Re-digging the Wells of the Day School Field

 Posted by on December 20, 2018 at 10:51 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Dec 202018
Courtesy: JCDS-Boston’s Jewish Community Day School

By Deena K. Fuchs

When I joined the AVI CHAI Foundation, a little more than 18 years ago, one of the first events I participated in was a Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) Donor Assembly. It was a well-received effort to bring together very significant donors from day schools from around the country and to celebrate them as a group. That year – its first – featured a tour of PEJE co-founder and funder Michael Steinhardt’s personal zoo. As you can imagine, the experience left quite an impression on this young and novice foundation professional.

For sure, the menagerie and the lavish setting left an imprint. But 20 years later, what I vividly remember were the people who were there. Each and every participant at the assembly had made their local Jewish day school a priority in their giving. They understood the value of their day school to their family, community, and to the Jewish future. I remember feeling that I was part of something big.

Over the years, PEJE convened a few more Donor Assemblies, which slowly evolved into Leader Assemblies, as attendance shifted away from funders to school professionals. The conferences were a highlight of the day school field calendar; it was important for both professional development and networking opportunities. Those conferences became the highly acclaimed North American Jewish Day School Conference, a partnership of the handful of organizations that served the Jewish day school field. It was that successful conference partnership that ultimately yielded a merger of the five separate day school organizations, in 2016, to become Prizmah: Center for Jewish day schools. The day school field looks quite different now than it did in 2000.

A few weeks ago, I returned from the first ever Day School Investor Summit, convened by Prizmah. I am still on a high. Yes, the setting was beautiful. Who doesn’t want to spend two days in Bal Harbour? And yes, the people there were all dedicated to their local day schools; the collegiality in the air was palpable. It was a celebration of the people in the room and an acknowledgement that they have done some pretty amazing things for their schools and communities. But it was more than that.

Through sessions and meetings designed to share creative philanthropic models, it offered the participants an opportunity to both be inspired and to inspire each other. Through group text learning and interactive sessions, it afforded them the opportunity to learn and to teach. And through provocative and inspiring presentations from field leaders, including Mem Bernstein and Randy Zuckerberg, and a presentation of the Prizmah strategic plan, it generated a deep sense of accomplishment and possibility.

And, yet, the cynics and not such cynics could accurately point to the fact that here we were once again, 18 years later, still talking about the same things – making the case for a day school education, how to make day schools more affordable and sustainable, and how to make them institutions of academic excellence.

In his remarks opening the second day of the Summit, Rabbi Marc Baker, President of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston and former Head of School of Gann Academy, shared an insight from the weekly Torah portion that, for me, effectively closed-down the critique.

He recounted the fact that Isaac re-dug the wells that his father Abraham originally dug, explaining that this re-digging is the essence of the Jewish people. It requires a deep humility to recognize what those before you have done and accomplished and to see the value of their enterprise. And, it challenges us to revisit and reconsider and recreate. The wells might be the same; but the water that flows through them will always be new and fresh.

So, now, 18 years after the first donor assembly, the field convened again. We celebrated the work that was done before. We inspired each other and, in so doing, we re-dug the wells of the day school field. In our re-digging, we unearthed innovations in day schools across the country, we unpacked new paradigms for effective lay leadership, we revisited messages on day school impact, and we surfaced new philanthropic models for day school investment.

By re-digging together we collectively put forth the promise that the fresh water in these “new / old wells” will provide the nourishment the day school field needs. This time around, I may no longer be the same novice foundation professional, but I am feeling a part of something even bigger.

Deena K. Fuchs is Senior Director of Strategy and Partnerships at The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Aug 232018

This piece is cross-posted from eJewishPhilanthropy.

By Deena Fuchs

At a recent gathering, conversation turned to AVI CHAI’s impending spend-down at the close of 2019. A number of colleagues expressed interest in hearing more about the spend-down and its implications. I was actually surprised by the request for more information. Since announcing the spend-down more than a decade ago, I feel like we are the ever-spending-down foundation, and there was nothing more to say.

That is, until I read Professor Joel Fleishman’s latest installment in his chronicle of AVI CHAI’s concluding years, and I realized that in fact there really is what to share.

We began this bi-annual documentation when we first made the spend-down public in 2010. At that time, we were looking for any and all literature on spend-down foundations so we could learn best practice and glean lessons from others’ experiences. We learned that there was little to nothing available. We decided to fill that gap and make our experiences transparent for anyone who might find themselves in a similar place. Our journey has been documented for everyone to see. For anyone interested, our prior six reports are available on our website.

Fleishman’s latest report is more than just a chronicle of our programmatic work during our last years. He succinctly captures our partnerships with other funders, a culture shift directly related to our spend-down and the urgent realization that go-it-alone philanthropy was not sustainable. He documents different ways in which we are approaching capacity building for our grantees and ways in which we are working to facilitate their growth and strength before we close in an effort to leave them prepared for a post-AVI CHAI world. In both areas, consistent with our goals of transparency, he opines on what is working and on what isn’t working as well.

Fleishman’s report also offers insights on some new developments: where the foundation stands on new initiatives (not too many as we near spend-down) and staff morale (generally good but with some growing unease.) The spend-down is approaching (we have 17 more months to go) and, as is to be expected, has begun to temper some of the programmatic creativity the staff has employed (and enjoyed) to date.

In his conclusion, Professor Fleishman raises a question he had not considered publically before – the question of AVI CHAI’s thought leadership in the philanthropy field. He cites our work in capacity building and data-driven decision making as two areas in which he believes the foundation will leave a lasting impression on the fields in which we work. And he references a new direction we are planning to implement in our remaining 17 months: “convening and giving people opportunities to learn and to think together with us.” We are excited about this focus and look forward to sharing more with you in the weeks and months ahead.

Deena K. Fuchs is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Failing to Succeed

 Posted by on January 5, 2012 at 8:39 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Jan 052012

By: Deena Fuchs

The AVI CHAI staff is hard at work preparing for our upcoming Board of Trustees meeting and therefore not as prolific as usual, with respect to this blog. We will be sure to report back here about any new developments that arise from the meeting, which is slotted for early February.

In the meantime, my Google Alert for “AVI CHAI” just sent me a link to Gary Rosenblatt’s January 3rd editorial on Why Funders Need to Embrace Failure. I was gratified to see that he includes AVI CHAI as a foundation that is transparent about its “failures” and is ready and willing to admit when things don’t play out the way we plan. I put quotes around “failures” since I think it is important to make a distinction between failing to meet objectives and failing to learn. We have definitely failed to succeed at times, but from each and every experience we learn something. In fact, nearly three years ago I was asked to write a case study for the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, where I make that exact point. It is an oldie, but I hope a goodie, and still has lessons that should resonate today. Take a look

Deena K. Fuchs is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at The AVI CHAI Foundation

Tell Me a Story

 Posted by on December 20, 2011 at 8:50 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Dec 202011

By: Deena Fuchs

Back in March, I wrote a blog post about the power of storytelling and the importance of being able to share the WHY – why do we do what we do? At the foundation there is a growing interest in how stories can and should be used in communications and how they can further the WHY message. We are funding the Jewish Day School Video Academy which has built into it a module not only on the importance of video storytelling for day school communications but also best practices for how to tell those stories.

As a staff we are beginning to learn how to build effective storytelling into our own communications and I will share what we learn. If you have any experience in effective storytelling, please share it here as well. We could truly benefit from your experience and expertise. You see, the truth of the matter is, as a foundation closing in eight years, we need to view our stories as part of our legacy – everyone remembers a really good story long after its author is gone.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a great WHY piece with you.  And, yes, it uses stories to make the inspiring WHY message even more compelling.

Deena K Fuchs is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at The AVI CHAI Foundation

Leading the way in Social Media

 Posted by on October 11, 2011 at 7:37 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Oct 112011

When the foundation began work in the social media sphere, as with any other organization, we had our early adopters. Rachel Mohl Abrahams, a senior program officer at the foundation whose portfolio includes educational technology and online learning, is one of them. She has used twitter, facebook and this blog to advance her work and share what she has been learning. And, according to Getting Smart, she is doing a fabulous job. Such a great job, in fact, that she has just been dubbed a “twero” or “twitter hero.”

