry suggested that we should create an endowment, so the school, and the families, wouldn’t need to worry about it from one year to the next. That led us to endow our program and to begin an endowment campaign for the day schools in our community.
How did you decide to create a communitywide initiative to support multiple day schools? What convinced other funders to join in this project?
I think all the schools are doing a good job and striving toward the same goal, which is educating Jewish children. This helps the whole community.
We knew that every college has an endowment, and every prep school has an endowment. Jews who are supposed to be so good at fundraising were asleep at the helm. Then Kim Hirsh, who had been development director at the Hebrew Academy, was hired by the Jewish Community Foundation of our (Greater MetroWest) Federation, and we worked with her to start an endowment program for all the schools. We were going to have a matching program for donations to one fund for three schools. We created a one-for-one match, presented it to the three schools and their lead donors, and got almost no takers. They all supported Jewish education, but wanted to support their own schools. So, Kim created a solution: people can give to the community fund OR for an endowment for a particular school. Then the money started coming in. There was a higher match for the community endowment, which we wanted to build up, and a slightly lower one for the individual school funds, but people still preferred to give to their individual schools. At the end of the day, as long as people were giving to endowments for day school education, that is what mattered. Every gift is an investment in day schools and our Jewish future.
One of the things notable about the project was that it generated a conversation about academic excellence.
We live in an area with excellent public and private schools. Our Jewish day schools need to compete with the best. So we set out to make really quality day schools even better through investing in science and technology, in Israel programs, and, most importantly, investing in teachers. Teachers are the heart of quality education. We retained Penney Riegelman, a former Head of school from one of the top private independent schools in our region, and she worked with our Jewish day schools to create a high-end professional development program for every teacher, Judaic and secular. We added “deans of the faculty” in each school to oversee professional development and help mentor and constantly improve teaching. The teachers love the program, and it has created so much energy and dynamism in the classrooms. Parents are definitely noticing, and retention rates have improved.
Let's take a step back and think about the place of day schools in American Jewish life. Do you believe that day schools receive the recognition and support they need and deserve from the Jewish community?
Acceptance today is much greater than it had been in the past. When we first sent our children to a day school, friends would ask me, “Why are you sending kids to day school? Are the public schools so terrible?” We don’t hear that so much anymore. Day schools are much more accepted today as a quality option for Jewish families.
What have you learned on the local level that can be transferred more broadly on the national level?
Until very recently, Jewish day schools never even dreamed of having endowments. This is shocking when we realize that private independent schools have been building endowments for generations. Day schools have just been living from hand to mouth. They say, “Well, we can’t think about that because we have to pay for operations and for fixing the roof.” But you can’t hold off the endowment campaign because you have an annual campaign. Day schools need both. You need to explain that you want to fund today and ensure the school’s viability for the long haul. Private secular schools have been doing this for a long, long time, and Jewish day schools can, too. Just think of what a different place we would be in today if day schools had been doing this for 50 years already.
What advice do you have for funders as they invest their time and money in support of Jewish day schools?
I think funders should meet with the school’s leaders and ask what they think would be most beneficial to the school. I don’t think you should go to a school and tell them, I want to give you a million dollars for X or Y. Ask the school what they think will be the greatest asset enhancer for the school. Whether they tell you it’s lowering tuition, building a new gym, or constructing a beit midrash, I don’t think funders should try to redirect the school. I also think funders need to understand that to really make change, you need to be in for the long haul. There are no quick fixes in education.
Is there anything else you want to tell us about your relationship with the school or day school education more broadly?
We insisted that there be collaboration among the schools. Previously the day schools in our community didn’t even talk to each other. The leaders barely knew each other’s names. Today, our Heads of School meet regularly, and the lay and professional leaders of the schools and the Federation meet two times a year at a Day School Council. We brought together three schools (Golda Och Academy, a Solomon Schechter School; Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, a Modern Orthodox School; and the Gottesman RTW Academy, a Community/RAVSAK school). Now there is a fourth school (The Jewish Educational Center, a Centrist Orthodox school) due to a Federation merger. The schools share best, or worst, practices, plan programs together, and share information and ideas on tackling big issues like affordability and enrollment growth. That has been a big blessing, a complete revolution in the community.
Last year we had a teach-in one day. We closed the schools. Teachers from all the schools got together, teachers taught each other, traded ideas and programs, and discussed ways to continue to collaborate and share. Over 300 people were there. It was too large to run every year, so we are doing it every other year and smaller teacher collaborations in the off-years.
Through our foundation and the Community Fund, we established a five-year program called “Vision 2015” in which the schools were challenged to improve in different areas to help them become more sustainable. They had to develop a detailed, long-term plan, and report back every year on how they were doing. Kushner Academy, which is more than 60 years old, had almost no idea who its alumni were. It never kept alumni records; it hired an alumni coordinator, who started running programs, and now they have an alumni organization and alumni relations program. This is so important for private schools to have strong alumni programs. With the Community Fund, we have challenged the schools to think about what they really need and how they will go about fulfilling those needs, how it will make a difference and lead to success.
The day schools in our community have stayed strong and stable, even during the downturn. Enrollment is starting to grow a bit. We know we have helped the day schools become stronger, better and more sustainable. That’s important for the schools and our community.
Thank you for sharing all this with us, and thank you for all your support for day schools. We need many more of you. You’re setting a very high bar.
We’re very fortunate since we get to see the results of what we’re doing. We visit the schools and see the teaching excellence program in practice, and we see the new building (for the Gottesman RTW School) going up. I always find it breathtaking when people come up to us and say thank you. We even get letters of thanks from students—that blows me away. When a child says, “You enabled me to go to Jewish day school,” that’s priceless! We hope that our efforts will have a positive effect on not only the child, but on the Jewish community.