Boston Day Schools Get Anonymous $45 Million Gift

A group of anonymous donors has given $45 million to support Jewish day schools in Boston, the largest one-time donation ever made to the city’s Jewish community.

The philanthropic gift comes after a decade of booming interest in Jewish day schools, both in terms of enrollments and donations. Nationwide, day school enrollment has almost doubled since 1980, to some 200,000, or some 20% of the nation’s estimated 1 million school-age Jewish children.

The primary vehicle for Jewish education is still the after-school and weekend programs run by Jewish congregational schools, through which some 60% to 65% of Jewish children receive their religious schooling. These institutions are often criticized for a lack of innovative programming and generally lose out to day schools in the battle for large philanthropic gifts.

“Large-scale Jewish philanthropic dollars are flowing to day schools across the country,” said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, and an expert on Jewish philanthropy. “There are no large-scale philanthropic dollars going to congregational schools. There’s a complete imbalance there.”

The president of Boston’s Jewish Federation, Barry Shrage, who has worked with the anonymous donors over the last five years, said his organization also has devoted enormous resources to congregation-based educational programs, including $1 million in grants each of the last few years. But he said day schools are at a point where a large donation can make a “transformational impact.”

There has been concern in Boston and beyond that the day school growth of the last decade is about to plateau. “You can’t allow it to flatten out,” Shrage said.

The announcement of the $45 million gift came at a meeting in Boston of Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, an organization founded seven years ago that is credited with helping to transform the day school cause into a fund-raising juggernaut. The executive director, Rabbi Joshua Elkins, rattled off a list of recent gifts to day schools that topped $10 million.

Communal experts said the day school movement had positioned itself effectively as an antidote to the concerns about Jewish continuity raised by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey and its findings on rising intermarriage.

Recently, day schools have put an emphasis on attracting children from the Reform movement — only 4% of whom attend day schools, compared with 20% of children from the Conservative movement and 91% of Orthodox children, according to the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey.

The $45 million gift in Boston, which establishes the “Peerless Excellence Project,” will be split into $10 million funding pools for each of the Boston area’s three largest day schools, spanning the denominational spectrum. The remaining $15 million will help start a scholarship fund, and will be available to the 11 other day schools in the Boston area. Six new day schools have been created in the area during the last decade, and total enrollment has climbed by 65%.

Large donations are frequently earmarked for building projects, which are seen as easier sells in the philanthropic world. But the anonymous donors have stipulated that their gift cannot be used on capital improvements, and the money will go entirely to improving secular and Jewish educational programming at the schools.

“This is an important part of creating the most cultured, literate Jewish community in the world,” Shrage said.

Eliot Spack, executive director of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, said this donation proves what is possible for both day schools and congregational schools.

“The congregational schools have to organize themselves,” said Spack, whose organization works with both day schools and congregational schools. “When you raise the clarion call and address the issue in a systematic way, this proves the community has the resources to respond.”