Bob Aronson
Bob Aronson

A new matching grant initiative, the Our Heritage Program, aims to recruit Jewish public school students to in-person Chabad day schools for the fall semester.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new matching grant initiative, the Our Heritage Program, aims to recruit Jewish public school students to in-person Chabad day schools for the fall semester.

Rabbi Zalman Shneur, the executive director of the Brooklyn-based Menachem Education Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving Jewish and Chabad education, and the creator of the initiative, believes that COVID-19 and resulting remote learning in many public schools presents a unique occasion for Jewish schools around the country to appeal to new students from the secular community.

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Shneur. “In Jewish day school, you know that your child will have a seat in a classroom five days a week. For many parents that’s very important.”

The new program began accepting online applications from Chabad day schools on Aug. 5 and will provide a matching grant of $25,000 to selected schools around the country, provided that each school brings in 10 new students from public schools. The grant money can be used for a variety of purposes: to subsidize students’ tuition, to help create additional classes in the areas of arts and culture, and to hire help or additional staff.

Bob Aronson, an adviser to the Our Heritage Program, and former CEO of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, calls the project “a small, but exciting start-up in Jewish education.”

“The goal is really to create an incentive for Chabad schools to open their doors to the secular community more effectively,” he said.

First Results

According to Shneur, no Chabad day schools in Michigan have applied to the initiative so far. Rabbi Mendel Stein, the development director for the Lubavitch Cheder & Yeshiva-International School for Chabad Leadership in Oak Park says that he hopes to take part in the program one day when his school can open a public school track.

Outside of Michigan, since the online application opened, 14 Chabad day schools have applied to the program. The schools have enrolled more than 130 students combined to date, exceeding Shneur’s goal of 100 new students before the fall.

One of these applicant schools is Shaloh House, a Chabad day school in Brighton, Mass. Rabbi Dan Rodkin, the executive director, says that enrollment to Shaloh House surged even before the Our Heritage Program began during the first months of the COVID-19 outbreak.

He explains that in the months of April to June, parents from the surrounding public school system started to complain on Facebook about how poorly the schools were handling remote learning. After one parent recommended Shaloh House, Rodkin says new enrollees came from as far as Texas to participate in the online curriculum.

“During those three months, we doubled in size,” said Rodkin. “I had to hire three more teachers just to accommodate the new students.”

Since applying to the program two weeks ago, Rodkin says seven new students have transferred from local public schools to Shaloh House. He expects at least a total of 10 before school starts.

The Chabad Alternative

Rodkin says one of the main reasons he believes Chabad day schools and other private institutions have been able to respond better to the pandemic and online learning is due to their small size.

“At a big public school, it’s impossible to make decisions,” he said. “Many smaller schools don’t have to get approval from 300 committees, so it can be much easier to adjust and adapt to situations as they arise.”

He explains that after the governor announced on a Friday that in-person schooling would stop due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Rodkin and his staff had developed a full-time 8 a.m.-4 p.m. online curriculum for their students by the following Monday. Throughout that previous online schooling period, he was able to solicit feedback on the program from Shaloh House parents through their group WhatsApp chat.

Julia Goldberg of Brookline, Mass., says that this robust online education is one of the reasons she decided to transfer her 7-year-old daughter, Rebecca, to Shaloh House for the fall semester. She believes the Chabad school will be able to provide in-person and online educational experiences that her former public school couldn’t during the pandemic.

“The public school really tried in the spring,” said Goldberg. “But it was a very minimal amount of interaction with teachers and kids via Zoom, just one hour total per week. That was definitely not enough.”

Goldberg says that through the Our Heritage Program grant, she is receiving half off the $10,000-a-year Shaloh House tuition, fees she wouldn’t normally be able to pay as a single mother. Her daughter has already attended Shaloh House’s six-week in-person summer camp in July and August and is looking forward to the chance for more in-person opportunities.

“I think at this point it’s in the best interest of the child to learn in-person in a safe environment, and that’s what Shaloh House is aiming to provide,” said Goldberg.

Rodkin says that the main way Chabad schools’ can offer this safe in-person school setting during COVID-19 is through their small class sizes. At Shaloh House, there are 10 students in each grade. He adds that input from top doctors in the area, whom he consults with weekly, helps him ensure the best health and safety protocols for students.

Long-term Project Goals

Though Aronson hopes that the Our Heritage Program will expand in the years to come, he says that in his experience working in Jewish life, small projects with simple goals are sometimes the most effective. He adds that the small number of student recruitments away from public schools won’t pose a threat to the traditional school system.

“It’s not as though we’re draining students away from the public schools,” he said. “The public schools, and even the private schools right now, are struggling with how to educate the kids they have.”

As a result, Shneur believes that the current climate provides a favorable setting for Jewish day school recruitment, both Chabad and otherwise, and what he hopes will be “a renaissance of Jewish day school education.”

Aronson says that in the long run, he believes the project comes back to one of his, and the Jewish community’s primary goals: to engage as many students as possible. He thinks the Our Heritage Program is one important way to do so.

“J-school education is fundamental for creating Jewish identity,” said Aronson. “With all of the horrors and tragedies and societal upset that the virus has caused, it also provides an opportunity for us to improve the level of Jewish education, to attract more children to it, and to increase that sense of Jewish identity in our young people.”

CORRECTION (9/18/20): Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated how many schools and students have participated in the Our Heritage program to date.

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