David Magerman is a 40-year-old with a Ph.D. in computer science who recently left the technology industry to become an investor. His main investment vehicles these days are not financial instruments. Instead, he's investing in our future through Jewish education.
He's formed his own philanthropy called the Kohelet Foundation, because he sees the wisdom of Kohelet — the Hebrew name for the Book of Ecclesiastes — as offering a blunt reminder for the Jewish community to see the current situation as it truly is, without sugarcoating.
Magerman understands what has long been obvious to anyone paying attention to contemporary Jewish life: The future of American Jewry depends on whether we provide our children with a Jewish education. Day schools that provide excellent secular studies alongside a comprehensive program of religious instruction and Hebrew language skills have long been proven to be the best possible venue for educating children to be Jewishly literate and have a sense of Jewish peoplehood.
Costs and Apathy
The problem is that too few children are allowed to take advantage of this opportunity. The reasons for this are twofold.
First is the matter of cost. The exorbitant tuition fees that schools must charge in order to survive make it difficult, if not impossible, for many middle-class families to afford them.
Second, and just as troubling, is that too many American Jews are either ignorant of the value of day schools or are uninterested in them because they see them as too sectarian.
While many have rightly focused on the urgent need to increase the amount of money available for scholarships, until we grow the market for day schools (both in terms of students and donors), the future of the movement will remain uncertain.
Magerman's response is not just to aid the schools, but to challenge these institutions to grow.
The result is a pilot program financed by Magerman's foundation that will center on the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day Schools, an affiliate of Conservative Judaism's Solomon Schechter movement and the largest day school in the Greater Philadelphia region.
The plan will offer families a $6,000 tuition reduction for every new student, regardless of income level, entering gan (kindergarten) at Perelman each of the next three school years, beginning in September 2009. Every child will also get the same amount off of their tuition in first and second grades, and then get $3,000 off from the third through the fifth grades.
The hope is that the lower tuition costs will attract not only families that would otherwise be intimidated by the costs, but also those who are currently sending their kids to non-Jewish private schools.
What Magerman intends to find out is if such a substantial reduction will increase enrollment. There are precedents for this scheme. In the mid-'90s, the Seattle-based Samis Foundation subsidized an across-the-board tuition cut, and substantially increased enrollment at a Jewish high school. Yet, the scale and the cost of Magerman's initiative dwarf the Seattle experiment.
Though this pilot plan will be focused on Perelman, which, because of its centrist religious approach, has the best chance of increasing its student body, Magerman hopes to do more in the future for the local Orthodox schools, as well. Rather than merely giving cash, he is asking all the local schools to come up with a plan as to how they would use his money. Indeed, he says, what we need to do is to invest in our children's education the way we invest in our business ventures.
That's exactly right.
For a generation, the impact of the demographic decline of Jewish life has been apparent in rising levels of assimilation and intermarriage. But rather than embrace the need to fund day schools, effective action has been lacking, as many wealthy Jews have lavished money on vanity projects or secular causes that can flourish without our help. Though day-school enrollment has risen in recent decades, Jewish education has not been properly prioritized.
While there are other factors that can build Jewish identity, such as Jewish camps and trips to Israel, Magerman has rightly identified day schools as the best investment in building the Jewish future.
Many have talked of an even larger-scale plan that would lower costs for all of the schools in the region. But support from a critical mass of donors seems to have always been wanting. Magerman deserves credit for choosing to act now on his own initiative rather than letting the status quo continue. Nevertheless, the end goal must be to create a system that will ensure that every Jewish child, regardless of his or her family's income, can have an affordable day-school education.
The real question about Magerman's project is not whether it will succeed. It must. It's whether others with the resources to help will have the courage and the foresight to follow in his footsteps.
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A Note to Readers
As announced in these pages, I am leaving the Jewish Exponent and taking up the post of executive editor of Commentary magazine in January. There, in addition to my editing duties, I will continue to write on a variety of topics, including issues relating to the future of the Jewish people and the State of Israel, which have characterized so much of my work here. Thus, after 10 years and more than 500 "A Matter of Opinion" columns, this marks the last such piece that will appear in this space.
It has been both a pleasure and a great privilege to be the editor of this newspaper for the last decade, and I have a great many people to thank for making it possible.
My thanks first go to my wife and daughter, Paula Gates and Moriah Tobin, whose love and support have made it possible for me to do this demanding and time-consuming job.
Next, my thanks go to the members of the Jewish Publishing Group board and the four men who have served as its chairman during this period: Kenneth Rosenberg, Beryl Simonson, Bart Blatstein and Bennett Aaron. Their support, both for my own work and for the editorial independence of our pages, has been much appreciated. Special thanks go to longtime board member Gary Erlbaum. His love for the Exponent and the community it serves is unmatched, and I will always cherish his friendship.
I am also deeply grateful to the staff of the Exponent, in particular the members of the award-winning editorial department who have been both colleagues and friends: veterans Carin Smilk, Robert Leiter, Michael Elkin, Julia Elkin, Delores Michaels and Grace Jones, as well as relative newcomers Bryan Schwartzman, Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg and Aaron Passman. Lucky is the editor who is blessed with a staff as professional and as skilled as that of the Exponent.
Lastly, but most important, my thanks go to you, our readers. I have appreciated your many generous comments, as well as your occasional criticisms. Your support and input is the heart of the Exponent. It has been an honor to edit your newspaper.
Jonathan S. Tobin