Grassroots group seeking to reduce cost of day school

As parents gear up for another school year – and in some cases, another year of bank-breaking Jewish day school fees – the volunteers with Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education (GAJE) are determined to keep the issue high on the community’s priority list.

Mordechai Ben-Dat, former editor of The CJN and one of the founding members of the think-tank established to frame the issue of unaffordable Jewish education as the biggest obstacle to Jewish continuity, said he wants the group to be a catalyst for finding funding solutions.



“People are actively working on this… Every community in North America that cares about the Jewish future realizes that it can’t continue like this,” Ben-Dat said.

Although UJA Federation of Greater Toronto provides more than $10 million in Jewish day school tuition assistance each year, many families are being priced out.

In July, Rabbi Jay Kelman, a GAJE member, wrote in The CJN that it costs almost $30,000 a year to send a child to a Jewish high school in Toronto, while elementary school tuitions are more than $16,000 a year.

This year, the federation’s Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education introduced a pilot program at two day schools in Vaughan, north of Toronto, to cap tuition at about 13 per cent of a family’s income no matter how many children are enrolled. Those earning between $150,000 and $300,000 a year are eligible, but only families whose oldest child is entering senior kindergarten. Families earning less than $150,000 are eligible for regular subsidies.

“The real magic of this… is not in the details, but the notion that it was adopted as an idea. If it succeeds here, then maybe it can be adopted in other places,” Ben-Dat said, adding that he’s encouraged by this and other initiatives the community has launched – including the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ affordable Jewish education task force, and changes to federation’s fundraising rules that allow those who donate at a certain level to designate their funds toward a specific area.

“It’s fair to say that federation, certainly in the last two years, has really been looking at this issue,” said Zac Kaye, former executive director of Hillel of Greater Toronto, and a GAJE founding member.

Jennifer Paton Smith said that through her role as the group’s digital and social media volunteer, she’s heard from countless parents who have complained about their perception that Jewish day schools are not efficiently run, and that the subsidy system does not seem to be equal from one school to the next.

“There is also a feeling that people don’t want to apply for subsidies because… [of] how invasive it is,” Paton Smith said.

In a section on the group’s website called “Parent’s Share Their Stories,” one parent wondered whether the subsidy committees would look beyond the surface. “Will they ask me about shopping for rotting fruit and vegetables in the reduced rack?

Will they ask me about dressing my younger son in his older sister’s clothing?… Will they ask me about hearing my wife cry at night after we fight about if we can afford to have another child like we’d always hoped, while slowly it’s getting too late for one?”

Paton Smith said although Jewish education is important, “you also need to have a normal family life. You need to be able to go on vacation, to buy a brisket, to put your kids in soccer or hockey, or music. You want to have a balanced child, you want to try to give them a good experience.”

Ben-Dat said GAJE, although it’s an independent volunteer group, is working in tandem with Jewish community organizations.

Through its three sub-committees – to re-imagine funding, to take political and legal action to secure fairness for Jewish day school funding, and to publicize their ambitions – GAJE is working toward developing proposals that will help parents, while also helping the schools cover their costs.

“If a family is paying 10 or 15 per cent of their income for tuition, it will probably cost the schools more than what you’d be paying to educate your children. Schools need money to cover their costs, and we need to fill that gap in all sorts of ways,” Ben-Dat said.


He said garnering resources to cover schools’ operational costs is not limited to philanthropic gifts.

For example, the political and legal committee is looking into how disabled students qualify for government support services.

He explained that in Ontario, “if a child with a disability goes to a school and his disability is listed under the Ministry of Education act, the school receives no financial assistance to cover the costs of educating that child with a disability. If that disability falls under the health act, the school does receive assistance… It’s a distinction without a difference… We’re going to find a way to move that file forward.”

Kaye said in the United States, there are a number of wealthy community members who came forward to fund Jewish education.

“We’re working to identify within our own community… families within the Diaspora community who are doing amazing things, and looking to how we can replicate that in our own community,” Kaye said.

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