Cross-Denominational Grant to Help Train Jewish Educators at 3 Schools

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Published September 09, 2009, issue of September 18, 2009.
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A San Francisco foundation with a focus on funding Jewish education is giving nearly $11.5 million to Yeshiva University, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for individual and cooperative projects.

The grant will require these central institutions for training Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis and educators to work together for the first time ever.

“A foundation that is giving grants cross-denominationally, as this is structured, is quite unusual,” said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, a national organization that supports Jewish day schools.

While leaders at HUC-JIR and JTS heralded the grant’s interdenominational aspect, Y.U.’s leader was more circumspect. “I don’t think this is about inter-denominational cooperation; it’s about inter-institutional cooperation for a shared goal,” Y.U. President Richard Joel said.

The organizations’ shared goal, and the purpose of the new grants from the Shimon Ben Joseph Foundation, commonly known as the Jim Joseph Foundation, is to better train people to lead every aspect of Jewish education, both formal and informal.

Most of the money — $700,000 to each institution for each of five years — is going to fund scholarships. It will allow Y.U. and JTS to provide increased partial tuition coverage for their Jewish education students. HUC-JIR is providing full tuition abatement to education students, according to its president, Rabbi David Ellenson.

The rest of the Jim Joseph money —$563,000 to Y.U., about $222,000 to JTS and $212,000 to HUC-JIR — is to be used this academic year for the planning of new programs, within each school individually and for potential shared projects.

The schools’ first cooperative effort will be to develop instructional technology, such as distance learning, and to market Jewish education as a desirable profession.

To foster the cooperative work, the foundation is setting up a steering committee of representatives from each school, who will develop shared endeavors. While the planning grants are to cover the first year of project development, the foundation hopes the schools will produce projects that it can continue to fund for another four years, said Charles “Chip” Edelsberg, Jim Joseph’s executive director.

To kick off the program, the foundation plans to bring school representatives to the Bay Area soon, to expose them to cutting-edge educational instruction technology.

Each of the schools has multiple campuses: Y.U. has different Manhattan undergraduate campuses for women and men; HUC-JIR has locations in New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Jerusalem, and JTS has campuses in Manhattan and Jerusalem. Each school wants its students in multiple locations to be able to take some classes simultaneously, the respective school executives said, but it’s difficult for them to muster the necessary technology individually.

“The fact that we’re doing it together reflects that there’s a level of trust there which is unprecedented,” said Arnold Eisen, chancellor of JTS.

That trust has been built over the past few years during yearly private dinners the academic administrators attend with their wives at the home of Y.U.’s Joel Riverdale in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. “If you get to know and respect each other as people, you build a trust,” Joel told the Forward.

But there’s also nothing like a crisis — such as the current economic one — to help financially struggling institutions realize that they have shared interests. “With this destabilizing and continually troubling recession, any economizing is in everyone’s interest,” Edelsberg said.

Eisen touted another potential upside in the tanking economy on which the grant may capitalize.

“I’m hoping some people who might have gone into investment banking and law will go into this field if there’s money for them,” he said. “It would be the silver lining in this cloud of the economy.”

Indeed, this year there are three times as many students entering the education schools of HUC-JIR as there were last year, Ellenson said.

The Jim Joseph Foundation, based in San Francisco, was incorporated in 2006 and has about $800 million in assets. It is one of a handful of major Jewish family foundations, including the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Avi Chai Foundation, to focus on Jewish education. Its new grant is among the largest of those recently given to train Jewish educators. Jim Joseph also announced earlier this year that it is giving $11 million over two years for financial aid to families sending their children to Jewish day schools and camps in five communities around the country.

The new grant “is a vote of confidence for the three schools when budgets are cramped and the tendency is just to cut, and all some people can think of is cutting,” Eisen said. “We can’t simply replace missing funds” with the grant. But this “is pushing us to innovate, which is a very good combination.”

Even prior to the grant, JTS and HUC-JIR had been working together on two projects for the past few years: one training congregational school educators, funded by UJA-Federation of New York, and another, funded by Schusterman, that brings together eight rabbinical students from each seminary for fellowships to enhance interdenominational cooperation. This year, for the first time, Conservative and Reform cantorial students at their schools’ Jerusalem campuses will be studying together, and the two institutions are sharing visiting Israel studies faculty.

Edelsberg sounded hopeful that the current grant work would spur future cooperative endeavors. “They might enter into agreements for joint degree study,” he told the Forward.

Joel was more restrained. He stressed that the cooperative work was “pragmatic rather than ideological.” But despite the “not-to-be-papered-over differences that have major consequences,” Joel said, “there are areas where we come together and need to advance the future of our people.”

Contact Debra Nussbaum Cohen at

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