Day Schools Saving Millions In New Efficiency Effort

Yavneh Academy is one of eight Bergen County schools taking part in a cost-cutting program.

Scholarship coffers could increase as a result of ‘benchmarking,’ but tuition cuts not expected.

In response to a crisis of affordability sweeping through the day school world, a new effort to have schools practice greater efficiency has resulted in savings of tens of millions of dollars for nearly 40 Jewish day schools across the nation.

But while the new “benchmarking process spearheaded by Yeshiva University’s Institute for University-School Partnership is expected to free up funds for scholarships, don’t expect to see dramatic drops in tuition itself.

Rather, the “foundational” goal of benchmarking, according to Harry Bloom, the YU School Partnership’s director of planning and performance improvement, is not tuition reduction per se, but œmaking schools sustainable while delivering quality education” and making day schools “accessible to the entire Jewish community, including to the middle income families who often are hard pressed and not always well served by current financial aid processes.€

While common in the corporate world, benchmarking — a process in which institutions measure their performance against that of their peers, in order to identify cost-saving and revenue-enhancing opportunities †is a new arrival in the Jewish day school world, whose myriad financial challenges include a “tuition crisis.”

Eight Bergen County schools have gone through a round of benchmarking under the guidance of YU, and according to Samuel Moed, chairman of Jewish Education for Generations in Northern New Jersey, the process has already saved a combined $2.5 million.

Currently working with 30 additional schools (Orthodox, Conservative and pluralistic) in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and Cleveland. The YU School Partnership and the Avi Chai Foundation, the project’s lead funder, hope ultimately to bring benchmarking to at least 200 day schools in 30 communities, including ones in New York City and its suburbs.

Bloom estimates that benchmarking and the strategic planning that follows is on track to achieve combined savings of at least $22.5 million — approximately 10 percent of operating budgets — over three years in the five communities in which it is being implemented so far.

Proponents say the process not only helps schools operate more efficiently and sustainably — making more money available for scholarships and educational improvements — but also encourages collaboration among schools that once largely saw each other as competitors.

For skeptics, however, it’s too little, too late for a field facing major financial challenges, akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Indeed, the emergence this year of three brand-new, low-tuition Jewish day schools and a growing willingness among day school families to explore public schools and Hebrew charter schools, indicates a demand for more dramatic solutions.

Gershon Distenfeld, who is on the board of JEFG, recently wrote in the New Jersey Jewish Standard that while he continues to see benchmarking and fundraising as critical, “at the same time, Ive become convinced that we must take bold steps now to alleviate the tremendous financial burden placed on the overwhelming majority of day school families.

Explaining his decision to help launch the new low-tuition Yeshivat He’Atid, Distenfeld wrote, “Incremental changes are important and can lead to transformation over time, but the clock is ticking and it is time for a major initiative that will transform day-school education, while setting it on a sustainable path for future generations.”

Bloom and other benchmarking proponents are quick to acknowledge that the process is hardly a “magic bullet” for the enormous challenges to day schools’ fiscal sustainability, chief among them the “explosive nature of demand for financial aid.”

In the executive summary of a report recently issued about its findings from the effort so far, Bloom noted that benchmarking “is certainly not the total solution” and must be combined with œlonger term solutions” like “endowment building, communal middle-income tuition subvention programs and increased government support for day schools.”


While not the full solution, benchmarking — combined with consultants the YU School Partnership provides (the Avi Chai Foundation pays half the consulting expenses, and the local community pays the other half) to help the schools plan and implement changes — is a “valid starting point because it develops hard data about where opportunities are for schools and the community at large,” Bloom said.

How does it work?

Schools provide the YU School Partnership with a wide array of financial and statistical data — spanning tuition, scholarship details, staff compensation, maintenance and capital expenses, enrollment numbers, faculty-student ratios and fundraising revenues. The YU School Partnership analyzes the data from all participating schools in the community then, while keeping the findings confidential, develops a report for each school detailing how it stacks up against the communal average.

One major difference across the schools that was revealed through the benchmarking, Bloom said, has been in how schools define job responsibilities and determine appropriate compensation for their employees.

“You’d be surprised to look across schools that there are significant differences of 15, 20 percent or more, even within one community, even within one denomination of what a full-time employee is,â Bloom said. “And that difference can make a major difference in terms of productivity. We can now say to a school, you’re paying this much for this equivalent unit of work and that compares to your peer paying another amount for an equivalent unit.”