As we continue to integrate social media in our work, build and weave networks of people committed to our shared values of Jewish education, we wanted to wish Rachel a Kol hakavod for walking the walk and tweeting the tweet!

If you want to follow Rachel she is @rachelmabrahams. And, if you want to follow the foundation, we are at @AVICHAIFDN.

Why We Continue to Support PEJE

 Posted by on June 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm  1 Response »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Jun 202011

By:  Deena Fuchs and Susan Kardos

Debra Nussbaum Cohen in the Forward claims mixed results for PEJE’s efforts over the last 14 years. In developing her story, she interviewed a number of the original PEJE partners who are no longer funding the national organization. Unfortunately, she did not speak with anyone from AVI CHAI, a PEJE partner from its inception and a current funder of its endowment building work for day schools.

So, let’s imagine she had asked us “why do you continue to support PEJE?” We would have answered, “You see, we believe in day schools, and we believe in what PEJE is doing for them.  And, there is a whole group of current PEJE partners who believe the same. You might want to ask them too.”

Day schools provide the intensive and immersive educational experience from which the “energizing nucleus” of young people who will lead the Jewish people in the 21st century will emerge. As Rabbi Greenberg is quoted in the article, “… in the long run there is no serious alternative.”

Those original PEJE partners quoted in the article have left PEJE and gone on to develop creative programs to broadly solidify the next generation of Jewish connection. Kol Hakavod for that!  We – and PEJE’s other current partners – look at things a bit differently: we believe that connection is not enough to generate a thriving Jewish future. The products of those programs – connected Jews – need connectors.  They need leaders who are Jewishly literate, purposeful about their Jewish living and committed to the Jewish people. And, day schools are the best poised vehicle to deliver that. Cleary, not all day school graduates will become Jewish leaders. But, if you look at the data from Dr. Jack Wertheimer’s study on young Jewish leaders, day school graduates are Jewish community leaders to a very disproportionate extent.

Yes, day schools are expensive. But again, there is no serious alternative to a childhood / young adulthood filled with serious Jewish content, role models and atmosphere. No matter how useful and powerful 10 days in Israel are for a young Jews visiting Israel for the first time, in our view it just doesn’t compare to the depth of the experience at a Jewish day school. Advocating for day schools does not mean ignoring the challenges of day school affordability and finance. At AVI CHAI, we are so completely committed to working on the day school affordability issue that we have recently hired a senior staff member whose sole responsibility is just that.

PEJE recognizes all of this. Its leadership perceived the changes in the economy, the marketplace and the philanthropic landscape.  As nimble and adaptive leaders, Rabbi Elkin and now Amy Katz have refocused the organization to serve the day school field by offering knowledge and resources to foster financial sustainability and affordability.

But more important, PEJE leadership – both professional and lay – recognize that Jewish day schools are precious communal assets that we as a community need to support if we are truly committed to a thriving Jewish future.

May 032011

Jewish day schools currently have three main revenue streams: tuition, Federation allocations and annual fundraising. I think we can all agree that it is not enough. So PEJE has just announced the launch of Generations, in partnership with AVI CHAI and local federations or central Jewish education agencies, to build a fourth stream of revenue – Day School Endowments.

The pilot program is being launched in Baltimore and Los Angeles with seven schools in each region, and discussions are underway with UJA Federation – New York for a NY cohort.  The ultimate goal is to help each school build an endowment of at least $20,000 per enrolled student. ($2 million for a school of 100 or $20 million for a school of 1,000.) Participating day schools will receive extensive training in fundraising for endowments, with federation endowment departments managing the investments.

We, at AVI CHAI, believe that Generations has great promise for the day school field, not because it is a particularly new idea – endowments have been around forever – but because a properly resourced, sustained effort can be transformative. This is the time to invest in the long-term sustainability of Jewish day schools and Generations is timely, critical, and within the Jewish community’s control.

How so?


