July 23, 2024
Close this search box.
Close this search box.
July 23, 2024
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

MetroWest Federation Bolsters Jewish Day Schools’ Staff, Enrollment

Quest for Teaching Excellence professional development conference, supported by the Day School Initiative.

For decades, Jewish Federations and foundations have funded a variety of programs to support Jewish continuity—a big-picture effort to encourage young Jews to affiliate with the Jewish community, marry Jewish partners and raise their children as Jews. These programs have included Jewish summer camps, Israel Experience trips, Jewish youth groups and young leadership programs.

One type of communal activity, however, is often seen as the most reliable means of ensuring Jewish continuity—enrolling one’s children in a Jewish day school. As Barry Berkowitz, a lay leader in the Jewish Community Federation in South Peninsula, California, wrote in a blog post on the Federation’s website in July 2022: “I am convinced that day schools are the cornerstone of our community. While there are many worthwhile Jewish organizations in our ecosystem that are vital to our communal wellbeing, day schools offer us the greatest possible assurance for Jewish continuity from this generation to the next.”

Students at Golda Och Academy.

In New Jersey, The Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest has stood out for undertaking an ambitious effort to encourage families to enroll their children in Jewish day schools. This 15-year-old Day School Initiative of the Jewish Federation, which serves families in parts of Essex, Morris, Somerset, Sussex and Union Counties, embraces four well-regarded Jewish day schools in the Federation’s region—the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston (JKHA), the Jewish Educational Center schools in Elizabeth, the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, and the Gottesman RTW Academy in Randolph.

Rebecca Hindin, director of the Day School Initiative, and Staci Zemlak-Kenter, day school enrollment specialist, spoke with The Jewish Link about the history, objectives and projects of the Jewish Day School Initiative.

Hindin stated that the goals of the Day School Initiative are “to support academic excellence, affordability and sustainability of our MetroWest Jewish day schools.” She explained that the Day School Initiative was started by Paula and Jerry Gottesman, through the Gottesman Family Foundation. The foundation works in concert with the Greater MetroWest Day School Council, which oversees the Day School Community Fund.

Students at Bruriah High School.

One pillar of the Day School Initiative is to encourage Jewish families to enroll their children in one of the four Jewish Day Schools under their umbrella.

Zemlak-Kenter’s position was created in September, and her role is to meet with Jewish families in the region, get to know them, and to serve as a shadchan, to pair them with the Jewish day school that best reflects the personality of the child and the religious outlook of the family.

As part of the Day School Initiatives’ approach in encouraging enrollment, they offer two grant programs: a Smart Switch grant, for families moving their children from public or private schools to one of the four Jewish day schools; and a Smart Move grant, for families who are new to the Greater MetroWest area and want to enroll their children in one of the four Jewish Day Schools.

Both programs offer a one-time grant of $1,800 as a tuition stipend per family, after any financial aid is awarded by the school. Zemlak-Kenter estimates that she will meet with two to three dozen families each year.

Recipients of the Smart Move grant, Naomi and Hadar Weiss of West Orange, commented: “We heard about the Jewish Federation’s Day School Initiative through our friend and neighbor Rebecca Hindin. At the time, we were adjusting to a new community and transitioning our oldest from preschool to kindergarten at JKHA in the day school ‘big leagues’ [a large N-12 day school]. As we wrapped our heads around the costs of Jewish day school for years to come, receiving a small grant made a big difference to us. We’ve since participated in many Federation programs and have felt the warm welcome from the Greater MetroWest community.”

Students at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School.

The Day School Initiative also offers a Tuition Max program, which is another way to help families manage the costs of Jewish day school. Launched eight years ago, this program was based on research on other initiatives around the U.S. and across the globe. Under the Tuition Max program, a family who is classified as middle-income can cap tuition for all their children as a percentage of their income. The Federation invests $1 million annually in this program, and as a result of this and other programs, “our day schools are the most affordable in the country,” as Hindin said.

Another pillar of the Day School Initiative is a concerted effort to foster and support high-quality professional development.

Hindin described a biannual summer institute that is open to all faculty in the Jewish day schools in Greater Metrowest. This year’s summer institute is funded by a $75,000 grant from the Health Care Foundation of New Jersey, which will enable the Jewish Federation to provide fellowship stipends to 25 faculty members. The goal of the conference is to create school-based projects to support the mental health and well-being of students.

Hindin said: “Our work with the schools [in professional development] is guided by the needs of the schools. We’ve learned that the more we invest in our faculty, the better the student outcomes.”

The Day School Initiative also oversees 30 affinity groups for day school staff in different roles, including ones for chief financial officers, heads of schools, deans of faculty, admissions and recruitment coordinators, and transportation coordinators. Some of these groups meet monthly, while others meet less frequently.

This fall, the Day School Initiative intends to launch a Parent Advocate Fellowship, which will teach parents from each of the four schools how to become formal ambassadors for their children’s schools. Three to four parents per school will be selected through an application process. Upon completing a training program and a series of action steps, each set of Parent Advocates will receive a tuition stipend to their children’s school. The Parent Advocate Fellowship was developed in consultation with lay leaders from each of the four schools and is built on research in best practices in other communities.

Steven Levy, a lay leader from Morris County who is active in the work of the Day School Initiative, shared with The Jewish Link: “The mission of the Day School Initiative (DSI)—the Day School Council oversees the DSI’s work—is to ensure the sustainability of our four schools. We do that by helping them be as affordable as possible and by increasing the quality of the education they can provide to as many students as possible. It is all about excellence and affordability.”

Levy continued: “Since inception in 2006, the Day School Initiative has:

Raised over $80 million in endowment funds for Excellence and Affordability.

Introduced and consistently improved a market-leading, community-wide affordability program for middle-income families called Tuition Max. We believe these efforts and this program establishes Greater MetroWest as the most affordable and sustainable Jewish day school community in North America.

Implemented and overseen a professional development program called the Quest For Teaching Excellence. This program, which spends approximately $250,000 each year, is unique and highly effective. It covers all of our schools’ staff, not just the teachers, and allows for inter-school coordination and the sharing of best practices.

Encouraged and managed programs whereby the schools coordinate at just about every level.

Tried and evaluated new programs in the area of recruitment, retention, curriculum, provided by outside organizations such as Prizmah and others.

Represented them in areas of advocacy with state government for transportation issues and school safety, with our local Federation for higher allocations of community resources, and in coordination with other Jewish Agencies in Greater MetroWest.”

To learn more about the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest’s Day School Initiative, please see: https://tinyurl.com/3xtzvruv

Harry Glazer is the Middlesex County Editor of The Jewish Link and can be reached at [email protected]. When he’s really, really fortunate, he gets to cover stories about the great work of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, NJ.

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles