Zidell, Schnitzer high school plan includes center bailout
There is almost no Jewish institution or synagogue here that has not benefited from support provided by the Zidell and Schnitzer families. Continuing that tradition, Jay Zidell and Jordan Schnitzer recently proposed helping Portland Jewish Academy create a Jewish high school here.
By Paul Haist
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Jay Zidell and Jordan Schnitzer grew up in Portland's Jewish community and have followed in their respective families' long traditions of active communal leadership. There is almost no Jewish institution or synagogue here that has not benefited from support provided by the Zidell and Schnitzer families.
Continuing that tradition, Jay Zidell and Jordan Schnitzer recently proposed helping Portland Jewish Academy create a Jewish high school here.
Their shared vision arose, they said, out of conversations both men had with Schnitzer's father, Harold Schnitzer, who, with his wife Arlene, have set a high standard for philanthropy in Oregon.
Zidell, who sits on the Portland Jewish Academy board, initiated a conversation with the Schnitzers about the high school just as Jordan and Harold Schnitzer were discussing the issue themselves.
"There is a tradition in the Zidell and Schnitzer families of supporting education," said Jordan Schnitzer.
The Zidell family has been a leading supporter of Portland Jewish Academy, making possible, for example, the Min Zidell Education Building there. They also have been leading supporters of the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, among other Jewish institutions.
The Harold and Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation recently made possible new Judaic studies programs at the University of Oregon and Portland State University.
Both men stressed that their entry into the current discussion of the Mittleman Jewish Community Center's financial challenges (related story begins on page 1) came about only as a consequence of their shared interest in helping to create a Jewish high school that would be, in Schnitzer's words, "as good as any other private high school in our community." He pointed to the Catlin Gabel School, Oregon Episcopal School, Jesuit High School and St. Mary's Academy as examples of excellent high school educational programs.
"This is an idea that is vitally important to both Jordan and me," said Zidell, in a conversation with the Jewish Review. "While I have been on the board of the Portland Jewish Academy for several years, we thought it was important to meet with all the institutions involved, including Portland Jewish Academy, the Jewish Federation of Portland and the Mittleman Center, to learn from them."
"In these meetings," said Schnitzer, "I think what happened was there was already a lot of discussion going on about the financial situation at the MJCC. And at PJA there was a lot of discussion about ramping up for the high school. Our conversation seemed to serve as a catalyst to get all these issues on the table at the same time."
Those ideas still are on the table. They include what Schnitzer and Zidell at this point characterized only as "substantial" gifts from both of their families to be applied with other gifts to the creation of a Jewish high school here and such other needs as may be identified to make that high school a sound reality.
Those other needs could include renovation of the Mittleman Jewish Community Center building to accommodate the high school. Portland Jewish Academy already occupies a substantial portion of the MJCC building.
"Jay and I feel--for a school to have an outstanding program--it needs to have an excellent physical plant," said Schnitzer. "We also agree that the program needs to be fiscally solid."
The idea of locating the high school under the MJCC roof and near PJA seemed to be a natural option. Others are on the table too, such as using classrooms at a local congregation.
The two men feel that locating the high school in a facility whose landlord faces severe financial challenges could jeopardize the fiscal solidity of the high school, and, therefore, the MJCC financial issues would, in their view, need to be resolved as part of any fund-raising campaign.
"The school is anxious to start a program as soon as next fall. It needs to know where it's going to house its freshman class," said Zidell.
"You've got a Jewish community center that's on a financial tightrope and a federation that I think has realized a sense of urgency for a resolution to these issues for the good of the community," said Schnitzer. "The community cannot afford to continue to subsidize the MJCC if it's losing potentially several thousand dollars a day."
Focusing for now on the option of housing the high school under the MJCC roof, Zidell and Schnitzer have proposed studies, at least one of which already is under way, to gauge the feasibility of that option. Is it a realistic option?
The architectural firm of Tom Hacker and Associates already has been engaged to help determine if the present building and its campus could be modified to allow a high school to operate on the premises. The Hacker firm has experience working with schools and similar institutions.
Then, too, the two men urge bringing in outside accounting and business consultants to examine the MJCC's programs with an eye to determining the revenue and cost for each program so that a fiscally sound long-term plan to continue as many of the MJCC programs as possible can be developed.
Zidell and Schnitzer said their vision is "purely a personal opinion and not all of the facts are known yet."
Both men agreed that there are many programs at the MJCC that are very valuable to the community.
"Is there a way we can provide them more cost-effectively?" asked Schnitzer. "There is tremendous expertise in the Jewish community, in all its organizations. The time may have come to stand back and ask how can we use the collective experience of other Jewish organizations to address Jewish community needs."
Schnitzer found room in his and Zidell's vision for a Jewish community center.
"Is there some way, some new combination of the schools, the center and possibly some other organizations in the community that in a new partnership model can serve the community effectively for the next 25 years?" he asked.
"The only way you can arrive at new solutions is by starting out with questions," said Schnitzer.
At least one important question, he said, is whether the community wants to and will support the programs in place at the MJCC.
"If the answer is yes, then the community is going to have to step up and double or triple its support," said Schnitzer.
The fact that Zidell and Schnitzer have stepped forward with one proposal doesn't mean that others should not suggest alternatives, they said.
"If there are others who want to help, they should step forward," said Schnitzer. "These discussions are critical to the long-term needs of our Jewish community. Everyone's opinion is important, and yet we must not have analysis paralysis while certain programs are losing thousands of dollars a daily.
"Leadership means making tough choices, and the leaders of our Jewish community need to come together and help make these choices and do so quickly," said Schnitzer.