By: Emily Alhadeff
March 19, 2021
In the 1940s — long before anyone could even imagine Seattle becoming an expensive tech hub — an eccentric fellow named Sam Israel starting buying property. An immigrant from Ottoman Rhodes who left school at 13, Israel was a shoemaker who’d done well repairing boots for the US military. As the property values increased, Israel held his cards, living an ascetic lifestyle by Soap Lake in Eastern Washington until his death in 1994. He left his estate to the Jewish community — specifically, Jewish education in Seattle and educational support, immigration, the poor, widows and orphans, and wildlife and archaeology efforts in Israel. He called it the Samis Foundation.
Israel’s investment grew over the decades and is now worth between $180 and $200 million.* Since 1994, more than $100 million has been granted to local Jewish day schools, camps, Israel experiences, youth groups, and initiatives in Israel that align with Sam Israel’s philanthropic vision. If there’s one thing that has kept this community chugging along with quality educational experiences, it’s Samis.
Now under the leadership of Connie Kanter, Samis has spent the last year plotting out a strategic plan, which they have been rolling out for the past few weeks. Formerly the CFO of Seattle University, Kanter took on the role of Samis CEO in March of 2018. (She served on the Samis board for 8 years prior, too.) Relentlessly optimistic and endlessly energetic, Kanter immediately sought to refine the goals of Samis.
“I knew that we were nearing in on our first hundred million dollars in grants,” Kanter says. “And I think that if you had ever asked a Samis trustee what we were all about, they would have immediately talked about intensive, immersive Jewish education. There was no question that we understood that as our focus, but we really didn’t have a lot of nuance around that.”
One unique note: Sam Israel insisted on assigning trustees for life, so about half of the lifetime board members (all men save for one woman) have been deeply involved a quarter century. That might make for opposition to change, but Kanter quickly sold them on the idea of making a strategic plan. “I felt it would be important for us to specifically articulate what our goals were, what we were trying to achieve.”
To develop the plan, Samis brought on a consulting team to crunch data, analyze trends here and in other cities, and interview board members and diverse stakeholders. Kanter made an effort to sit down with nearly every congregational rabbi in the area. She found that many of them had no idea the level to which Samis was funding community programs like camps and youth groups. “We wanted them to understand that we’re currently serving, across the board, all denominations in terms of the youth we reach,” Kanter says. “And we wanted them to understand that we want to continue to work with them to continue serving.”
Among Samis’s new goals are greater transparency and more collaboration, two challenges one could argue exist across this community historically.
“I think we had more of an attitude of, ‘We can go it alone. We don’t need to think about partnerships. We’ve got the larger checkbook,’” Kanter says. “That is no longer our thinking at all. We have no interest in going it alone.”
This especially resonates with programming related to Israel, which Samis is professionalizing with a more refined request-for-proposal process. The idea is to “amplify investment through collaboration” and to work with partners to select programming areas that Israeli leadership will pick up. The RFP process may become an updated way of working with new programs.
Collaboration will be a priority on the home front in a different way. The Samis team, which includes Melissa Rivkin as director of day school strategy, intends to spend the coming year discussing collaborations across schools, including co-location options and strategic alliances. “Samis is looking to work with the day school community to find paths forward for our day school structure to be more sustainable and thriving and growing,” Kanter says.
This addresses a critical problem, which is the steep decline in day school enrollment, despite an increase in the Jewish population here. Since 2013, enrollment has decreased by nearly 60 percent, while tuition has risen 30 percent. Seattle has the most Jewish day schools per Jewish population in the country, but also the lowest enrollment in the country. “We are not interested in trying to change who lives in Seattle,” Kanter says, but rather, “we’re trying to serve who lives in Seattle.”
“We are not interested in trying to change who lives in Seattle. We’re trying to serve who lives in Seattle.”
To this end, Samis is looking to go deep rather than wide—and they’re basing their decisions on both community discussions and data. Enrollment has nosedived for a number of reasons, including but not limited to: “frum flight,” that is, families moving to more Jewishly served parts of the country and to Israel; other exceptional educational opportunities in the region (including most public schools); and the overall expense of living in Seattle. There’s also the catch that as classrooms get smaller (currently there are between 5 and 12 students, on average, per class at the schools and several schools have combined grades), attrition follows.
“In terms of the Jewish day schools in Seattle, we do see that there are opportunities for more sustainable, thriving, vibrant Jewish day schools in Seattle,” Kanter says. “Certainly there’s never one right answer for anything in life. But what we see as our role at Samis and where we see making somewhat of a shift is, in the past, we’ve been fairly passive. [We’ve] written checks to schools and said, ‘Let’s see how it goes.’ We’ve seen how it’s gone.”
“We’ve written checks to schools and said, ‘Let’s see how it goes.’ We’ve seen how it’s gone.”
Day schools are not suffering due to inadequate education, and Samis has been front and center bringing technology upgrades and increasing the presence of specialists. Notably, Samis was instrumental in getting the day schools operational for in-person schooling this fall. Samis will focus on making the schools even better and more affordable. While one could argue that with such a steep decline, Samis should shift its funding priorities, that’s not the case. Roughly two-thirds of funding goes to schools, following Sam Israel’s vision. Furthermore, Samis believes it’s still the best investment.
“If you were to look in boardrooms of any Jewish organization — not just a school, any Jewish organization — there’s a disproportionate number of members of leadership in the Jewish community that has a day school education,” Kanter says. “So one of the things we can be more effective at is communicating the impact of day schools, communicating the impact of a day school education.”
Vivian Scheidt, head of The Jewish Day School, is excited about the plan. “Samis’s strategic plan for the day schools shows real thought and leadership in ensuring we have a thriving day school community here in the Puget Sound,” she says. “Throughout the process, Samis engaged us and the rest of the day school community, and that really shows in the objectives of their strategic plan. Their objectives dovetail with those of JDS, and we’re looking forward to putting plans into action.”
Samis’s approach to educational experiences outside of day schools, however, is to go wide. “There are a tremendous number of Jewish children involved in education, [just] less than 5 percent in the day schools,” Kanter says. “But if we look at the supplemental schools, if we look at experiential education, the summer camps, early childhood education engagement, and enrichment opportunities with youth groups, [there] are a tremendous number of Jews interested in education.”
They are looking into expanding funding to early childhood and day camps, alongside studying which existing programs, like Israel experiences, are most impactful. Their decisions, more so than in the past, will be driven by data.
“Programs may look nice. They may sound good, but do they make a difference in moving the needle on our mission, which is the preservation and continuity of the Jewish people and the state of Israel, a healthy, vibrant Jewish community in Washington state, and thriving, educated youth?” asks Kanter. “Those three components of our mission statement need to be what drive our granting.”
*Correction: an earlier version of this article misstated that Samis has over $600 million.
Click here to access this article, as originally published in The Cholent, https://thecholent.substack.com/p/samis-isnt-going-to-go-it-alone