Conference Call – Behind the Scenes of Back to School

The buses arrive and the excited children, decked out in their new school clothes and uniforms, carrying their briefcases or knapsacks filled with new school supplies, head for their new classes to meet their new Rebbeim, Moros, and teachers. The bright walls and shiny floors add to the feeling that it is a new school year, filled with potential for learning and growth.

Behind the scenes, the administration has been hard at work throughout the summer to prepare the school to welcome their students back. Hamodia spoke with five experienced executive directors/administrators who shared what went on during the summer to ensure a successful year for teachers and students alike.

What are your usual preparations over the summer to get your facilities ready for the upcoming school year? Was there anything different or new in this year’s annual preparations that you made for the upcoming school year?

The staircase at the yeshivah.

Rabbi Yonason Karman:At the end of each school year, I walk through each classroom with principals, and we compile a list of repairs that must be done. Each classroom gets a fresh coat of paint, and the window shades must be in order. Then there is a wish list which we try to accommodate. Sometimes, a Rebbi would like extra shelves, and if possible, we try to install them.

This year, we renovated a rusty outdoor staircase by having it scraped and repainted, which was a costly job. But we felt it had reached a point where it had to be done. In addition, we remolded the Menahel’s office, replacing the floor tiles as well as covering the ceilings and walls with sheetrock, and added LED lighting. Since the leases on our copy machines were up for renewal, we secured a new lease on a high-speed copy machine so we can accommodate the needs of our staff in a more expedited manner.

Rabbi Velvel Finkelstein: Yeshiva Gedolah of Bayonne is a dormitory yeshivah, and we feel it is vital when the bachurim return in Elul, they should be welcomed by sparkling walls and glistening floors. Over the summer, our maintenance crew is hard at work applying a fresh coat of paint to each room, including all dorm rooms, classrooms, hallways and the beis medrash.

This year, we upgraded the plumbing in the campus. This includes bathroom facilities as well as the showers. It was a major project, but the bachurim appreciate it and will begin the zman with a bren.

Bais Yaakov of 18th Avenue.

Rabbi Dovid Pitterman: Over the summer, we converted the entire facility to LED lighting, which made the entire building brighter, in addition to hopefully lowering our electric bill appreciatively. Every classroom is inspected, any broken items repaired, painted when necessary and all floors are stripped and waxed. We hand out a request form for the teachers to ask for whatever they feel will enhance their teaching, whether it is extra shelving or more closets. We try to accommodate them to the best of our ability.

Recently, we converted the fourth floor into a dining room and upgraded the food preparation area, and the old dining room, which was on the first floor, was transformed into a multipurpose room, where the classes have indoor recess, assemblies, and performances. In addition, it is rented out as a simchah hall in the evenings and weekends.

Rabbi Chaim Glazer: Our campus is used by two day camps during the summer months. We feel that it is part of our responsibility to the community to facilitate these camps so the children can remain in a Torah atmosphere throughout the summer months.

This creates a bit of a challenge getting the school ready for the new year. But we try hard to work around the day camps’ schedules, and due to the great efforts of our building manager, Rabbi Avi Wealcatch, we still manage to paint the walls and wax the floors of every classroom, and with tremendous siyatta diShmaya, we get everything in place before school begins.

This year, because of the increased enrollment, we installed two modular units; one will be used as a classroom, and one will be dedicated as office space.

New campus of Hamilton Yeshiva.

Rabbi Avi Verschleiser: We are a network of seven mosdos and, over the summer, we must repair the wear and tear on the physical plant of all the buildings, as well as upgrade whatever is in the plans. We are, baruch Hashem. forever growing, and we are adding classrooms and tutoring rooms. The work is never done, but we try to keep up as efficiently as possible. Besides the necessary repairs, each Menahel and Menaheles has a wish list, and we try to take on as many projects as possible.

Beginning this Elul zman, Rabbi Kanarek is opening a new yeshivah gedolah in Hamilton, New Jersey, under the leadership of Harav Refoel Herzka and Harav Yosef Kanarek. Setting up a new yeshivah 30 minutes out of Lakewood with a dormitory and all took tremendous effort over the summer, and we are looking forward excitedly for this new makom Torah to grow and flourish.

Another project this summer was the move of Masores Bnos Yisroel elementary school. Six years ago, when all the slots in Bais Rivka Rochel were taken by siblings, and many of BRR and Bais Shaindel alumni applied for their daughters, Rabbi Kanarek felt a responsibility to serve them. Rather than turning them away, he opened a new school for the children of alumni called Masores Bnos Yisroel. Until now, they were in trailers, and we were finally able to house them in a wing of another school until a permanent building is built for them. So, over this summer, we were busy with the move.