A number of schools are now exploring “distributed leadership” — having veteran teachers assume some administrative roles, which provides “an efficiency for the school and also “makes those teachers’ jobs more interesting and fulfilling.

Another area where school spending differs dramatically: purchased goods, services and maintenance.

“Even among schools that share the same geography, same size, same educational philosophy, those differences could be as much as $1,500 per student,” Bloom said. “The surprise was how big those differences were and how receptive schools were to act on that information.”

Bloomâ€s report, based on work so far with almost 40 schools of various denominations and sizes, identifies the largest areas where benchmarking has exposed opportunities for saving money or increasing revenues. In order of magnitude, they include: filling classes to capacity; improving annual fundraising performance; “more effective utilization and supervision of teaching assistants, professional development and incorporation of online learning” to reduce faculty and staffing expenses; ensuring that tuition is aligned to expenses and ability of subgroups to pay; opportunities to outsource or automate non-education-related tasks; facility rental, summer camp and after-school programs operation, foundation grants and endowments; energy conservation and joint purchasing savings; encouraging senior teachers to accept administrative tasks.

After sharing the benchmarking analysis with a school, the YU School Partnership provides it with consultants who help plan, implement and evaluate changes as a result.

“For a school, it’s a scary prospect to change their ways, and when we can bring in real expertise, that gives them the confidence to create a game plan,” Bloom said.

One thing that has not yet changed much as a result of benchmarking, however, is tuition.

Yavneh Academy, a benchmarking participant in Paramus, N.J., recently decreased tuition by $100 — a small percentage of the more than $14,000 that full-paying students spend each year in tuition and fees, but a symbolic reversal for a school that is believed to have never before lowered tuition. However, when asked if any other schools have lowered fees as a result of benchmarking, Bloom emphasized that tuition reduction, while “valid in some cases” is “not an end goal.â€

“In some cases across-the-board tuition reduction subtracts valuable resources from those who can afford to pay and thereby can undermine the goals of sustainability,  quality and accessibility,” he said.

So far, schools have made a variety of changes as a result of benchmarking. Inspired by the opportunities in outsourcing services and buying collaboratively, Bergen County’s JEFG and the local Jewish federation recently hosted a conference to explore ways all local Jewish organizations — not just the day schools — can hire and purchase together to bring down collective expenses.

For Yavneh, benchmarking has spurred a closer look at class sizes and encouraged the school to step up the responsibilities and training for its assistant teachers, Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, the principal, told The Jewish Week. The school is also exploring “technology initiatives” that allow it to â€simultaneously enhance education while reducing overhead costs,” he said.

In addition to focusing on areas for savings, benchmarking highlights opportunities for increasing revenues, particularly through improved fundraising efforts.

“One school had been relying on its annual dinner for fundraising,” Bloom said. “We said, here’s how your fundraising is performing compared to your peers, so they set up a giving society and within a few months had made 16-18 asks for $12,000 from people they’d never approached in this manner before and got almost 100 percent acceptances.”

Benchmarking gave Yavneh the “momentum€ to revamp and increase fundraising, Rabbi Knapp said.

“While we’re still hosting a few very significant and successful events, our focus has shifted and become more annual campaign-focused,” he said.

Mark Neustadt, the vice chair of the board of Krieger Schechter Day School, a Conservative k-8 school in Baltimore that — along with eight other Baltimore day schools — has been participating in the benchmarking process for six months, said he was initially wary of the amount of time it would require.

But he has been won over.

“I find it enormously valuable,” he said, adding that it is particularly helpful to get œclear data about what schools in your own market are doing.”

While it is “too early” for “concrete results,” Neustadt said his school is exploring improvements in the areas of spending on support functions, such as back-office/administrative work and building maintenance; salary structures and student recruitment, particularly critical since enrollment has dropped dramatically in recent years, from 450 to 350 students.

“Once we started working with these guys and figured out how we can make use of them I’m a huge fan, Neustadt said. “They’re really good at meeting us where we are and providing information that’s relevant to our situation.” 

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Riverdale ‘Centrist’ Tapped As Obama Chief Of Staff

Jack Lew, with President Obama at Monday’s announcement, is the first Orthodox Jew to run the White House. getty images

Hebrew Institute of Riverdale back bencher Jack Lew moves from OMB to White House.

A few years ago, Jack Lew, an unassuming back bencher at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale who had served in two Democratic administrations in Washington, was invited to speak at the Modern Orthodox congregation in the Bronx.

