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Jewish day schools given $45m gift

Anonymous donors seek to 'promote excellence'

Jewish day schools in Greater Boston are receiving a $45 million gift from a group of local families, in one of the largest expressions of financial support for the burgeoning religious day-school movement nationwide.

The donors, who are making the gift anonymously, will give $10 million to each of the three largest Jewish schools in the region: the Maimonides School in Brookline, the Rashi School in Newton, and the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston, also in Newton. The three schools span the theological spectrum of American Judaism: Maimonides is a modern Orthodox school, Rashi is affiliated with the Reform movement, and Schechter with the Conservative movement. Together they educate about 55 percent of the 2,800 youngsters who currently attend the 14 Jewish day schools in Greater Boston.

The remaining $15 million will be used more to assist all the day schools in the region, and a portion of that will be used to expand financial aid for applicants to any of the 14 schools, according to officials at Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the umbrella organization for the Boston-area Jewish community. Combined Jewish Philanthropies is receiving the $45 million and will oversee its distribution, which is to take place over the next five years.

"This is a very serious commitment, but it is not narrow or parochial; it is about a vision of a better world, and a value system, that these schools are going to transmit," said Combined Jewish Philanthropies president Barry Shrage.

Under Shrage's leadership, Combined Jewish Philanthropies has emphasized strengthening Jewish education and culture amid a decades-long wave of intermarriage and assimilation and a gradual but relentless decline in the Jewish population in the United States, driven in part by a low birth rate.

"Every ethnic and religious group carries value in their heritage, and we believe that all of our children and adults should be as fluent in our own particular culture as they are in the cultures that surround them," he said.

The gift is to be announced today in Boston at a conference held by the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, a Boston-based national organization of Jewish philanthropists who support the day school movement.

The $45 million gift to the Boston-area schools appears to be the largest in the nation for academic programs at Jewish day schools, although other day schools have raised more for construction projects, according to Gil Preuss, who is overseeing the local initiative, called "peerless excellence," for Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

Each of the three schools chosen to receive $10 million must propose a plan for spending its share of the money, and the plans will have to be approved by the donors and a committee of educational specialists assembled by Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Preuss said. The $45 million can be used only for programming -- curriculum development, teacher training, cultural programs, and so on -- and not for construction projects.

Combined Jewish Philanthropies declined to release any identifying information about the donors, including how many families are involved or how exactly the gifts came about, saying that the donors have collectively decided they wish to remain anonymous.

"We're looking to make a relatively rapid and serious impact on the three largest schools, but the ultimate aim is to see all the schools achieve that level of excellence," Shrage said. "Schools are one place where they [philanthropists] can make an extraordinary, transformational difference.

The gift is being made as the number of Jewish day schools, locally and nationally, is growing rapidly in response to parental concerns about the transmission and preservation of Jewish identity, scholarship, and values. The day school movement is also benefiting from societal support for multiculturalism and diversity, after generations in which assimilation was the priority for many minority groups.

But some day school officials say they are seeing a softening in enrollment driven by a variety of factors, including the high cost of day schools and concern about the quality of sports and science programs. A new survey of Jewish parents in the Boston area, conducted for a coalition of New England Jewish day schools called the Day School Advocacy Forum, found that parents cited the quality of math and science programs as the most important attribute they considered when choosing a school, followed by a "positive peer group for the children," a "quality English program," and "ethics and values."

Demographic changes may be limiting enrollment, as well. Although many local Jewish institutions, such as the three schools getting $10 million each, are located in the Newton-Brookline area, the Jewish population has been migrating to more affordable suburbs further west of Boston in recent years.

Of the 14 day schools in Greater Boston, seven have been established since 1992, including the MetroWest Jewish Day School at Juniper Hill, in Framingham. That school opened its doors last fall and has an enrollment of 16 pupils.

The number of students in Jewish day schools in Boston has more than doubled in the last 15 years. Throughout New England, there are now 19 Jewish day schools serving 3,380 children. Nationally, there are about 700 Jewish day schools serving an estimated 200,000 children, a tenfold increase over the last half-century, according to the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.

Only a tiny minority of Jewish youngsters in the region attend day schools. Combined Jewish Philanthropies estimated that the Jewish population in its area, which does not include parts of the North Shore, is about 250,000, including about 35,000 school-age children.

Shrage estimated that about 90 percent of Orthodox children go to Jewish day schools, but that fewer than 20 percent of Conservative children and 5 percent of Reform children do so. The vast majority of Jewish families in the Boston area are not Orthodox, and their children's formal Jewish education, if any, takes place in after school and weekend Hebrew school and Sunday school programs.

Combined Jewish Philanthropies is working on separate efforts to boost the quality of the afterschool programs. It has also pioneered several innovative religious education programs for adults, including Me'ah, an intensive two-year program on Jewish history and thought for working adults, and a new, less demanding program, Ikkarim, aimed at the parents of preschoolers. The organization also gives direct aid to Jewish day schools, based on a per capita formula, and offers fund-raising assistance.

The day schools that will receive the primary benefit are the most established in the region, and already boast test scores higher than those of most public and private schools. Maimonides, founded in 1937, is particularly successful: Worth magazine ranked the school 25th in the United States for the percentage of students attending Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.

The schools attempt to combine all the academic offerings of public and private schools with classes in Hebrew language, Bible, Talmud, and Jewish thought and values. And the schools say they emphasize social justice and community building. All that leads to a long school day: For the high school students at Maimonides, the day begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m.

"It's a good Jewish environment, it's safe, and it has a good reputation with colleges," said Ashira Gendelman, 14, of Lexington, an eighth-grader at Maimonides.

Osher Galibov, a 16-year-old ninth-grader from Brookline who is among the minority of non-Orthodox Jewish students at Maimonides, said he finds the school "much more work, and much more interesting" than the public schools where he began his education.

Maimonides, with 625 students from kindergarten to 12th grade, is the largest Jewish day school in the area, with an annual budget of $10 million and tuition from $12,000 to $14,000 a year. The school's executive director, Josh Wolff, called the $10 million grant "extremely gratifying," not only for the individual schools, but because "this type of program will possibly invigorate the general attitude towards day schools as an investment in our future generations."

Rashi, the smallest of the three schools, has 315 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, a $4.5 million annual budget, and tuition averaging $16,000. Rabbi Joe Eiduson, the head of the school, called the grant "an unbelievable and phenomenal opportunity."

Schechter, with 514 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, has a $7.5 million budget and tuition of about $14,000. The head of the school, Arnold Zar-Kessler, said he expects to seek to apply the money to improving math and science education, writing programs, and programs relating to religious life.

"We have a very good school, and the challenge is, how do you take that and make it a great school?" he said. "This enables the thinking to proceed without the limits that have been placed on us before. In essence, it allows us to think with tremendous ambition on behalf of the children."

Michael Paulson can be reached at 

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