Marvin Schick writes:
In the best of economic times, most Jewish schools struggle to meet their obligations and they are not able to provide or forced to cut back on services and educational options that would enhance the learning experience. A declining share of the typical Jewish school budget is met through contributions, a condition that reflects the creeping abandonment of the great principle that had been maintained since the Talmudic period which mandated that basic Torah education is a fundamental communal responsibility. In the current economic downturn, the outlook for our schools is scary.
American Jewry is blessed with a vast and richly endowed philanthropic sector, encompassing Federations and a growing number of private foundations. By and large, however, basic religious education is not a Jewish philanthropic priority. There are other causes, such things as museums, Holocaust memorials, camps, community centers and much more that take precedence over the needs of our schools.
There are philanthropic exceptions. I am privileged to be involved in the Avi Chai Foundation, which was established a generation ago by Zalman C. Bernstein of blessed memory, a remarkable man whose legacy is an outstanding foundation that gives priority to day school education in North America. Avi Chai’s support of day schools is a glorious chapter in the annals of Jewish philanthropy.
Another exception is the Gruss Foundation, and it is a vital aspect of its work, plus Avi Chai’s commitment, that generates my enthusiasm about a significant development affecting our most vital institutions. This foundation was established by Joseph Gruss of blessed memory. His intellectual and financial contributions to our schools are legendary and they will be lasting.
There are several distinctive characteristics to Gruss philanthropy, starting with the nearly exclusive commitment to day schools. Mr. Gruss understood that the best and possibly only path to Jewish survival on these shores is to support and strengthen religious schools that provide a meaningful dual-curriculum education to our children. He was not interested in fads or exotic approaches to Jewish continuity, believing that what had proved reliable in Jewish life over the generations was the product that he had faith in and in which he would invest.
A related aspect is the directness of Gruss philanthropy, the understanding and acceptance of the simple truth that our children are taught in schools and classrooms and if the aim is to promote Jewish education, the focus of philanthropy must be to directly help and improve the classroom experience. Mr. Gruss had no faith in educational bureaucracies that feed off the foolish notion that the self-enrichment of so-called experts somehow improves the quality of day-school education.
Unfortunately, this critical insight is shunned by too many in our community, so that we have a proliferation of sterile agencies and projects whose disappearance would not result in fewer Jewish children being taught in Jewish schools.