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Jim Joseph Foundation Gives $33 Million To Improve Field of Jewish Education

Having awarded nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in just four years to Jewish education, the Jim Joseph Foundation seems determined to remake the field through the power of its cash.

In May, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Yeshiva University became the most recent recipients of the foundation’s largess when the JJF issued a $33 million grant to the schools.

The grant, which is to be divided equally among the three schools, aims “to increase the number and quality of Jewish educators in both traditional and experiential education,” JJF declared in a statement announcing it.

“The field of Jewish education needs more and better people in it,” said JTS’s chancellor, Arnold Eisen. “We have to invest in Jewish education in North America. They are encouraging us to be innovative and cooperative, and I think that’s exceptional.”

The three institutions previously received $12 million from the JJF, in September 2009. As with the earlier grant, the new one requires the schools to set aside some of the money — $1 million per school — for working together across denominational lines to incorporate modern technology into Jewish pedagogy and to market Jewish education as a field to prospective teachers.

The San Francisco-based foundation ultimately expects more than 1,000 students to graduate with degrees in Jewish education from all three seminaries during the five-year grant period. But the money’s actual impact will need to be evaluated on a long-term basis, said Jonathan Woocher, chief ideas officer of the Jewish Education Service of North America, which seeks to promote innovations in Jewish education.

The foundation said that it plans to have an independent evaluator conduct a review of the impact this grant and the earlier one when they terminate in 2014.

“The tale will be told over the next 10 years,” Woocher said. “They hope to bring in new students and that they, in turn, will go out and transform institutions. We won’t know that for a while. The people at the foundation themselves understand that these are investments in building the field.”

Woocher said that the young foundation, established in 2006, had already set the future of Jewish education on a promising trajectory through its broader giving. He cited its support for Taglit-Birthright Israel and a commitment of $11 million to the Emergency Assistance Fund, which provided education grants to five communities that suffered from dwindling revenues. The JJF has contributed to early childhood development, in addition to its support of Jewish day and religious schools, camps and youth groups, and multiple Israel education programs.

JJF President Al Levitt acknowledged that the foundation’s multimillion dollar investment in Jewish education was a gamble. In particular, he admitted that there was no way to know ahead of time how many institutions would continue to fund the programs after the grants were completed, given uncertain economic conditions.

But he added, “We think it’s very important for the Jim Joseph Foundation to take these risks, because without them, you don’t produce the kind of change we’d like to see.”

Few doubt that the JJF is addressing an urgent need. A recently published report by the Jewish Educational Service of North America found a shortage of “fully qualified” educators in Jewish schools across the continent, concluding that “if future trends continue, we may face a critical teacher shortage in the next 10 to 20 years.”

For its recipients, the JJF’s most recent grant could not be timelier. All three institutions have had to make significant budget adjustments in the wake of the economic recession.

Y.U. President Richard Joel said that the school was forced to cut its $600 million budget by $30 million last year, though this cut affected only administrative areas, and Y.U. was still able to maintain a low teacher-to-student ratio and to avoid eliminating any undergraduate faculty positions.

“We have had to weather some difficult times,” Joel said. “The grant is perfect. It tells a Jewish community that we shouldn’t be battening down the hatches. We should be investing in tomorrow.”

The JTS has faced more serious financial challenges. In May, the school announced a new strategic plan that will reduce its 17 academic programs to four broad departments, a move driven in part by a shrinking budget. Earlier this year it eliminated the position of dean of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music.

HUC-JIR faced budget setbacks, narrowing down its budget to $32 million in 2009–10 from more than $38 million in 2004–05, according to its website.

Among other things, the grant seeks to fund more and bigger scholarships and to increase recruitment for those seeking careers in Jewish education. The three schools will also use the funds to hire additional highly qualified faculty members and to create new advanced-degree programs.

The money will also fund initiatives in distance learning and online classes, a largely uncharted field for Jewish education that could make classes more accessible. The use of such new technology in education is where the three schools will work cooperatively. New programs employing such technology are expected to be in place by the 2011–2012 academic year. Consultations have already been arranged between school representatives and technology experts, Eisen said.

Much of the programming that the grant will fund, however, remains in the planning stage.

“We’ve spent an enormous amount of time together planning this,” Eisen said. “This is a real opportunity for American Judaism, and we want to take advantage of it.”

Contact Laurie Stern at [email protected]

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