By Uriel Heilman
TARRYTOWN, N.Y. (JTA) – The Orthodox Union is launching a multimillion-dollar advocacy campaign to increase government funding for Jewish day schools in New York.
The organization will be adding staff to the 10 full-timers already working on the issue and launching a multi-year campaign, according to its executive vice president, Allen Fagin. He also said the O.U. will retain “one of the leading political strategists in New York” to guide the effort. The O.U. declined to disclose the strategist’s identity.
“We all recognize that the real solution to the tuition crisis lies in using our political power and our advocacy efforts to increase state and local government funding for yeshivot and day schools,” Fagin said Saturday night at a speech at the O.U.’s biannual convention, which drew a crowd of about 350 to a hotel in this suburban village not far from Manhattan.
The O.U.’s annual conference also saw the organization’s first-ever election of a group of women as national officers. While the board of directors has had female members since the mid-1970s, only men had been serving as national vice presidents, senior vice presidents or associate vice presidents.
The new slate elected over the weekend includes three female national vice presidents and two associate vice presidents. In all, 20 women serve on O.U.’s 68-member board.
“Sadly, we at the O.U. lagged behind many other professions and many other parts of the community in promoting women to leadership opportunities,” Marian Stoltz-Loike, one of the newly elected associate vice presidents, said at a conference session Sunday titled “Bringing Orthodox Jewish Women into the Leadership Table.”
Stoltz-Loike, the dean of Touro’s Lander College for Women, hailed the election of female board officers at the O.U. as the “shattering of a glass ceiling.”
Fagin called gender diversity within the senior ranks of the O.U. one of his top priorities.
“If we want to be true to our bold ambitions, we need to fully include the female half of our communal talent pool at the highest levels,” Fagin said in his speech. “This is not about being politically correct. This is about being smart. It is about finding and utilizing outstanding talent rather than excluding it.”
On the tuition issue, he called the O.U.’s planned campaign “the most ambitious advocacy program ever undertaken” by the organization.
While U.S. courts generally forbid government funding for religious education, Jewish schools access hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding per year, ranging from reimbursement for the cost of mandatory attendance-taking to funding for technology and special-needs education.
In November, voters in New York state passed a schools bond act that may provide up to $38 million in reimbursements to Jewish day schools and yeshivas for educational technology equipment and facilities, the construction and renovation of pre-kindergarten facilities and the installation of high-tech security features in school buildings. The O.U. was among several Jewish groups – mostly Orthodox, but including UJA-Federation of New York – that lobbied in favor of the bill.
Agudath Israel of America, which represents the haredi Orthodox community, also has been a longtime advocate of increased government funding for schools.
New York state has about 151,000 Jewish day school and yeshiva students – about 60 percent of the nation’s total, according to an Avi Chai study published in October. Tuition fees at some day schools run in excess of $30,000 per year.
“Their tuition bill is a burden on families and communities that has reached the breaking point,” Fagin said Saturday.
“Our goal is to transform the tuition landscape: to generate sufficient government funding for yeshivot and day schools to lower tuition costs in a meaningful way,” he said. “It will require us to stop being timid. We pay our taxes, and our kids are also entitled not to be left behind.”
At the conference sessions devoted to women’s issues, female panelists and board members talked of the need for the Orthodox community to do more to cultivate women leaders and prepare women for success in the professional world – starting in young girls’ school years.
When it comes to women’s leadership roles in synagogue life, however, many communities have been more circumspect. For example, one former female president of a Young Israel synagogue in New Jersey spoke at a conference session of her shul’s practice of locking the holy ark and having men remove their tallit prayer shawls before she would deliver her weekly announcements at the conclusion of Sabbath morning services. The National Council of Young Israel, the largest modern Orthodox synagogue franchise in America, frowns upon female presidents.
Rabbanit Chana Henkin, the founder and dean of Nishmat, a women’s yeshiva that certifies female experts in Jewish law known as yoatzot halachah, spoke about the importance of pacing synagogue change appropriately.
“I believe the pace of change needs to be such that on the one hand we’re not losing 50 percent of the population – the women who are sitting in the back – and where at the same time the whole shul is comfortable with the change,” Henkin said.
Within the O.U., organizational leaders said they consulted with rabbinic leaders before launching their push to invite women to become national officers.