In a speech that touched on his thoughts as an observant Jew in politics, he discussed the controversy over Jonathan Pollard, the Navy intelligence analyst who has served a life sentence since 1987 for spying for Israel.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, senior spiritual leader of the synagogue, is a leading advocate on behalf of clemency for Pollard, and at the time of Lew’s speech, nearly all of the mainstream Jewish organizations were pushing hard for clemency of Pollard.

Most people in attendance probably expected Lew, given the venue, to deliver what had become the party line on Pollard. But instead, he came out “very strongly” against Pollard’s early release from prison, Dan Perla, a former HIR president who attended the speech, told The Jewish Week. “It spoke volumes about his candor,” Perla said.

Lew, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, a Cabinet-level position, was appointed President Barack Obama’s new chief of staff on Monday. Lew replaces William Daley, who is returning to Chicago.

Lew, 56, was chosen for his long years in government, his reputation as a skilled multi-tasker and his conciliatory personal style. As President Obama faces a tough re-election fight, Lew is seen as a steady hand who can help navigate what will likely be a trying year.

“Jack Lew is the real deal — in a world of politics where people are so full of themselves, he is the exact opposite,” Rabbi Weiss told The Jewish Week. Lew “took a very strong position” on Pollard, “but with a great deal of respect,” the rabbi said.

Lew, who also belongs to an Orthodox synagogue in Potomac, Md., will be the first Orthodox Jew to serve as a U.S. president’s chief of staff. Ken Duberstein, a Brooklyn-born attorney, was the first Jewish presidential chief of staff, serving President Ronald Reagan in that post from 1᚜-89.

According to Haaretz, Lew’s  son studied in a yeshiva in Israel, and Lew “has developed a close working relationship with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, and has met several times with Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz.”

In 1992-93 he served as executive director of the Center for Middle East Research, a centrist pro-peace think tank based in Washington.

He was a top budget cruncher for President Bill Clinton before reprising the job for Obama. Jewish officials, according to a report in JTA, were offering a sigh of relief this week for a subsidiary reason: Their who-we-gonna-call pleas were answered.

Since Dennis Ross, Obama’s top Iran adviser, announced his departure late last year, community officials wondered who was left to call in a White House that has hemorrhaged top Jews over the last year or so. Lew is considered close to the Jewish community and is a go-to person for Jewish events in the capital.

“The reports that there’s no one to talk to have always been exaggerated,” Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JTA.

Obama launched his administration with a strong contingent of Jewish advisers: In addition to Ross, David Axelrod was his top political adviser, Rahm Emanuel his chief of staff and Daniel Shapiro handled the Middle East desk at the National Security Council.

But Emanuel quit in late 2010 to run for Chicago mayor, Axelrod left soon after to help run Obama’s re-election campaign and Shapiro is now in Tel Aviv as ambassador.

The Obama administration clearly wanted to push the Jewish angle of Lew’s appointment; Shapiro tweeted the news in Hebrew to his followers, according to JTA. Israeli ambassadors don’t usually make a big deal of the appointment of a White House chief of staff.

Lew has become something of a go-to Obama administration speaker and guest for the organized Jewish community, particularly among Orthodox Jews. Most recently, he lit the €œnational menorah,” the giant chanukiyah on the National Mall under the aegis of American Friends of Lubavitch.

“As an American Jew, I can’t think of anyone who has a deeper commitment to the United States as well as his own Jewish identity at the same time,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who heads the Chabad group, noting that Lew occasionally stops by for Shabbat services. “His appointment obviously gives the White House an envoy to the Jewish community who is eloquent, respected, even beloved across the Jewish spectrum. That’s probably an added bonus rather than the core qualification.”

Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, where Lew served as a board member from 2004-06, called him “a very committed Jew.”

“I’m impressed by his intellect and his commitment. It’s a Kiddush Hashem [sanctification of Gods name] that he has been able to maintain his degree of Jewish observance,” Miller told The Jewish Week.

Lew is “a mensch — he’s very modest,” Perla of the Hebrew Institute said. A “semi-regular” worshipper at the congregation’s Shabbat services, when White House assignments don’t require his presence in Washington over the weekend, “he sits quietly towards the back of the shul,” Perla said. “If you didn’t know how influential he is, you’d never know it from him.â€

Lew is known to be pro-Israel, but Perla said Lew has not been outspoken in HIR about his views on Israel or the Middle East peace process. “My sense is that he’s a moderate … a centrist.”

An open question is how much harder it will now be for Lew to balance family and Shabbat observance in his new role. He stays close to his daughter, Shoshana, who works at the Obama administrations Council on Environmental Quality, but his wife and son remain in Riverdale, where they are active in HIR.

