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Jewish day schools facing an economic crisis

Jewish campuses in Southern California and across the nation are financially ailing, prompting calls for major education reforms and increased support from the wider Jewish community.

May 18, 2009|Carla Rivera

At Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, increasing numbers of cash-strapped families are asking for financial assistance or more time to pay tuition.

Trustees at Yeshivat Yavneh in Hancock Park are setting aside additional funds for financial aid even as some families consider home schooling.

In Orange County, Morasha Jewish Day School lost 15 financially ailing families over the summer and will close after this term.

Jewish day schools in Southern California and across the nation face an economic crisis that is prompting calls for major education reforms and increased support from the wider Jewish community.

The Orthodox Union, a New York-based education and service organization, recently proposed a plan to create stripped-down, low-cost schools targeted at families who can't afford to send their children to established institutions.

Other proposals drafted by the group include nationwide, low-cost health insurance for staff and teachers, a solar energy conversion plan and a dedicated fund to which the local Orthodox community would contribute, whether or not they have children in school.

"If things continue the way they are, schools are going to be so cost-prohibitive the system will collapse," said Rabbi Saul Zucker, director of educational services at the Orthodox Union. "There are Orthodox Jewish students attending public schools because of financial issues that a generation ago would never have, and young married couples having fewer children because of tuition costs."

About 200,000 students attend more than 700 Jewish day schools in the United States. Tuitions at the schools average about $14,000 and in the past five years have typically increased about 7% per year, outpacing wage increases for most families, Zucker said.

The most radical of Zucker's proposals would create alternative schools that would charge reduced fees of about $6,500 annually but operate with larger class sizes, scaled-down computer labs and no extracurricular activities unless staffed by volunteers.

Zucker acknowledged concerns about creating a two-tier system but predicted that parents would go along if it were a choice between a basic Jewish education or public schools.

In Los Angeles, 36 Jewish day schools serve about 10,000 students, according to the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles. About 40% of Jewish day students in Los Angeles receive financial aid, a number expected to grow even as philanthropic dollars for some schools decrease.

"While there are a handful of philanthropists who heavily support their favorite Jewish institution, until Jewish education becomes more of a priority for the larger Jewish community, we will have this crisis," said Rabbi Moshe Dear, head of school at Yeshivat Yavneh.

His school, which charges $15,000 in annual tuition, is offering delayed payment plans. But Dear said he has heard that some parents are considering home schooling to save money.

Jewish schools are suffering many of the same economic pressures as secular prep schools and parochial campuses, but many shoulder the added expense of a religious-training curriculum that requires additional staff.

Orthodox families also tend to be larger than many others, which contributes to a heavier tuition burden, Dear and others said. And most consider a Jewish education -- with its emphasis on religious traditions -- indispensable.

That is the case for parents Gil and Iris Harel, who have two children attending Hillel, another at a local Jewish high school and a son in college.

But it has been a financial struggle to keep their children in school. Family vacations, investments, choice of vehicles and day-to-day purchases such as clothing have been affected as the "uncertainty of the economy harms everyone," said Gil Harel, a specialized general contractor.

Meanwhile, there will probably be more scenarios like that in Rancho Santa Margarita, where Morasha Jewish Day School, a pre-kindergarten-through-sixth-grade campus with 60 students, is closing after 23 years.

Even though the school expected to increase enrollment next year, it could not close a $200,000 deficit, said head of school Eve Fein. Morasha lost 15 families this year and had trouble selling two acres of property when the real estate market crashed.

"We had over 50% of our students on tuition assistance and were happy to be able to do so because we didn't want Jewish education to be just for the elite or rich," Fein said. "But it caught up with us."

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carla.rivera@latimes.com

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