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‘Once they have a vision, they stick to it’
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‘Once they have a vision, they stick to it’

For Paula Gottesman, giving means finding the next ‘game changer’

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Honorees Paula and Jerry Gottesman with Gottesman RTW Academy head of school Moshe Vaknin.    
Honorees Paula and Jerry Gottesman with Gottesman RTW Academy head of school Moshe Vaknin.    

Many philanthropists have the desire to give money and make a difference. But few are able to make the kind of broader impact that Paula and Jerry Gottesman have made in the area of Jewish education. 

Through their foundation, the Morristown couple has given or committed $30 million toward Jewish day school education in the Greater MetroWest community; $6 million to the Greater MetroWest Jewish Camp Enterprise; and over $500,000 to PJ Library, which provides free books and educational materials to young Jewish families. 

Part of the day school investment was a $1 million gift over four years for professional development for 275 teachers and other staff members in the community through the Greater MetroWest Day School Initiative. At least two of the programs they have launched or help fund — including a tuition subvention program at the Gottesman RTW Academy and the Greater MetroWest Day School Initiative — have become national models for schools looking to boost their affordability and excellence.

So how do they do it? “They’re really, really smart, and once they have a vision, they stick to it,” said Kim Hirsh, director of philanthropic initiatives for the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ, who has worked with the Gottesmans on implementing their vision since 2000.

In an effort to unpack that answer, Paula Gottesman agreed to speak with NJJN about her philosophy just a few days after being honored by the Gottesman RTW Academy (see related story).

“I’m not a visionary,” Gottesman, a former lawyer, insisted, seated at her kitchen table, with Hirsh at her side. “I’m not even very creative.” 

By reviewing the chronology of the Gottesmans’ giving to Jewish education, however, some clear lessons emerge.

If you see a need…

Her own children were already alumnae of what was then the Hebrew Academy of Morris County when she and Jerry — founder and now chair of Edison Properties, the real estate and parking firm — had a conversation with one of his employees who is Jewish and at the time had three school-age kids.

“Jerry said, ‘Why don’t you send your kids to the Hebrew Academy?’ He said, ‘We can’t afford it.’ He was making a good living — enough to live nicely, but that’s about it. Not enough for private school, or large expenses,” Paula Gottesman said. “I said, ‘He’s absolutely right. Let’s take some money from the foundation and subsidize middle-income” families.

At that time, there was a “void” of people in the middle-income category at the school. “There were people getting scholarships and doctors and others paying full tuition.” 

In the late 1990s, she convened a brunch with other donors and experts to discuss the idea. They included James Schwarz of South Orange, a past president of what is now the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and other local philanthropies; Jonathan Woocher of Maplewood, a longtime principal of the Jewish Education Service of North America; and Golda Och, a teacher and board member of what was then the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union.

Something that Woocher said at that meeting stayed with her. “He said, ‘There’s no magic bullet. Just try it. If you just see a need, do it.’ And that’s been our philosophy since.”

She took her idea to the school and in 1998 started a tuition subvention program. It was one of only a handful of similar programs around the country. JESNA convened a meeting of leading philanthropists nationwide who were testing tuition affordability programs. “Everyone had a different take,” recalled Gottesman. “But mine was the simplest.”

Basically, anyone meeting the income criterion, then set at $120,000, was eligible to have tuition capped. The foundation made up the difference. (As Hirsh pointed out, “Affordability is a moving target.” Today the income maximum has shifted to $250,000.)

There was little paperwork, and it worked on the honor system. “Yes,” Gottesman acknowledged, once in a while they found people “living big” but mostly, she said, beneficiaries were “honorable.” 

Work with the right people

“We had no idea how much it would cost, and the first year there were not many takers,” Gottesman said of the subvention program. “People didn’t know about it, and there was stigma around it, and the school wasn’t doing a good job getting the word out.” 

Hirsh, a former journalist, starting working in development at HAMC in 2000. Part of her job was to expand the affordability program. 

The Gottesmans, who already knew Hirsh — she and Jerry are cousins — began to trust her acumen. The grant lost its stigma and more people began taking advantage of it. To date, some 705 students from 438 families have benefitted from their base tuition grant program.

