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It’s a New Year; Let’s Embark on a Real Day School Initiative

October 18, 2012 By:
Jonathan Scott Goldman
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The Philadelphia Jewish community is blessed with enough resources to make Jewish day school education attainable for all who want it, regardless of geography, denomination or financial means. We must strive to do so. Jewish day school does more than train rabbis and yeshiva bochurs; it grows future leaders in business, medicine, science and law who embody our traditions and values.

But I have grave concerns that we are about to blow it. The board of Perelman Jewish Day School recently proposed moving Saligman Middle School from the Old York Road corridor to the Main Line — three miles from competitor Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. The schools are in merger talks. Though a move may benefit Perelman, it will be a disaster for the Jewish community of Greater Philadelphia — with or without a merger.

Saligman is the only Jewish middle school on the Old York Road corridor; it serves socio-economically diverse students from the Northeast, the northern suburbs, Bucks County and beyond. If Saligman moves, these students will be compelled to cross the river to attend a day school through their Bar and Bat Mitzvah years. Many will not. Despite promises of increased busing, traffic patterns do not permit reasonable commutes for middle schoolers. (Some Main Liners choose Saligman over Barrack, but the difference is that these students aren’t compelled to cross the river to attend day school since another alternative exists.) 

Perelman’s proposal is premised on a “crisis.” Enrollment is down and Saligman is losing a little more than $200,000 a year — $120,000 of which Saligman pays to Gratz College to rent a building on land owned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. This is — or should be — a pittance. But Perelman sees this minor gap as a major problem. The board’s solution is to move to the Main Line where more can pay “full freight,” presumably shedding some needier students. Are these our Jewish values?

Perelman should not rush to relocate. First, enrollment data is skewed by the recession. Second, Perelman’s head of school has given notice and the school will have a new leader next year. This person should be allowed to craft a vision and implement it.

This is not a crisis. It is an opportunity to maximize enrollment across the Phila­delphia area. The problem is, while Per­el­man acts out of self-interest, taking drastic steps to balance its budget, no entity seems to be acting in the best interest of the community. Someone must.

First, we must make Jewish day school need-blind so no one is turned away because they can’t afford it. A lack of aid has been hurting recruitment; this is one reason why Saligman’s seats are not full. We must also make our schools even more competitive with secular private schools. This takes resources.

In Baltimore, Jewish day school is a value of the community. Scholarship needs are funded collectively, through a “Day School Initiative” run fairly by the local federation to support all students, regardless of geography, school or denomination. This initiative has been ongoing since 2007 and was just extended. It is led by a private foundation grant of $5 million and is matched by the federation, in addition to its core $10.5 million allocation over five years to day school scholarships. These dollars support more than 4,400 students in grades K-12.

Here, the interplay between funding and enrollment is the chicken and egg of a successful day school system. For students whose parents are choosing between public and day schools, who among them would not choose to educate their children Jewishly — if our Jewish day schools were both educationally superior to the public schools and affordable? If we create schools that are as academically strong as, or superior to, secular private schools, more of these potentially private school students will choose day school as well. This requires a communal vision and the will to raise the money to back it up. 

We already have a start. Let’s take the funds pledged for the Perelman move — about $4.5 million — and embark on a real day school initiative this year. It’s a New Year and time to become the best Jewish community we can be. We have the wealth; let’s stake out our vision and get moving. We owe it to our kids.

Jonathan Scott Goldman, a Philadelphia attorney who lives in Cheltenham, is a Perelman parent and a member of the Regional Young Leadership Cabinet of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phila­delphia.

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