Meet UJA’s Director of Life & Legacy and Day School Capacity Building
From a young student to a seasoned professional, Robyn Buchman has seen every side of the day school system. She combines her unique perspective and years of experience in day school admission and development for her role as UJA’s Director of Life & Legacy and Day School Capacity Building. Robyn spoke with UJA’s Tali Goldberg about the value of Jewish day school, what makes our community unique, and how she’s working to keep our day school system vibrant for generations to come.
What led you to work in the day school system?
I was educated in a Jewish day school in South Africa. I was a recipient of a day school scholarship throughout my time there. I was raised by a single mom—my dad passed away—and I thank my mom every single day that she gave me that. Subsequently, it was always at the back of my mind that I was going to work in the day school system. I immigrated to Toronto, and that led me to becoming a day school professional. I educated five of my children in day school in Toronto and now my oldest granddaughter is currently enrolled in day school here, too. So it spans a long, forty-year journey.
What are you working towards achieving?
There are three big changes we’re working towards. Number one is to increase day school enrollment through greater affordability. Number two is to secure long-term sustainability for our schools. And the third is to ensure long-term impact on children’s Jewish identity through our school system.
What are some current initiatives you’re working on to make these a reality?
I'm working on the Reach initiative, which helps our schools reach new audiences—especially through our partnership with PJ Library—to engage the many, many Jews who might otherwise be unaware of the Jewish education system. Another is to empower our school professionals to grow their enrollment by encouraging and working with their families to apply for UJA’s Day School Scholarships. A major one that I work on is Life & Legacy, which is about permanent endowment giving—either through legacy giving or current gifts—that are held in a permanent endowment fund for our schools at the Jewish Foundation of Greater Toronto. Permanent endowments are the third pillar of a successful day school. The first is tuition dollars. The second is an annual campaign. But that third leg is critical because how do we ensure what we've worked so hard to achieve is sustainable? And that is through helping our schools to build their permanent endowments.
You have kids who went to day school, and grandkids going to day school. So much of your life is day school. What do you see as the value of Jewish day school?
Day school changes lives. There's no question about that. The profound impact of day school increases students’ Jewish knowledge and identity and instills Jewish values and commitment. We have so many stats to show that many day school graduates become community leaders. The benefit of day school is significant. I see that in my own life, I see that in people who I went to school with, people who went to school with my children…what they've gone on to do and how they appreciate not just the education, but the experience of being Jewish on a day-to-day basis in school.
From your perspective, how has the day school landscape shifted over the past few years?
After an 18-year decline in enrollment, the past three years have been hugely successful. Three years ago, when the numbers started to increase, people said it's because of the pandemic, and that families will go back to their public schools when COVID-19 is over. And that didn't happen. What was clear during the pandemic is that our day schools knocked it out of the park as far as meeting the needs of students, with remote learning, the dedication of the staff, and the unbelievable amount of great teaching that was done in an alternative way. Once people got into the system, families just loved what they were experiencing. The increase in enrollment in non-Orthodox day schools just this past year was 4 per cent and it's growing and growing. Honestly, we’re really fortunate. I just came back from a conference and people talk all the time about how lucky we are to live in Toronto, and what an amazing community we have. We have a strong UJA, our schools feel supported, our school professionals all work together. There’s a lot of good feeling going on right now and I am very optimistic about the future.
What makes our day school system in Toronto so unique?
I think that it starts at the top. For the day schools to be successful, you need a strong UJA, a UJA that understands the needs of the community and goes out to help and support them. Through that you need strong heads of schools who work together with their Boards of Directors and other head of school partners. You need strong development, admission, and marketing directors, and ultimately principals who have a sense of instilling the unique importance of day school into their staff and teachers. And the beneficiaries of all the above are the students and their families.
UJA is working to remove financial barriers to Jewish day school through initiatives like Day School Scholarships, which help lower tuition for families in Jewish Toronto. Learn more at dayschoolscholarships.ca.
Tali Goldberg serves as UJA’s Content Manager, Jewish Programming.
Robyn Buchman serves as UJA’s Director, Life & Legacy & Day School Capacity Building.