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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

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Longtime educator urges Jewish education ‘tax’

Tags: Jewish learning
Evie Blanshay

MONTREAL — The Jewish community should consider levying a “tax” on all Jewish families to offset the rising cost of Jewish day school education, says one of the most experienced administrators in the field.

Evie Blanshay, who was executive director of Hebrew Foundation School (HFS) from 1979 until last year, said in an interview upon her retirement that Jewish families, whether or not they have children in the system, should be asked to contribute to some kind of community-wide fund.

Such a fund, she said, would benefit middle-income parents, in particular, who are increasingly finding it difficult to pay the fees, which at HFS, an elementary school in Dollard des Ormeaux, are now $7,000 to $8,000 a year per child.

Blanshay, who is continuing to serve the school as a consultant, said Jewish education should be regarded as a benefit to the community as a whole, and therefore the responsibility of all its members.

“The finances are a huge obstacle, especially if you have two or three or four children. The low-income are helped and the rich don’t need it. It’s the middle income that is being squeezed,” she said.

“And time is of the essence. Every year that [assistance is unavailable], another child goes without a Jewish education.”

She believes many parents are not sending their children to a Jewish day school, or at least not enrolling them in a Jewish high school after they graduate from elementary, for financial reasons.

HFS is the only Jewish day school on the West Island, an area commonly described as a growing, younger community.

Yet, HFS’ enrolment has declined from a peak of “well over 500” to 325 today, she said. The former figure included the nursery, which was an integral part of the school at that time, while the latter does not include the $7-a-day centre de la petite enfance, housed at the school.

Money is not the only obstacle, she acknowledges. “There is not the same commitment among parents to Jewish education that there was 30 years ago,” she said. “In my day, there were three things you did first: get a roof over your head, put food on the table, and provide your children with a Jewish education…

“People today are not prepared to give up everything for a Jewish education. Many think an afternoon school or tutoring one or two hours a week are enough.”

She emphatically does not agree.

The situation is likely only to worsen, because teachers at most Jewish schools are unionized, she said, and are paid salaries that are line with those of their public sector counterparts.

“Salaries account for 85 to 90 per cent of the budget. And there is no tax break for parents, except for a little on Judaic studies in federal taxes.”

Blanshay thinks that having a Jewish high school on the West Island would reduce the current enrolment falloff after elementary school, and she regrets that Federation CJA’s plan to open a high school fell through in 2011.

At one time, about two-thirds of HFS graduates went on to a Jewish high school, mostly Herzliah High School in St. Laurent, which is now closed, said Blanshay. Today, 20 to 30 per cent do so, and that’s an improvement over a few years ago, she said.

A large number go to the private West Island College, even though there is bus transportation to Herzliah’s Snowdon campus and Bialik High School in Côte St. Luc.

Tribute will be paid to Blanshay, who continues to work for HFS as a consultant, the evening of March 12 at Congregation Beth Tikvah at 7:15 p.m. It will begin with light hors d’oeuvres, followed by presentations and entertainment, and ending with a sweet table.

Messages to Blanshay may be sent online through the school’s website at www.hfs.qc.ca, or call 514-684-6270 for information. The Evie Blanshay Tuition Assistance Fund, to help needy HFS students, has been established to commemorate her long and distinguished leadership. About 15 per cent of HFS students receive subsidies.

Blanshay, whose training is in social work, has been associated with HFS since 1970. When the elder of her two sons began going there, she started volunteering, and served as president before becoming executive director.

HFS began in 1965 with 10 children as a nursery school affiliated with Beth Tikvah, added a kindergarten in 1969 and a grade each year thereafter. By 1972, it had its own premises, which were expanded several times until 1989.

Despite its history with the Orthodox synagogue, HFS is open to Jewish families of all backgrounds.

In line with Blanshay’s strong conviction that a day school Jewish education should be available to all Jewish children, HFS has for many years run a program for those with learning disabilities as a satellite of Vanguard School. The children attend regular classes at HFS, with remedial instruction by special education teachers.

HFS was a pioneer in French immersion school in the 1970s. Today, students in grades 1 through 3 receive only one hour a week of English instruction, which jumps to 7-1/2 hours after that.

This year, Blanshay is helping the school achieve accreditation with the Canadian Educational Standards Institute, an organization that evaluates independent schools, and is involved in contract talks with the teachers’ union.

“I’m still working five days a week,” said Blanshay, who hopes to continue to serve the school after this year. “Although it would be nice to have a day off.”

Blanshay has had a major influence on teachers, parents and students over the years, and enjoys widespread esteem.

Marlene Weinstein, HFS’ learning centre co-ordinator, who began teaching at the school in 1981, described Blanshay as a person with “a phenomenal sense of morality and an acute judgment, who commands respect.”

Yet, despite her “prim and proper, soft-spoken” persona, “she has a crazy sense of humour.”

The low turnover of teachers may be attributed to her support to the staff. “She is always there as a sounding board, in good times and bad. She’s really, really fair. She’s a mensch,” said Weinstein.

Parent Renana Chemtov, a past president who worked closely with Blanshay for some 20 years as a volunteer, said, “she embodies what a Jewish educational leader should be… For her, ‘every Jewish child deserves a Jewish education’ is not just a slogan.

“She has done all in her power, and then some, to give the gift of Jewish education to as many as possible… She’s my mentor.”

Today’s youngsters think enough of her to help raise money for the scholarship fund in Blanshay’s name.

Students in kindergarten through Grade 3 are skipping rope and the older ones are shooting hoops for donations, which they will hand over at the March 12 tribute.

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