Two to Tango: Day Schools and Federations
In a recent conversation about the sizable efforts made in England to strengthen Jewish day schools and yeshivas, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks summarized the urgent need for communal support: “The world our children will inherit tomorrow is born in the schools we build today.” In the 21st century, we are blessed to have inherited Jewish day schools and yeshivas that are built on the experience, knowledge and passion of countless leaders who invested in creating and strengthening them. How do we as a community care for that inheritance so that it endures throughout future generations?
The Jewish day school and yeshiva experience is not only an evolutionary step for the North American Jewish community, but also a revolutionary one. Today’s schools are immersive and intensive, teaching the sacred and the modern. We educate students to embrace the legacy of their tradition and the wonders of the secular culture and society. Day schools and yeshivas connect students to the broader Jewish people and to the modern State of Israel, as well as to their role as citizens of a free society. We teach our students to use the wisdom of our past to contextualize our present so that they may shape their future.
While our children may learn the same alef beis as generations ago did in cheder, today’s schools have achieved more than any previous generation. As we find ourselves in the midst of the third generation of Jewish day schools in North America, the question of endurance is all the more salient. Acknowledging the many challenges facing Jewish day schools (as did the recent study “Challenges and Opportunities on the Jewish Day School Landscape: A Thought and Action Paper for Jewish Federations”), some wonder if there will be Jewish day schools and yeshivas to inherit for the next generation.
What steps can we take to not only protect our inheritance, but help it grow to sustain and maintain the generations to come?
This article is a product of the growing partnership between the North American Day School Strategy and Planning Group and Prizmah. The NADSSPG comprises professionals from central agencies for Jewish education and federations in 11 major communities who focus on the strategic vision for day schools. Day schools and yeshivas have no greater ally at the community level than federations and central agencies. Over the past 15 years, we have seen the significant impact of partnerships between federations and schools. Following is a brief exploration of some of the ways these partnerships have made a difference, with an urgent call that communities consider the ways these strategies can help all who see themselves as custodians of the remarkable inheritance.
Championing the contribution of day schools to the communal landscape
Vibrant Jewish communities attract Jewish families, Jewish communal professionals, clergy and lay leadership who are looking for a deep community infrastructure. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 17b) is the first to identify the importance of Jewish educational institutions as some of the essential components of a Jewish community. By promoting and supporting local schools on the communal level, federations and Jewish day schools attract a wide range of Jewish families who can establish roots and dedicate their lives and resources to furthering their community. This is something that smaller communities know very well, where sometimes having even one Jewish day school or yeshiva can determine the ability to attract talented professionals.
In places with multiple schools, support and advocacy from federations can position Jewish day schools and yeshivas not as competitors for families and students, but rather as a collective, a pillar of the community. From this posture, schools view themselves as part of a greater whole and work toward the benefit of all the schools as well as their own. This approach has an impact both on how the community perceives its schools as well as how they relate to and speak about each other.
Beyond these benefits to the community and the schools, by elevating the presence of Jewish day schools and yeshivas in the community, school leaders have an opportunity to play a more active role in the broader communal landscape.
Establishing and securing financial vitality
While federations are by no means limited to financial support, investment of communal funds in our schools is of course essential. In recent years, we have been fortunate to witness very significant initiatives to tackle the challenge of affordability. We have seen impressive campaigns, often shepherded by federations, to grow day school endowments. These partnerships are critical for long-term sustainability. Federations can serve as a partner for Jewish day schools and yeshivas in additional revenue-generating ways, such as funding access to outside experts on enrollment, fundraising and governance, the three domains most closely linked to school financial health. Federation professionals themselves, with local expertise, can also serve as mentors and coaches for day school leaders engaged in strategies towards financial stability.
In communities where demographic studies are conducted, federations can partner with day schools and yeshivas to help schools analyze the data in order to identify specific levers or messages that will help attract more families to their schools. In all communities, especially those with limited financial resources, partnership between federations and the Jewish day schools and yeshivas can lead to cross-community collaboration and efficient sharing of precious assets and services to benefit the whole community.
Convening the community around education
In most communities, the federation holds a unique position as community convener, offering programming and funding for initiatives that reach across denominational and generational boundaries. The opportunities for partnership with our schools are extensive. Jewish day schools and yeshivas can become an educational home for the broader Jewish community. When facilities are not in use by school-aged children, the school can play host to educational programming for all ages. In addition, as community convener, federations can bring together educators and other community leaders for joint professional development, leveraging the wisdom of outside experts as well as the experience of home-grown talent. Federations can be instrumental in developing a community among local professionals that extends beyond the walls of a school.
These are just three areas that are ripe for exploration between local federations and Jewish day schools and yeshivas. As was stated above, there are communities that are shining examples of these leading practices, and many efforts are already underway to build on these successes. The Jewish Federations of North America recently hosted a conversation as part of the last General Assembly titled “Banim u’Vonim—Children and Builders: A Day School Conversation,” where a number of these topics were explored, and the Jewish Education and Engagement Office of JFNA continues to focus on strengthening the Federation and day school partnership.
Working together to expand these and other efforts, Prizmah, JFNA and the North American Day School Strategy and Planning Group are partnering with Jewish day schools and yeshivas in North America to ensure that our inheritance does in fact become a profound legacy for the next generation.