His previous stints — in addition to the OMB post, he was also a deputy secretary of state under Obama — involved managing a 9-5, Monday-to-Friday bureaucracy. Running the White House means dealing with crises that have a bad habit of happening on weekends.

“It’s a reflection of this administration’s comfort with him and his being Jewish,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “This is a job that is 24/7 — but if there’s respect, it works.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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U.S. Artists Confront Israel’s Complexities

Donald Byrd’s “Maybe a Genesis,” about the biblical Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. Michal Fattal

First cohort at American Academy in Jerusalem gets lessons in Jewish state’s culture and tensions.

Jerusalem — When Donald Byrd, a Tony-nominated choreographer (“The Color Purple,” “Harlem Nutcracker”) worked with Jewish and Arab dancers in Israel four years ago, he learned that relations between Israelis and Palestinians are a lot more complicated than they seem from the outside.

But it wasn’t until last fall, during Byrd’s most recent sojourn here, that he learned just how charged relations within the country’s Jewish community could be. 

Bryd, one of four American artists who recently completed a nine-week fellowship exploring and contributing to Jerusalem’s vibrant arts and culture scene, gained a deeper understanding of the city’s religious-secular tensions when he entered the Kolben Dance Company’s studio in downtown Jerusalem.

The day before Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle, visited Kolben’s downtown studio, the company had staged a protest against religious coercion. Three years after drawing their studio’s window shades following threats from haredi extremists who deemed the rehearsals immodest, the dancers opened the windows and rehearsed in plain in sight of the public. 

“When I arrived at the studio, I asked whether we could possibly close the shades,” Byrd said, smiling at the ironic timing of his request. “The dancers were in silhouette and it was hard to see them!” he explained with an infectious smile.

Instead of feeling intimidated by the intrusion of religion and politics into every facet of Israeli and Palestinian life, Byrd and the other participants in the first-ever American Academy in Jerusalem fellowship took a deep breath and embraced the situation. 

An initiative of the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Culture modeled on American Academies in Berlin and Rome, the Jerusalem Academy program brought four top-level artists and professionals — Byrd; Lynn Avadenka, a visual artist; David Herskovits, a theatrical director; and David Karnovsky, an urban planner €” to Jerusalem to work alongside Israeli and Palestinian professionals.

The four immersed themselves in the local culture, developed projects, delivered workshops and provided mentoring, and say they received much more than they contributed.

Avadenka, an acclaimed Detroit-based visual artist, created a type of book inspired by the narratives of the biblical Joseph and Yusef, the version of Joseph in Islam.  

“In this part of the world, the book is paramount as a transmitter of a sacred text. The book became the work of art,” she said.

The artist began with the Hebrew calendar, including the phases of the moon, and proceeded to include Arabic and Hebrew newspapers and maps of Jerusalem.

“I cut up the Hebrew and Arabic letters and made a sort of combined alphabet,” Avadenka said of her exploration of the commonalities of Jewish and Arab themes and her hope to bring Jews and Arabs a little closer together. 

Byrd’s central project, a sensual, evocative three-part dance about the relationship between the biblical Sarah, Abraham and his mistress Hagar, was performed in Jerusalem by three Jewish dancers and an Israeli Arab dancer, Shaden Abu Elassel.

The piece’s first part explores the relationship between Abraham and Sarah as Sarah struggles with infertility. The second depicts the complicated Abraham/Sarah/Hagar triangle of love, jealousy and longing. In the third, Abraham must come to terms with the nation created by Ishmael, represented by Abu Elassel. 

Byrd said “the real success” of his project “was the willingness on the part of these dancers from different ethnicities to work together as equals. I felt I had to listen to Shaden, whether or not I agreed with her. We had some good arguments.” 

Abu Elassel, who describes herself as “a Palestinian from Nazareth,” called the project “a good experience. I felt responsible to show him my picture of the conflict. He listened and understood my narrative.”

The choreographer said the nine weeks he spent in Israel were transformational.

“I think the work I€™ve done in the past didnt necessarily resonate beyond what it was, the way this piece does. I’ve always been a very good prose ‘writer,’ but now I feel I’ve started to write poetry,” Byrd said with a lilt in his voice.

Following a performance of his work-in-progress, a quirky theatrical piece that explores “the tragic, moving and exciting” fate of the Yiddish language in Israel,” director David Herkovits said his time in Israel has been “a powerful, magical inspiration.

