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Making Jewish Education a Community Priority

September 18, 2008 By:
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Debra and David Magerman

When David Magerman was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, his father died suddenly. Although raised in a Jewish household, Magerman's Jewish education did not prepare him well enough to mourn his father according to Jewish law. He didn't think it was necessary to say Kaddish or to sit shiva. "I feel as if I failed in my responsibilities to him as a Jew and as a son," said Magerman.

He wants to make sure that his children and others in the Philadelphia community have the solid foundation in Jewish beliefs, customs and traditions that is provided through a Jewish day school education. He has invested his personal philanthropic resources to make these schools more accessible and affordable.

Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia President Leonard Barrack recently announced that Magerman and his wife, Debra, made a transformational gift of $4,000,000, which will enable Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, one of Federation's partner agencies, to open a second campus of its school. The Magerman gift funded the purchase of the former Merion Station home of Akiba Hebrew Academy by Federation for this purpose.

This new campus will help address Torah Academy's need for a boys high school. Torah Academy currently offers a co-education program from nursery school through middle school at its campus in Wynnewood. While female students can continue on through high school, parents of boys are forced to choose from a variety of options including: secular public schools; Jewish schools incompatible with their religious views; or out-of-state boarding schools which may not meet their desires or needs. "All Jewish parents should have the opportunity to send their children to a school that is consistent with their religious and academic educational goals," Magerman opines, and this gift will make that desire a reality for many Jewish families in the Philadelphia Jewish community.

The Magermans made an additional gift of $1,000,000 to challenge other donors to provide capital for Akiba's new facility, now known as the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. On September 14, the school -- the oldest pluralistic day school in North America -- began an exciting new chapter in its history during ceremonies marking its dedication on Federation's Radnor Campus.

Although he is not Orthodox, Magerman believes in the need to support Jewish day schools representing all streams of Judaism, adding that "these schools are an important community resource that is currently under-funded." Magerman maintains that day schools create the next generation of Jewish philanthropists, explaining that "the curriculum instills in our children a love for learning and a respect for Jewish values inspired by the Torah." He emphasized that one of these core values is tzedakah, an admonition that Jews are responsible for the health and well-being of their fellow Jews.

Bringing in New Families
Magerman is gratified that his philanthropy will positively affect the families of current students and will attract other observant Jewish families to the area. He also is pleased that his investment will ensure that the property remains a Jewish facility, a major concern of area residents.

Magerman, who recently left his job as a research scientist and former head of production at Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund management company in New York, takes an active role in parenting the couple's three children. Working out of his home office, he serves as a venture capitalist, investing in both technology companies and a number of local and national philanthropic organizations.

In addition to his work with Philadelphia area Jewish day schools, Magerman commits both time and resources to organizations like Partners In Torah, which operates a phone-based learning program called Telepartners, as well as a program for alumni of Birthright trips to Israel known as Jewpiter. Through participation in Jewpiter, young people earn points for learning about a broad variety of Jewish topics either online, over the phone, or through participation in lectures, volunteer experiences, and Shabbat and holiday programs on campus and in the community. Points are redeemable for a return trip to Israel.

He is also involved in In His Image, a foundation founded by private investors to address critical needs in Israel; The Chevra, a group for Jewish professionals in their 20s and 30s that provides a mix of social, cultural, educational, spiritual and volunteer experiences; and Chabad of the Main Line, which offers Jewish educational programs to the Lower Merion community.

Magerman, who received a doctorate in computer science from Stanford University, believes in taking a business approach to philanthropy. While he vows not to micromanage Torah Academy's plans for the Merion Station facility, he does plan to set objective benchmarks for the school to ensure that the project is transparent, accountable, and achieves measurable results for students and their families. "Through this strategic philanthropy model, I can make certain that my support has the greatest impact possible," he commented.

Federation President Leonard Barrack added, "I'm thrilled that our Jewish Day School Education initiatives are taking such great hold in the community and are beginning to resonate with our younger leaders."

"These kinds of strategic investments," he added, "will undoubtedly transform the day school education landscape in our community. I applaud the generosity and vision shown by David and Debra Magerman."

He is confident that investing in teacher training, scholarship assistance, new technology and state-of-the-art facilities for Jewish day schools will pay enormous dividends now and in the future. "If more and more Jewish children of diverse backgrounds are engaged in a positive day school experience, and if the community rallies around its schools with support and funding, the schools will be able to compete better with the educational options available and generate higher enrollment," he said, expressing optimism that Philadelphia can soon reverse its reputation of having the nation's lowest rate of participation in Jewish day school education.

Magerman believes that it is imperative that young men and women who have achieved success share their wealth now when the needs are so great. While he admonishes donors to use their business acumen to channel charitable dollars to causes they believe in, he cautions against contributing exclusively to what he calls pet projects. "Philanthropy is what you do now, while you are living," he asserted, "to ensure that all of our community's needs are met."   

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