We did our homework and this is what we learned:


Jewish day schools can become sufficiently sophisticated to approach the industry standards already set by secular private schools. We collected endowment data from 20 day schools all at varying levels of success with their endowment building initiatives, and we learned that day schools—with the proper resources and disciplined, sustained effort—are ready to take the next step in making endowments a key development strategy. We also learned from the experience of The Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy, which has focused its attention almost exclusively on Jewish overnight camps. Their results are impressive. In only a few years, tens of camps have raised tens of millions of dollars.

The previous generation of Jewish day school families is at a prime age for legacy giving. Experts in the field of philanthropy claim that over the next two decades, the number of Americans 65 and older will double; there is also an expected transfer of wealth, likely to exceed $45 trillion, of which an estimated $21 trillion will be earmarked for charitable giving and bequests. Day school parents and grandparents, some of whom were intimately involved in building their local day schools, clearly fit into this demographic.

The federation system is equipped to manage Jewish day school endowments. Many federations and their partners, Jewish Community Foundations, manage the funds of various agencies, and a number of day schools currently have endowment funds at federations. More importantly, most major federations already have in place highly trained planned giving and endowment staff, as well as lay leaders with expertise in this area who can work with day schools on building their endowments.


Many schools have already indicated considerable interest in this project. We spoke with day school professionals. We held focus groups with leaders from more than 70 schools from across the country to market test this strategy and we learned that this was a strategy worth pursuing. A summary comment, from one of the focus group participants, captured the overall tone of the focus groups. “For AVI CHAI to pursue and encourage endowment development as a piece of its lasting legacy makes a lot of sense. This is possibly the most important thing you can do for us.”

Well, I am not sure if this is the most important thing we can do and it is certainly not the solution to the day school affordability challenge. But I do know that without strong endowments, it will be even harder to ensure that our day schools will be around for future Generations.

Tell us how you think this would work in your community.

Deena K. Fuchs
Director of Strategic Partnerships

A Great Investment Opportunity – Don’t let it pass you by

 Posted by on April 15, 2011 at 6:52 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Apr 152011

A Great Investment Opportunity – Don’t let it pass you by

I had the pleasure of attending a great event in NYC this past week – NATAN’s The Future of Giving Begins with You. Aside from a full house of young philanthropists, a fun vibe, delicious food, and great music, there was a lot to learn about what it means to give.

Successful fund manager and philanthropist Stanley Druckenmiller was the evening’s guest speaker, and while he spoke a lot about the markets and economic policy, he shared some real wisdom about philanthropy. He said that smart philanthropists should follow the same rules as smart investors since in truth that is what they are. He recommended funding what you know works. Pick niche areas that you are confident in. Do not diversify. The 80-20 rule applies in your giving as much as it does in your investing. 80% to those niche areas of focus and 20% to those things that just come up, i.e., benefit dinners and friend requests.

And, then, a self-proclaimed non-Jew, despite the “Stanley” and “Miller” at the end of his name, he shared his thoughts about the Jewish people. He said when you consider the small percentage of Jews in this world and then you compare that to all of their accomplishments you have to wonder what is it all about? When you think about this “tribe” of people who have established such strong cultures of learning, of entrepreneurship, of risk taking, of philanthropy, and how they have been able to pass it down through the generations, you just have to be attracted to it. As a proud Jew, it was a wonderful thing to hear from someone outside of the “tribe.”

And so, I left the evening’s events wondering what is it that we need to do to connect Mr. Druckenmiller’s two most salient points – if smart investors should invest in things that really work, then how can we get more Jewish funders investing in Jewish? Or, are we going to ignore a tip from one of the world’s savviest investors?

What do you think?

Deena K. Fuchs
Director of Strategic Partnerships

Apr 132011

Supporting Day Schools and Their Families

The issues of day school affordability and student recruitment and retention have been in the news a lot of late. Most press coverage and Shabbat table discussions have dealt with the fall-out of high tuition. But, there are a growing number of examples of communities intent on supporting their day schools and their families who are experimenting with some creative and innovative models to address this very real and difficult issue.

Take a look at what Pittsburgh, Metro-West NJ and Houston are doing.

As we learn about interesting models we will share them with you. And, we ask that you do the same. Please let us know here about interesting models you are aware of.

Deena Fuchs
Director of Strategic Partnerships