“I came here for a visit in 1985, so I had some limited experience of Israel,” said Herskovits, the founder and artistic director of the avant-garde Target Margin Theater in New York. This time around, “I was surprised by how moved I’ve been by the beauty and complexities of everyday life in Jerusalem. I was surprised by the intensity of feeling and the way everything is charged. It’s both good and problematic.”

Herskovits, who doesn’t yet speak Yiddish but plans to study it in the coming year, said he was inspired both by encounters with Yiddish-speaking haredi society and the many non-haredim â€who value Yiddish,” including some young secular Jews.

“I gained an extraordinarily rich context and layer of the story I want to tell, and a zillion new friends and artistic partners,” Herskovits said.

For David Karnovsky, general counsel for New York Cityâs Department of City Planning, the fellowship was an opportunity to explore and evaluate Jerusalem’s unique planning challenges: the need to balance preservation with modernity.

“It’s an interesting time to be here,” he said.

Karnovsky met with Israeli peers to discuss reforming Israel’s bureaucratic planning laws. Municipal officials, architects, planners and social activists also pumped the New York planner for details of New York’s efforts to build more affordable housing, which is in short supply in Israel. 

“I shared the idea of creating mixed income housing through the use of zoning incentives. Developers of private housing might receive subsidies and additional floor space to create buildings in which there is a mixture of income levels,” Karnovsky said. 

Karnovsky also spent time on the proposed relocation of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design from its current site on Mount Scopus to the funky Russian Compound, in the city’s center.

“It will create an opportunity for Bezalel to become part of the city again, where it was once located. I think having an architecture and design arts school with all the student presence can create a type of vibrancy that will help revitalize the center of the city. It will create a type of synergy.”

Karnovsky, who worked on the transformation of the Columbia and NYU campuses in Manhattan, said Bezalel has the potential to be, like them, a â€new and different urban campus.”

“Think of the old Columbia campus on Morningside Heights with its gates and walls and the type of relationship it establishes between the university and the city,” Karnovsky said. In contrast, the new Columbia campus under construction “respects the existing street grid, has no walls or gates, will have active retail uses at ground level, and will have a network of open spaces that will be open to the public as well as used by university personnel. While Karnovsky didn’t comment on Jerusalem’s new, controversial light rail line, which has turned Jaffa Road — once the city’s main bus and car thoroughfare — into a wide, car- and bus-free boulevard, his fellowship project, Landscaped Roofs on Jaffa Road: A New Green Line,” aims to create “a series of small, intimate, well-landscaped open spaces” at elevations above the street offering a vantage point most Jerusalemites and visitors have never enjoyed.

Elise Bernhardt, the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s president and CEO, told The Jewish Week that the artists “got amazing work done, made good friends and in a profound way impacted the cultural life of Jerusalem.” The foundation is looking to expand the number of fellows and would like to see the program happen twice a year, she said. The next cohort of six to eight artists will head to Israel in September 2013.

Tired though they were from nine intensive weeks of presentations, meetings, field trips and actual work, all of the fellows said they are already planning ways to continue their projects and the relationships theyve forged with Israeli and Palestinian colleagues.

“I’m already searching for ways to come back,” Advadenka said. 

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‘Look at science the Buddhist way’

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TNN Jan 6, 20Ǭ

BHUBANESWAR, India — After delivering hard talks on chemistry at the ongoing Indian Science Congress (ISC) here, Nobel Laureate Prof Richard R. Ernst donned the garb of a Buddhist spiritual leader and philosopher on Thursday.

Stressing the need of a “role model”, the 79-year-old Swiss Nobel laureate was all praise for Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama while delivering his lecture on “Science and Spirituality: The view of a Western Scientist” on the Utkal University campus here. The event was organised by Bhaktivendanta Institute, Kolkata.

Trying to strike a chord with the audience, Prof Ernst said: “I was immensely influenced by Buddhism and the Dalai Lama and his preaching. The Buddhist leader always looked at science from the spiritual point of view.”

Ernst recollected old memories how the Dalai Lama held series of discussions with scientists to establish the link between spiritualism and science. He also spoke of the monastic Tibet Institute in Rikon, Switzerland. “The Dalai Lama was responsible of the institute. The Buddhist monastery and its Tibetan monastic community consttute a vital part of the cultural and religious life of Tibetans in Switzerland,” said Ernst, who won Nobel Prize in 1991 for his contributions to the development of the methodology of high resolution nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.