As Jerry said in the video at the gala, “I’ll do whatever Kim tells me to do.”

Keep expanding the vision

The program chugged along until 2005, with the grants being renewed on an annual basis for as long as families needed them.

For many donors, that could have been the end of it, and the family might have moved on to other issues or organizations, all the while continuing to make the grants. 

Instead, the Gottesmans stayed involved and so did the school. Administrators — including Hirsh — began to acknowledge that people were worried looking ahead. “Would we always have the grant? It could be scary,” said Hirsh. “We started talking about how to sustain the grants.”

It was Jerry who came up with the idea of endowments, according to his wife. “He saw it in universities and the private school world and he liked it,” she said.

Meanwhile, other schools were beginning to hear about the initiative and wanted to replicate the program. 

“I told them, ‘Our foundation is not limitless. Go find your own benefactors!’” said Gottesman.

Gottesman saw an opening to extend the idea beyond HAMC, and to bring in her philanthropic peers.

“This is a big community with wealthy people and a lot of people interested in Jewish education. All of the schools should have people investing, doing what we were doing,” she said. 

The result, launched in 2007, was the MetroWest Day School Initiative. Eleven local families committed $13.5 million toward a $50 million community-wide campaign that would serve three day schools in the MetroWest area, HAMC, SSDS, now Golda Och Academy in West Orange, and the Kushner schools in Livingston (a fourth, the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, joined following the 2012 merger of the MetroWest and Central NJ federations). 

At first, they hit a roadblock. “We couldn’t get everyone interested in one fund,” acknowledged Hirsh. Under the tweaked plan, each school would retain its own endowment fund while drawing on a community fund and a matching pool coordinated by the JCF of Greater MetroWest. 

“The Gottesmans have so much credibility in the community, that once people heard me speak and understood the Gottesmans were involved, they followed me out of the room and said, ‘We’ll join,’” said Hirsh. Joining came with a $250,000 donation.

The initiative has raised more than $70 million. 

Lead

To entice people to embrace their vision, the Gottesmans pledged $9 million, including $3 million in a challenge match to other donors. But to get the money, the schools had to receive matching gifts.

And Paula Gottesman decided to adjust the vision again. “I realized that just being inexpensive wouldn’t do the job. I realized that the education had to be excellent or wealthy families would not buy in,” she said.

The rolled-out initiative would include incentives to improve quality as well, including upgrading technology and boosting the science and math programs as well as teacher professional development.

It’s never over 

The Gottesmans continue to nudge the vision forward. There’s a day school council meeting twice a year. All the schools participate. That’s when Paula Gottesman often asks, “What can be game-changing?” It isn’t enough just to have an idea. She will push on it until it meets her standard. As Hirsh pointed out, when they were discussing how to achieve academic excellence, the initial idea involved technology. Gottesman did not think that technology alone would be game-changing. When they arrived at the idea that “every teacher would develop their own professional development journey,” that made sense.

Goals, faith, need

While the Gottesman vision centers on Jewish education locally, it is not the only place they give. They have several principles they follow when they give to established Jewish organizations in the United States and in Israel, as well as to secular organizations: 

Like the goals — The Gottesmans support Leket Israel, the country’s largest food bank and food rescue network, “because I hate waste,” said Paula Gottesman. “I’m basically very cheap.” Most important, she found the organization; they didn’t find her. “I read about it and thought it was necessary,” she said.

Trust those in charge — “You have to have faith and confidence in the people involved,” Gottesman said. In the case of Leket Israel, one of Gottesmans’ daughters knows the founder, and “bing, I wrote the check.” But Hirsh offered that Gottesman also receives extensive regular reports to ensure the money is being well-spent. 

Give where it’s most needed — The Gottesmans rarely support large organizations that are already well funded. “A few weeks ago I was at an event for a big organization that does important work and I was asked why I do not give more,” recalled Gottesman. “My answer was, ‘Because plenty of other people give.’”

“Every time I read about someone giving $30 million to Harvard, I want to retch, because they already have billions,” she continued. “I think what a place like Hebrew Academy could do with a fraction of that amount.” 

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