The topic of Jewish day school affordability, especially as it relates to Jewish professionals, educators and clergy, is not new. Ten years ago, in a piece titled “Moral Costs of Jewish Day School,” the author asked what becomes of our Jewish communities if middle-class families are squeezed out of Jewish day school. Five years ago, a Jewish professional in Miami wrote an opinion piece describing her experiences as a working parent unable to afford Jewish day school tuition for her children, despite the priority the author placed on Jewish education. Earlier this year, an article appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy raising the question of whether Jewish professionals can afford the programs and services they dedicate their careers to support.
For decades, day schools across the country have offered Jewish professional discounts, employee discounts or “under the table” deals to individual families, often to maintain dignity that can be eroded through evasive tuition-assistance processes. And yet, despite the myriad articles and growing number of Jewish professionals, educators and clergy who find day school tuition unaffordable, there have been too few strategies deployed over the past decade to meaningfully address day school affordability for this specific population.
When the Zalik Foundation leadership began exploring ways we might help address the pre-pandemic challenge of declining day school enrollment in our Atlanta Jewish community, Jewish professional discounts was not our first idea. However, as we researched and attempted to learn from the investments and experiments schools, communities and foundations have deployed the past two decades, it became evident that single-focused tuition assistance strategies may successfully prevent further enrollment declines.
Nonetheless, there were questions about current programs—whether they meaningfully grew enrollment, enhanced the financial position of schools, freed budget dollars to redirect to academic and co-curricular excellence, or left recipients feeling appreciated or grateful. We also discovered an aversion to risk, fears of investing dollars that wouldn’t yield the intended results, and therefore several well-intended strategies not implemented to the fullest degree possible. Unsurprisingly, strategies were often abandoned after a few years.
Jewish Professionals as Influencers
Our exploration led to a simple hypothesis: If we could grow the number of Jewish professionals, clergy and educators sending their children to a Jewish high school, that might inspire congregants, donors and community members to do the same. Through their work at congregations, JCCs, federations, summer camps and other communal organizations, these individuals interact with and provide guidance to much of the population in our Jewish community who could be sending their children to a Jewish day school. When Jewish professionals don’t send their children to Jewish day school, community members take note. One parent shared, “As a member of a staff, it is easy to talk about the amazing benefit of a Jewish high school education. However, if you want to provide your child(ren) with this education and are unable to do so, it is more difficult to push and support it.”