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Philanthropic Partnership To Foster Jewish Schools

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As part of a larger effort to help Jewish parents deepen the ties between their children and their faith, a philanthropic venture is offering seed money to help open as many as 30 new Jewish day schools in the coming years.

With the financial backing of 10 business leaders and two Jewish nonprofit organizations, the Cambridge, Mass.-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education announced last week it had raised $18 million to help fledgling schools throughout North America.

The partnership will offer grants, averaging $300,000, to help open new schools in grades K-8 in areas not served by a Jewish school, or where Jewish schools cannot keep up with demand. The aid will be offered in the form of challenge grants, requiring the schools to match the amounts dollar for dollar with other fund raising.

"The issue here is the expansion of access to intensive Jewish education," said Joshua Elkin, the executive director of the partnership.

Religious-based education has become increasingly popular among Jewish parents in recent decades. Mr. Elkin said the total number of students in Jewish schools has tripled since the early 1960s. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that enrollment in Jewish schools grew from about 154,000 in the 1989-90 school year to about 171,000 in 1993-94. Today, there are an estimated 650 to 700 such schools in the United States.

A Higher Priority

The partnership already has awarded four grants to new and planned schools from Cherry Hill, N.J., to Palo Alto, Calif.

"This is a digging into one's tradition as opposed to running away from anything," Mr. Elkin said. "These are not places that have poor public schools."

Instead, the parents are seeking to strengthen their children's Jewish identity, he said. Recent studies have shown that American Jews are marrying out of their faith at increasing rates. They also show that children who attend a Jewish school for several years are both more likely to remain practicing Jews as adults and to marry within their religion.

"There seems to be an overwhelming fear that Sunday school for religious education is not adequate," said Alec Sonenthal, who co-chairs the board of the Austin Jewish Community Day School in Austin, Texas. A recipient of partnership funds, the school opened this past summer to 22 students in grades K-2.

The partnership will award grants to groups representing all major Jewish denominations--Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. To receive a grant, a school must devote at least two class periods a day to Jewish studies in such areas as Hebrew language, Jewish history, and religion.

While helping individual communities start new religious schools, the partnership also hopes to inspire greater commitment among American Jews in general to support Jewish education. "One aim," Mr. Elkin said, "is making day schools one of the centers of the Jewish community's agenda."

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