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Day School and Community: An ROI Worthy of Your Investment

Amy Katz, Executive Director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, delivered the following speech on July 17, 2012 at PEJE’s Summer Intensive Development workshop in Livingston, New Jersey.

As school leaders and development professionals, you are trained to make the case for your strategic annual campaign and communicate how it supports the individual mission of your particular school. I would like to suggest a broader lens through which to view your development efforts.

The case for your annual campaign is also embedded in the larger landscape and discussion about the vision and value of Jewish day school. Funders and corporate gurus think about outcomes in terms of ROI—the return on investment. When we consider the ROI for JDS, we naturally think about the investment in our young people—an investment whose “return” includes students who are educated and literate both in general and Jewish culture, practice, and history; who are accepted into their choice of next-level institutions (high school or college); who leave Jewish day schools grounded in Jewish moral and ethical values, including a commitment to tikkun olam and the betterment of the world.

Each of you should be poised to coherently and compellingly describe your student ROI. But let’s take a moment to expand on this. What if the ROI for JDS went beyond individual students and schools and extended to the larger community? Could you articulate how your Jewish community is better and stronger and more vibrant because of your Jewish day school?

Think about the answer to that question.

Just as successful fundraising is linked to the mission and vision of your school, so too must JDS sustainability be intrinsically linked to a compelling community vision for Jewish education and Jewish continuity.

What is the essential role of Jewish day schools in helping the community achieve its vision?

Our Jewish tradition makes it clear that it all starts with a vision. When God told Abraham to look out to the stars, He was offering Abraham a vision of a nation; when Jacob dreamed of a ladder with angels ascending and descending he was witnessing a vision of a spiritual life; when Moses heard God’s words at the burning bush he was seeing a vision of a free Jewish nation.

Jewish day schools are guided by a vision of a meaningful Jewish future for our families, our students, and our community. While that vision may differ from community to community, one ROI is consistently true: Today’s Jewish day school graduates are the future leaders of our communities, our federations, our synagogues, our institutions. A 2007 study on the impact of day school among college students found that not only do day schools strengthen Jewish identity, connections, and behaviors; day school graduates are also more likely to participate in and lead Jewish campus initiatives including Jewish learning, holiday celebrations, community service, and Jewish cultural events.

Look around at your community leaders and inquire: How many attended day school? The answer might surprise you.

Day schools matter because they not only give the Jewish people a chance at eternity, they also contribute to the creation of Jewish communities of meaning.  Communities imbued with the values of chesed (lovingkindness) and caring for all segments of our people. Communities rich in values, committed to perpetuating our precious Jewish people and their Torah. Communities dedicated to tzedek (social justice) and to tzedakah (philanthropy). Communities built on our Jewish heritage, history, and experience.

Jewish life has survived for thousands of years because of our connection to our history, our ancient and contemporary texts, and the philosophers and commentators who anchored us in a past and prepared us for a future. It survived because we understood both the value of Jewish education and the significance of Jewish community.

Day schools are partners with our parents, synagogues, camps, and informal Jewish organizations. Through these partnerships we educate our children Jewishly and we also embrace them in the warm arms of a community.

Do we dare imagine what our communities would be without day schools?

At PEJE we believe that nourishing and supporting JDS is a shared community responsibility. Our tradition demands it, our future vitality requires it. In order for a community to have a thriving day school system it needs champions and advocates—funders who believe and invest in long-term sustainability, a broad recognition of the ROI of day schools for the community, and a commitment to academic excellence. Make no mistake: Schools of excellence require excellent support.

But even that is not enough. We must convert loyalists into activists.

PEJE advocates boldly and passionately for the value of a JDS education on a national level. On the local level, day school professionals, board leaders, and supporters must be vocal advocates—for their individual school, for their unique community system, and for the day school enterprise across North America.

Our schools are worthy of ardent support. Why? Because they are core to our Jewish present and gateways to our Jewish future.

As you leave the Summer Development Intensive, chock full of knowledge and a blueprint for a strategic annual campaign, remember this: Jewish day schools are essential community assets. The ROI for your school is not only the excellence it delivers, but also the value it brings to your Jewish community.

It is all of our jobs to spread and act on that message.