With its billiard tables, curving glass bar, and dramatically lighted seating nooks, a Manhattan party place called Slate seems an unlikely venue for Jewish educational innovation.
But when alumni of Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union gathered there in September for their second annual “Back to School Benefit,” it marked the latest milestone in a campaign to strengthen three local Jewish day schools.
Boosting contributions from alumni to their alma maters was just one pillar in the MetroWest Day School Campaign, the $50 million project started in April 2007 to national acclaim.
Despite its launch shortly before the economic collapse, the campaign has reached $30 million in commitments through current and planned gifts from about 100 donors, either toward funds for individual schools or a general MetroWest Day School Community Fund.
Beyond the dollars, meant largely to lower costs for strapped middle-income parents, the campaign can also point to progress on its other main mission: to boost academic and institutional excellence. Schechter’s expanded alumni giving itself is part of an overall effort to make improvements through marketing, fund-raising, and alumni relations. In the last two years, the Alumni Scholarship campaign, led by Lawrence Elbaum, class of 1998, has raised over $100,000 for Schechter scholarships.
“We realized we need the whole package,” said Kim Hirsh, development officer of the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest, the planned giving and endowment arm of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, who has spearheaded the project along with Paula and Jerry Gottesman of Morristown, longtime day school benefactors.
She pointed out that marketing “helps recruitment and retention,” while fund-raising and alumni relations “drives — pays for — more academic excellence.”
Heads of all three participating schools are also raving about their experiences with the project. They say having a communal pot of money to use to bring experts in to all three schools enables them to solve common problems at a lower cost. They also like having colleagues to turn to in what is often a lonely job.
The leaders of the three schools meet every six weeks and said any initial anxiety they may have had about working together dissipated early.
“We have put away our differences — we don’t discuss prayer or philosophy,” said Moshe Vaknin, head of school at the Nathan Bohrer-Abraham Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County, a nondenominational community day school in Randolph. “We can see what our synergies are, what commonalities can enhance all of us. There are so many things we don’t compete over, and this is an opportunity to find ways to collaborate.”
“We look at each other as partners and friends,” agreed Susan Dworken, head of school at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, the elementary school division of a pre-K-12th grade Orthodox yeshiva in Livingston. (The high school is known as the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School and is housed in the same building.) “We have a similar goal and mission: to prepare Jewish leaders for the next generation and perpetuate our philosophies of Judaism.”
Recently the schools hosted an expert in differentiated instruction — teaching children at different levels within the same classroom — to discuss Hebrew language and Judaic studies.
Joyce Raynor, head of school at Schechter, a Conservative school, said, “We spent hours discussing the best models and investigated a lot of agencies and different people, but over time, we built a model that could work. It was so efficient, we did it again for English and Social Studies.”
The networking among the heads of schools has also led to collaborations among teachers and students. For instance, in 2009, when Jews recited the Birkat Hahama, the Blessing over the Sun that occurs every 28 years, sixth-graders from all three schools worked together on a joint science project about the sun.
Participants say the MetroWest community is uniquely positioned for such inter-denominational cooperation, a rarity elsewhere.
“We like each other, and we have a lot to learn from one another,” said Raynor. “We have a lot of the same issues. The things we struggle with, they struggle with.”
Resetting the clock
Launched in a healthier economic climate, the campaign aimed to raise $50 million in five years. Each school has its own individual endowment funds, in addition to a communal endowment held and managed by JCF.
Hirsh acknowledged that one of the current challenges is getting people to give to the communal fund, which helps all three schools, rather than to the individual school to which they feel attached.
In order to entice more givers to the communal fund, the Paula and Jerry Gottesman Family Supporting Foundation of the Jewish Community of MetroWest will match any gift to the communal fund of $100,000 or more up to $1 million.
Hirsh has reset her timeline, she said, and hopes to reach the $50 million mark by 2015. A new $1.5 million, five-year program known as Vision 2015, also funded by the Gottesman Foundation, should help. Through Vision 2015, all three schools are eligible for a joint total of $300,000 in middle-income tuition grants each year if they meet benchmarks in expanding alumni relations, developing endowments, and middle-income affordability.
“We’re really proud of where we’ve come already,” said Hirsh, “and we look forward to continuing the momentum. In the end, development never stops. We’re not going to stop just because we reach the $50 million mark. Does Harvard stop once it reaches its goals?”
Two professionals have been hired to help manage various aspects of the projects. Marla Rottenstreich works with the schools on particular projects, such as bringing in experts or upgrading technology. Marcy Frank has begun working on alumni relations at all three schools, through a grant from the Avi Chai Foundation.
Hirsh pointed out that alumni relations, while often the bread and butter of fund-raising at private schools like Choate or Phillips Exeter Academy, has not been a traditional source of revenue for day schools.
“They have always been so hand-to-mouth that their focus is always on meeting the budget this year. Alumni relations is a long-term investment,” she said.
Schechter, which started its alumni relations efforts in the late ’90s, now has an alumni base of 1,350 people. It relaunched its efforts in 2008, and the Back to School Benefit has become an annual event, drawing 110 alumni to the September event. Alumni connect through a Facebook page and a newsletter.
HAMC added a “class notes” section about alumni to its newsletter and its magazine, is producing an alumni video, and is planning a fall program in New York City for young professionals to benefit the new HAMC alumni scholarship fund.
At Kushner, events are also under way, with a new Facebook page, an alumni e-newsletter, and a day of learning planned for this coming winter. An Israel connections program, launched this fall, enables alumni living in Israel to host recent graduates during their gap year in Israel.
Frank’s goal is 15 percent alumni participation by 2015 and then expansion beyond. But there are challenges, she said, particularly when it comes to finding the alumni.
“Because thinking about alumni as a constituency is such a new idea for Jewish day schools, older records are sometimes not updated or not available,” she said. “Updating such information is difficult and time consuming. This is a paradigm shift that will take some time to take root.”