In addition, the demand for additional classes and space in the girls’ high school Bais Shaindel necessitated renovations on that building as well.

When it comes to major capital improvements, like adding a new wing, how do you decide what to do? How do you plan how to cover the costs?

Yeshiva Gedolah of Bayonne.

Rabbi Finkelstein: As an “out-of-town” yeshivah, we realized that we needed to expand our campus as the yeshivah grew. So, when a property became available in the vicinity of the yeshivah, we did our best to acquire it, which consolidated our dormitories into one central geographic location.

Another important capital improvement we implemented was upgrading the air conditioning systems around the yeshivah and the dormitories. We feel that if we provide this comfort, the bachurim will be able to learn better. So, in a way, the wish list becomes a necessity.

Rabbi Glazer: With the tremendous growth we are seeing in our community, we are aware that we will have to embark on a major capital investment. We are already outgrowing our facilities, and we will begin our planning for that in the near future.

Rabbi Karman: We always have an eye on the future, and we try to plan accordingly. We do anticipate that we will require some major construction down the road, which will include a gym, more classrooms and place for a learning center.

We understand that this will require us to stretch our budget, so we only do such projects out of necessity. We anticipate we will have to solicit donations, and we may have to finance part of it. As they say, we beg, borrow … but won’t steal.

Besides tuition, part of the obligations of our parent body is to contribute to the building fund, which has a lifetime cap of $2,000. Although we are not building at this time, we set aside these funds for capital improvement, and we plan to tap into them at that time. Nevertheless, when we see that a family cannot meet these obligations, we are more lenient with this fee than with tuition.

Rabbi Pitterman: Priority is always given to education, but when we decide that a capital improvement is needed, we try to get grants from donors or various foundations which fund these types of projects, and we do not use our operating budget for them.

Yeshiva Toldos Aharon, Lakewood.

Rabbi Verschleiser: When faced with a major capital expenditure, you cannot just finance it and proceed without reckoning how it will be paid for. If it cannot be serviced through donations and will fall on the operating budget, then serious thought must be given to advancing the project, since the cost can sink a mosad.

As an example, the Menahel of Yeshiva Toras Aron, one of our mosdos, brought up the need for a gym. He explained that in inclement weather, it is important for the talmidim to have a place for recess — one of the many educational benefits that a gym can have. We have been trying to come up with a responsible way to fund this project, but won’t begin until we know we can carry the project without putting our operating budget at risk. Baruch Hashem, a parent who felt the need stepped up and is helping with the down payment. With this and with the help of some others, we hope to get this project off the ground in the near future.

How do you prioritize between improvements that have an impact on the students’ educational growth — like hiring specialized staff or implementing new, costly programs — versus improving physical facilities like renovating lunchrooms, classrooms or the yard?

Rabbi Finkelstein: We’re in this field to educate the talmidim, so every decision is based on what is best for them. If a talmid needs a chavrusa or tutor, we will arrange it; that takes priority and, despite the fact that there are no local candidates, we go out of our way to find someone whom we can hire to help out the talmidim. After that, if there is a need for capital improvements, we find a way to make that happen as well, since as I explained before, it is important for the growth of the talmidim, especially in a dormitory atmosphere, for them to be comfortable in their surroundings.

Rabbi Karman: As I believe the situation is with every dedicated mosad of chinuch, the priority is always what will benefit the talmidim the most. Recently, we employed a full-time guidance counselor, and have a second one who is being trained. In addition, we increased our resource room Rebbeim, which of course adds tens of thousands of dollars to the budget. But we feel it is well worth the cost. We consider capital improvements as a wish list, something to implement when necessary, or if we have the ability to do it. However, improvements to the physical plant often affect the education of the children as well.

Rabbi Verschleiser: We are mosdos hachinuch, so our priority is always to supply the staff with whatever we can in order for them to succeed. Of course, many seemingly capital projects are actually important for the educational aspect of the students as well, as I mentioned with the gym we are planning.

Rabbi Pitterman: All projects are discussed and evaluated with the hanhalah with the basic criteria of what will enhance the education and growth of our talmidos the most.

Are the lay-leaders on your board of directors/vaad mainly from within the school (parents, alumni) or outsiders? How does this affect their perspectives?

Rabbi Finkelstein: Most of the baalei battim who are involved are satisfied alumni or present parents. They care deeply about the yeshivah and can always be counted on to help in any manner they can.

Rabbi Karman: Our board members consist mainly of parents, grandparents, or former parents who were satisfied with the chinuch we give or gave their children and grandchildren. Indeed, we have one active board member who is all three: He was a current parent, a parent of former talmidim, and now his einiklach attend the yeshivah. We definitely feel that as a result of their personal connection with the yeshivah, they care more, and are always there when you need them.