The Nobel Laureate exhibited his craving for Tibetan paintings created by master painter Zhu-Chen. “I find science when I do pigment analysis in his paintings. The colour combinations in Tibetan art resembled the chemical reactions in chemistry,” Ernst said. He cultivated interest in Tibetan art during a trip through Asia in 1968. Puri Gajapati Maharaja Dibyasingh Deb and Subhag Swami spoke, among others.

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Ultimate Source of Inner-peace Is Warmheartedness; His Holiness

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The Tibet Post International, 10 January 2012

Bodhgaya, India — Humanity needs more warmheartedness. This was the message of the spiritual leader of Tibet, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to thousands of Buddhist devotees from all over the world at the conclusion of his teachings at Bodhgaya, Bihar state of India, where he was conferring the 32nd Kalachakra initiation for world peace over the past ten days.

An individual, a family, a community and the whole of humanity need more warmheartedness and more of a consideration for the well-being of others. Through that our world becomes a very warm, peaceful. “The ultimate source of inner peace is Warmheartedness,” said the the Tibetan Nobel peace laureate, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His Holiness also told the the crowd of thousand devotees at Bodhgaya that a long term happiness, joyfulness must come through inner peace and compassion.

“Calm-mind entirely based on compassion, when you have sense of concern over other human beings, you will get happiness everywhere, if you keep suspicious and distrust, then you will feel insecure everywhere, therefore, the ultimate source of inner-peace is warmheartedness,” said His Holiness.

“Now according to scientists’ point of view, people who are more warmhearted, less stress, also more cam and much happier, physical health is much better,” said His Holiness. Anger, fear, hatred are bad for our health, actually sometimes to say , the fear and anger are eating our immune system,” he added.

The Buddhist leader successfully finished his 32nd Kalachakra initiation for world peace in Bodhgaya Tuesday. During the last ten days, over 200,000 people were attended the Buddhist teachings including, including 20,000 monks and nuns, and more than 50,000 devotees from Himalayan regions, over 8000 Tibetan pilgrims from within Tibet and 1000 Chinese nationals from mainland China.

For the first time in Bodgaya city, where Gautam Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment, His Holiness’ teachings of Kalachakra for peace were streamed live on the web-TV and thousand others watched the teachings and over 300 journalists from all over world covered the events.

His Holiness concluded the final day of teachings by finishing the 32nd Kalachakra initiation including giving Tara’s empowerment and long life prayer. He then led the Buddhist followers through the Bodhisattva vows and encouraged people to repeat the vow as part of their daily practice.

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‘Cradle of Chinese Buddhism’ embraces world

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by Liu Xiangrui and Li Yao, China Daily, Jan 11, 2012

Temple complex to house shrines representing other countries

LUOYANG, Henan — “It’s unusual to see exotic Buddhist buildings at such an ancient Chinese temple. They’re so delicate and look so different from the traditional Chinese temples next to them,” said Tang Chan, a 22-year-old college student, looking at the Indian shrine at Baima Temple.

Two monks from Baima Temple pass a Thai-style shrine on Friday. The temple is planning to build an International Temples Zone featuring 10 exotic shrines from foreign countries. Xiang Mingchao / China Daily

The Baima Temple – White Horse Temple – aspires to be not only the oldest, but also the largest and most international Buddhist temple in China.

Henan province, in Central China, has approved a plan to expand and renovate the temple into a 1,300 mu (87 hectare) cultural park over eight years, the largest in China by then. It currently covers 20 hectares.

The almost 2,000-year-old temple is creating an International Temples Zone to showcase 10 exotic shrines from foreign countries, said Wang Xiaohui, director of the religious affairs bureau in Luoyang, where the temple is located.
The Indian shrine opened in May 2010. A Thai shrine built in the 1990s is being expanded and will open in April.

A Myanmar Buddhist garden will be created in April, Wang said.

“Details were discussed when Myanmar Minister for Religious Affairs Thura U Myint Maung visited Baima Temple and inspected the site on Dec 27.”

The minister instructed that the decorative materials, mostly gems, for the golden canopy on the roofs would be shipped from Myanmar, Wang said.

Following the examples of the Indian and Thai gardens, other foreign temples will be funded by foreign governments, enterprises or religious groups, who will also oversee the construction, statue-making and decoration.

When they are completed, Baima Temple monks will manage the gardens.
Several other countries, including Japan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, have shown interest in investing in similar programs, Wang added.

“Baima Temple is widely regarded as ‘the cradle of Chinese Buddhism’ and has become an ideal place to demonstrate unique Buddhist cultures from different countries,” Wang said.

