Day schools offered $75k in matching scholarship funds


Late last month, when Solomon Schechter Day School (SSDS) was informed of a grant of significant scholarship funds — if the school could match it with money from its own donor base — the school was given six months to make its goal.

SSDS made it — with about six months to spare.


“We were able to match the funds offered by the foundation literally within the same day,” said Rabbi Allen Selis, head of school at SSDS, of the $11,250 contribution. “It took a single phone call and a donor who was inspired to give above and beyond what the (grant was) going to donate. People are more generous when they know they are giving in partnership.”

While SSDS’s story may have lacked the suspense of a photo finish, providing incentives for that kind of generosity is precisely the goal of the National Jewish Day School Foundation, a group that is looking to boost scholarship giving to Jewish educational institutions across the nation. Solomon Schechter’s matched funds are part of a $75,000 pool being given to four area elementary schools. Called the EXCEL (Excellence in Classroom Education and Learning) Scholarship Fund, the program, geared for K-8 schools, sets goals for each of the institutions based on enrollment and other factors, and matches each dollar raised up to that ceiling. Eligible monies must be designated specifically for scholarship and must come from individuals or associated sources, rather than foundations or grants.

The EXCEL program, which is timed to coincide with Tu B’Shevat, is the first major initiative from the Sedona, Ariz.,-based organization, which was founded in spring of last year and is administering the same program for Phoenix Jewish day schools.

“Our basic thrust is to support all of the Jewish day schools in the community rather than focus on any particular type of alignment or affiliation,” said Michael Dean, who formed the group with his wife Carol. “We’ve spent a great deal of time in St. Louis. We feel as though it’s kind of our second home. We’ve met a great many people in the community.”

That’s because two of the foundation’s advisors, who also happen to be the Deans’ son and daughter-in-law, are St. Louis residents Jeff and Shelley Dean.

“We recognize the critical need to provide children and their families with an environment, peers, mentors and skills to enrich their Jewish identity and self-image within the context of a Jewish value system,” the St. Louis Deans said in a news release. “Day schools in our community have been working hard to accomplish this objective.”

Now, they are working hard to accomplish another objective, meeting the goal the foundation has set for each school so they can maximize their potential matching funds.

“We’re fully confident that we’ll be able to raise the funds for the scholarships,” said Hillel Anton, business manager for Torah Prep School. “We have a student body that definitely has a lot of scholarship needs and that’s really the main focus of our fundraising year round.”

Anton said Torah Prep, which is divided into separate girls and boys schools, is grateful for the gift and receives most of its funds through direct solicitations. That’s a strategy they’ll continue.

“It’s not really changing the focus of what we are doing,” he said. “It just gives us an added incentive and more leverage with potential donors.”

Cheryl Maayan, head of school at Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy, said that she learned of the matching funds via email while at a day school conference in Teaneck, N.J. She was able to instantly spread the good news to her board president and Rabbi Shmuel Kay, head of school for fellow recipient, H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy. The trio was sharing a taxi at the time.

“I received it on my Blackberry and I yelped and showed both of them,” she said. “We were all big wide smiles for the rest of the conference.”

They have good reason to be happy. Since the beginning of the economic downturn, the need for student financial assistance has been acute. While Maayan said SMDS-RJA is looking to grow its 81-member student body next year, 2009 was difficult for many families.

“We’re just delighted because we could not possibly need the scholarship dollars more than we do right now,” she said. “We’ve had families who were hurting a little. Now some of them are back on their feet but some others are hurting a lot. They just need a little more help and hopefully we’ll be able to give it to them.”

Taxi companion Kay agrees.

“It’s like a gift from heaven,” he said. “This is one of the most difficult times economically and so this will definitely help us with our scholarship line item which is higher than ever before.”

Epstein enrollment has been steady at about 170 students for three years. The school normally collects about $300,000 a year for financial aid so, like the other institutions, the academy’s leaders don’t think they’ll have a problem meeting the target.

“We have a very generous community and I think they’ll be thrilled when they hear about this opportunity, especially coming from another state,” said business manager David Friedman. “That’s very exciting.”

SSDS is feeling the financial aid pinch as well. Selis said that two-fifths of the school’s student body receives some form of assistance to attend the institution which two years ago gave out about $250,000 in scholarships. Today, that figure is approaching $400,000.

Still, SSDS has maintained its commitment to the community, Selis said. He noted that the school is proud that it has not lost a single child for financial reasons. At 142, enrollment is actually up slightly this year.

“We see the Dean family and their foundation as visionaries,” he said. “The Jewish community needs not just to survive but to thrive and that means having leaders who are passionate. The children who go through our day schools will come back and be the leaders of the next generation.”

That’s been because of donations like the one that came in earlier this month. Selis said it reminded him of the words of another five-figure donor from last year who laid out his own reasons for giving.

“I want to know that any child can attend this school if this is the right place for them,” he said.