Torah Academy of Boca Raton.

Rabbi Glazer: Our community is relatively young, and we have a mix of dedicated people both from within the school and from outside the immediate nucleus of the school who help us with our needs.

Throughout the summer, executive directors and administrators are busy meeting with parents and discussing their tuition contracts for the upcoming year. What percentage of your parent body is on scholarship? What is the average scholarship awarded (in percentage of full tuition)? How is it decided?

Rabbi Verschleiser: I would like to begin by saying that even if every parent paid full tuition, our budget would barely be covered. However, the reality is that under normal circumstances, close to 85-90% of our parents request and are granted some sort of scholarship, which varies up to approximately 30% of full tuition. In extremely difficult situations, the scholarship can be even more than that.

Our mosdos are based on the relationship we have with parents, and that is built on the trust they have in us to supply their children with a top-rate chinuch, and our trust of them that they are true partners which includes contributing their fair share financially as well. We do not require them to supply us with bank statements or financial records, yet we always keep an open eye. As mentioned, many times in tuition meetings, we are on the same team, thinking “Let’s make this happen together.”

Rabbi Finkelstein: I’ll agree with Rabbi Verschleiser that even if everyone paid full tuition, our budgets may not be covered in full. In Yeshiva Gedolah of Bayonne, approximately 95% of the parents get a break on tuition, some more than others, depending on the circumstances. Of course, the shortfall is on our shoulders, as we must raise the rest to cover the budget.

Rabbi Pitterman: My approach to dealing with tuition and scholarships is simple: Please just be ehrlich with me, and we will be able to work something out. I am well aware that a family of six or seven children, kein ayin hara, in school, with a salary of $100 thousand, is not considered comfortable, and I am not here to squeeze them on tuition beyond their abilities. I don’t ask for W-2s, nor do we visit the homes to check up on the standards of living. So, if a parent is honest and needs a tuition break or scholarship, we will work something out. We all want the best for our children, we just ask that parents should realize that the hanhalah must also meet their financial obligations.

Yeshiva Ketana of Queens.

Rabbi Karman: Approximately 50% of the parent body is on some sort of scholarship, meaning they pay less than full tuition. The amount of a discount they receive ranges from between 5% to 70% or even 80%. There is a committee of discreet and devoted baalei battim, mostly parents and community members, who serve on the committee. They will discuss with the parents what they can afford, and try to work out a fair amount. At times, they hear about the family’s situation from executives of other schools where the other children in the family attend. Children of the Rebbeim who teach in the mosad do not have to pay any tuition.

Keep in mind that whatever is not covered by tuition has to be raised from donors. If all would be forced to pay full tuition, the fundraising would be minimal. But the reality is that we know many parents cannot afford to pay in full, so we give them a break, and we undertake to cover the rest.

Rabbi Glazer: In Florida, we are very fortunate to have tuition vouchers for families who are eligible. Around 10 years ago, Dr. Allen Jacob of Miami Beach, Florida, spoke at our dinner and declared that for yeshivos to be able to succeed in the future, they will need to increase their funding, and suggested that the additional funds should come 50% from the government, 25% from the community at large, and 25% from trimming costs. Dr. Jacob worked very hard in his shtadlanus to make tuition vouchers a reality. Thanks to Dr. Jacob and TeachFlorida (a division of the Orthodox Union), a family in Florida earning 260% of the poverty level, which, for a family of six, is approximately $90,000, is eligible for a $7,000 educational voucher per child.

Through the work of Dr. Jacob and others, mosdos in Florida receive nearly $20 million per year. We have about 80 such families in our school, and we receive around half a million dollars through this program.

Of course, we still must fundraise hundreds of thousands of additional dollars for other needy students, but this program is a great help to our school and our community.

What are some ways that you keep costs in check in order not to overburden the parents?

Rabbi Pitterman: I try to negotiate with all our vendors by getting quotes from others, thereby receiving the best possible price for the school. This includes purchasing materials, such as paper and the like, as well as procuring contractors for repairs and upgrades when needed. In addition, when we have a parent who is in a certain field, we may approach them to help us with their specialty.

Rabbi Karman: We always shop around for the best deal we can get. Recently, a liability insurance broker pitched us a policy, but it actually came out to be more than what we were paying. Our current broker, who was aware that we were trying our best to trim the budget, worked extra hard to better our plan and saved us some money on our current policy.