Former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee first proposed the construction of an Indian shrine when he visited the temple in 2003.

Its construction was officially agreed on when Premier Wen Jiabao visited India in 2005.

The 6,000 square meter Indian shrine, created with an investment of 15 million yuan ($2.4 million), is the first temple that India has funded and built in a foreign country, Wang said.

It resembles the revered Buddhist shrines at Sarnath and Sanchi, India, built in 2nd and 3rd centuries BC.

Now a popular spot at Baima Temple, it appears in tourist guides with introductions to its history, architecture and artistic features.

The Thai shrine was built in the 1990s when Thailand donated a statue of Buddha to the temple.

It has expanded from less than 3,000 to more than 10,000 sq m, with an investment of 30 million yuan, mostly from Thai religious groups, Wang said.
“I love this idea. We can get a good look at foreign temples without going abroad,” said Li Na, a tourist. But the 36-year-old bank employee from Zhengzhou, capital of Henan province, said she expected more than just fascinating buildings.
“Right now, only the Indian garden is open, and it looks rather empty inside. But it’s their cultures that interest me most,” she said.

Tang, the tourist, said: “We come here to appreciate not only the architecture, but also the deeper Buddhist messages. Most of us are not familiar with Buddhism in India. Maybe Baima Temple can do more to help visitors learn about foreign Buddhist cultures, inviting monks from abroad to present their Buddhist practices during peak tourist seasons.”

With the opening of more foreign gardens, some tourists worry that ticket prices will rise.

“They will stay at the present level,ಲ yuan, for a few years, and no extra fees will be charged to enter the International Temples Zone,” said Hu Xuanyan, an official from Luoyang religious affairs bureau.

The temple receives about 1 million tourists a year, which brings it an annual income of 20 million yuan.

“The foreign temples are great news for me. People can worship Buddha as is done in different countries – and I believe all the world’s Buddhists belong to one family,” said Shi Chengjuan, 46, a Buddhist and frequent visitor to Baima Temple.
Zhang Zong, a researcher specializing in Buddhist fine arts at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also welcomed the move to build the International Temples Zone.

“It will be a center of communication among religious groups from different countries. Tourists will gain eye-opening experience and knowledge of the historical ties and development of Buddhism in China, Asia as a whole and beyond,” Zhang said.

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Jennifer Hudson says God got her through tragedy

Jennifer Hudson says it is her faith in God that has helped her overcome the tragedies and challenges she has faced in her life.

The singer and actress was appearing on the US show “TODAY” on Monday to discuss her new memoir, I Got This: How I Changed My Ways and Lost What Weighed Me Down.

She revealed it was a bit of a shock when she started gaining noteriety for her singing talent as well as her weight.

Speaking of her red carpet appearances during “American Idol” early in her career, the Grammy and Oscar winner said, “I didn’t define myself that way so it was, like, it was a shocking moment for me. Actually when I started on the red carpet doing ‘Idol,’ I had already lost 60 pounds then. By then, I was, like, a size 12. This is every woman’s size. The average size. I was, like, what are you talking about? Here it is again: image, image, image, image. To me, it’s talent, talent, talent, talent. At least where I come from.”

Hudson also briefly commented on the October 2008 murders of her mother, brother, and nephew at the hands of her brother-in-law William Baflour. Baflour, charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the case, goes to trial next month, and Hudson may be called to testify.

When asked what sustained her through the tragedy, Hudson said, “Definitely it’s my faith in God and growing up – my mother, even though she’s not here now, she trained us well.”

During her Oscar award acceptance speech, Hudson had referenced God and the miralces He has brought into her life. She was asked to explain what she meant during her “TODAY” appearance.

“I always dreamed but never this big, and look what God can do. That’s something my grandmother used to always say. She would always shout… how great thou art! And I never understood … until I’ve been able to travel the world and see God’s marvellous works around the world and I would find myself saying, oh, my God, how great Thou art,” Hudson said.

The “Dreamgirls” star also commented on her baby son and her fiance, David Otunga. The pair have been engaged since September 2008, and have weathered claims that they had broken up and have no intention of getting married.

“I know they said we had broken up. We’re never broken up,” Hudson told Access Hollywood in November of last year. “We’re going to get married.”

I Got This: How I Changed My Ways and Lost What Weighed Me Down chronicles Hudson’s beginnings as a choir singer in a church on the southside of Chicago, to her “meteoric rise from ‘American Idol’ to ‘Dreamgirls’ to her amazing weight loss on the megablockbuster Weight Watchers diet plan”.

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Christian groups opposes cuts to funds for vulnerable

Church Action on Poverty (CAP) and The Children’s Society are among the 20 organisations calling upon the Government to rethink its plans to reduce the amount of money available to vulnerable people in crisis situations.

Emergency assistance in the form of crisis loans or community care grants are given to people facing extremely difficult circumstances, such as women and children escaping a violent relationship.

In an open letter to the Guardian, the organisations are concerned about the impact of cuts to the funds from £67m in 2010-11 to £36m in 2013.

In addition to CAP, the groups sounding the alarm include Barnardo’s, Save the Children, and Family Action.

They fear that local councils already experiencing huge cuts will provide no or extremely limited support to people in need, or may replace cash handouts with support in kind, such as in the form of access to foodbanks.

They want Lords debating the social fund this week to ringfence funds provided to local councils for emergency support.

In their letter, they warn that crisis loans and community care grants are the “ultimate safety net for the most vulnerable in society”.

“The Government’s own research shows some local authorities expect the extra funding will be diverted to plug gaps elsewhere,” they said.

“We fear these changes could be catastrophic for some, such as those who resort to illegal moneylenders or high-cost credit, or women who return to live with a violent partner because they have no money to furnish another home for their children.

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Crystal Palace supports efforts to boost youth

Crystal Palace Football Club is one of the sponsors of an upcoming event to help break negative perceptions of young people after last summer’s riots.

It is hosting Action for Impact at its stadium on February 2 to showcase the diverse range of activities and support available to young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET).

The day has been organised after a recent IARS poll found that nearly half of adults (44%) put the percentage of young people committing serious crime between 5% and 20%. A quarter of the 1,000 adults surveyed said they thought more than 50% of young people commit serious violence.

While large parts of the population believe young people are prone to violent behaviour, statistics from the Metropolitan Police Service show that only 0.07% of young people commit serious crime.

Business and Education London South (BELS) is one of the organisations helping to put together Action for Impact.

It says the summer riots did little to build confidence among local employers in hiring young people.

BELS chief executive Michael Manning Prior said: “Most of the young people we work with have disapproved of the riots.

“The aftermath of the riots has seen a general negativity towards young people and BELS want to counter this by highlighting the enthusiasm with which the young people of Croydon embrace the support services provided to help them.”

“Action for Impact” takes place on 02 February 2012 at 2.00pm in The Players’ Lounge at Crystal Palace Football Stadium. The event is open to all those interested in or working with young people aged 16-19 and each attendee is encouraged to bring along three young people to share in the activities, which include music, film, sport and art.

To register for the event, email or telephone 0208 726 0700

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Tearfund supporting returnees to South Sudan

Hundreds of thousands of southerners continue to arrive in South Sudan six months after the country gained its independence from the North.

Tearfund estimates that around 340,000 southerners have returned in the year since the crucial referendum that led to the establishment of the world’s newest country. AnotherŃ40,000 are expected to arrive from Sudan in the coming months.

Providing shelter, food and a new life to the returning southerners is just one of the many challenges facing South Sudan.

As one of the poorest countries in the world, basic infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals need to be built virtually from scratch after decades of devastating war.

At present, there is little option for the returnees but to set up camp on the strip of land along the rail tracks where they first arrived in the South.

They are being moved one by one to a newly set up transit camp. Tearfund is lending a helping hand to the returnees by providing water and sanitation, as well as seeds and tools so that the returnees can develop a small vegetable plot. The crop can be used to feed their families and any extra sold at market.

Tearfund’s country representative for Sudan and South Sudan, Jonas Njelango, says external humanitarian support will be needed to help South Sudan get back on its feet.

The drought affecting large parts of East Africa is also being felt in South Sudan. Food prices are high, inflation is at 60%, and intertribal violence remains a problem.

Many parts of the country do not have mains electricity or running water, and food security is also an issue.

“The numbers of people returning to South Sudan puts a great deal of pressure on communities that are already vulnerable,” said Njelango.

In spite of the difficulties, the mood across the country is positive, he says.

“There is still a huge amount of optimism for the people of South Sudan after gaining their independence in July 2011, despite the challenges.

“It’s a marked contrast to a decade ago when the country was experiencing serious famine and in the middle of a war.

“There’s a palpable sense of joy on the streets of Juba and in the villages. The people of South Sudan are amazingly resilient, having endured many decades of conflict and hardship.

“Whenever we travel through the south, local villagers talk proudly about independence.”

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