We are also lucky that our parent body and alumni often chip in to allay the cost of some projects. Recently, we upgraded some of our plumbing, and when it came time to pay the bill, the plumber told us, “It’s on the house.” We have someone who supplies us paint at the wholesale price. When we painted the outdoor staircase, he recommended a way to do it which provided a substantial savings.

Rabbi Finkelstein: Bayonne is a city which has a number of frum businesses located in the area, and we have developed a wonderful relationship with them. There are no kosher food establishments anywhere near Bayonne, so we supply them with delicious lunches from our kitchen. They are extremely grateful, and many of them donate supplies we need, such as our paper goods, food products, spices and other items. They also help connect us with their business associates, and thus we have developed a good network of supporters.

Rabbi Verschleiser: From experience, we know that there must be a firm system on expenditures in place with little or no exceptions. Without that, the exceptions will break the budget. We know that all our employees are klei kodesh, and every employee deserves more and needs more, but we have guidelines and we can’t deviate from them. In the rare event that we must, the expenditure must be signed off by the Menahel of the mosad, and we will find a way to cover it. But without having a firm system for expenditures in place, the budget will ultimately spiral out of control, and the mosad will be in a crisis.

How do you deal with complaints from parents regarding chinuch issues?

Rabbi Karman: Any chinuch issue is dealt with by the Menahel, in consultation with the local Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshivah who are involved in the yeshivah.

Rabbi Verschleiser: As a rule, most issues of this type are the result of miscommunication. The hanhalah of each one of our mosdos are dedicated and professional, and the parents know that they are available to help them. When approached with such an issue, we usually discover that somewhere along the line, one party did not understand the other, and with minimal input, better communication can be facilitated and ultimately produce the results all are looking for.

Rabbi Pitterman: With any chinuch-related issue, I refer it directly to Rebbetzin Ziemba, our esteemed Menaheles. Every parent and student knows that she is a very accessible, hands-on principal, and they have full confidence that she will address the issue properly.

Rabbi Finkelstein: Likewise, our Rosh Yeshivah, Harav Yakov Sholom Rokach, and our Menahel, Harav Yechezkel Magid, have an open-door policy both with the talmidim and the parents. In an event where a parent calls me about a chinuch issue, I simply let the hanhalah know that it exists, and have full confidence that it will be dealt with accordingly.

Do you feel that demographic changes have affected your school, either positively or negatively?

Rabbi Verschleiser: Rabbi Kanarek, the Rosh Hamosdos, often says that the children in our schools today are just the fourth dor after the Holocaust. Most of the Rebbeim are grandchildren of survivors, and most of the grandparents are children of survivors. Already, in these four short generations, our schools are burgeoning and we are seriously short on space, and Lakewood is a prime example of this shortage of slots for students. It is a tremendous brachah, kein yirbu, but we really must plan for the fifth dor by creating more mosdos to service their educational needs.

Rabbi Karman: For us in Queens, it has been mostly positive. We have a very diverse mix of talmidim: yeshivish, Chassidish, Sephardic, and Bukharian. Because the community is mixed, we get all types. We noticed that in our younger grades, the classes are fuller than in the older grades. Housing is expensive, and some families move to other areas once they are married a few years. Some of our parents who are studying medicine move out once they have completed their studies. We have had some who made aliyah, some who moved to Lakewood, and some moved out of town. Having a diverse clientele diminishes our dependence on any one particular type of family, and that has helped the yeshivah grow.

Rabbi Pitterman: In the past, our parent body was 90% from Boro Park. As the neighborhoods shifted, and Boro Park became more Chassidish, our parent body seems to have moved to Flatbush. Baruch Hashem, our classes are still full, with the same type of children as we have had since 1982 when the Bais Yaakov of 18th Avenue opened.

Rabbi Finkelstein: Since we are a dormitory yeshivah, we are not affected by demographics of any given locality. We are central to Brooklyn, Monsey, Northern New Jersey and Lakewood, and we attract bachurim from those communities and beyond.

In years past, sending a mesivta bachur to a dormitory yeshivah was more common. Lately, it is less in style, but there is still much to be said about a bachur being immersed in the four walls of a yeshivah. Some parents hold back for ninth and 10th grade, and our classes expand from 11th grade and up as the bachurim get older.

Rabbi Glazer: Boca Raton is a community that is growing by leaps and bounds. In the past year alone, we have added 28 families. The city is a wonderful place for people whose parnassah allows them the freedom to work from anywhere. This includes those who work remotely as well as those who travel often on business. At this time, we already have all the amenities needed to raise a frum family in a yeshivah/Bais Yaakov atmosphere, including 30 kosher establishments. Over the past few years, we are constantly adding more students, and we hope to grow in the foreseeable future. n