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Richard Henken featured in Boston Globe for his Contribution to Catholic Schools

Schochet President Richard J. Henken was recently featured in the Boston Globe for his philanthropic activities with Catholic Schools Foundation.

(as seen in the Boston Globe)

Richard J. Henken, a Boston real estate company executive, grew up in a conservative Jewish family on the south side of Newton. He attends services on the Jewish High Holy Days and considers his religion an important aspect of his identity.

He also gives $25,000 to $30,000 a year to Catholic schools. He serves as an officer on the board of the Catholic Schools Foundation, which raises millions each year to help send children from low-income families to Catholic schools.

"When I started telling my friends I had joined the board, I got a couple of funny looks,'' he said. "But whoever it is that wants to step up and provide a nurturing environment for at-risk youth based on Judeo-Christian values, I'm with you all the way.''

Henken, the president of Schochet Associates, which develops, acquires, and manages residential and commercial property throughout New England, is one of a number of Jewish benefactors in Greater Boston who not only give generously to Catholic schools, but also provide significant fund-raising muscle at a time when the region's parochial schools are under severe financial strain.

While they represent a small minority of donors to Catholic schools, the Jewish contributors are prominent in the community and deeply involved: Robert Beal, president of the commercial real estate firm Beal Companies, is a longtime benefactor. Howard Kessler, his wife, Michele, and his firm, The Kessler Group, have "adopted'' Cathedral School in the South End. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has been a major donor for years; he gave $100,000 as chairman of the foundation's 20th annual Inner-City Scholarship Fund dinner this spring, according to the event's program.

Most Jewish benefactors interviewed about their support for Catholic schools said they also give to Jewish organizations - particularly Combined Jewish Philanthropies, which among other causes supports the region's Jewish day schools.

But they said they are passionate about Catholic schools because they provide an excellent education to the neediest children.

"We like to get a good return on our investment,'' Kraft said of his family's approach to philanthropy. "The backbone of this country has been made by first-generation [immigrants] coming here, educating their children, and living the American dream.''

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley is grateful, but not surprised. When the Virgin Islands was struck by a hurricane while he was bishop there, the public schools were closed for two years, he said, but with major contributions from Leon Hess, the Jewish founder of the Hess Corporation, which had a large refinery in the Islands, O'Malley was able to reopen the Catholic schools within a month.

"My experience of Jewish people is that they have a very profound social consciousness and sense of responsibility to the community, and in that sense are very generous to many nonprofit enterprises,'' he said.

Catholic school students have long outscored public school students on national achievement tests. In 2008, 98 percent of the graduates of schools supported by the Catholic Schools Foundation got into college.

But a diminishing supply of priests and nuns has forced the schools to rely on lay teachers and administrators, who command higher salaries. The Catholic Church remains strapped for cash, and many poor families can barely afford tuition, which generally costs about $3,400 for elementary school and $9,400 for high school, according to the Catholic Schools Foundation's website.

An estimated 20 percent of the 45,000 children who attend Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Boston are not Catholic.

The archdiocese does not have a breakdown of the religious affiliation of the non-Catholic students, but very few are thought to be Jewish.

Jewish donors said they see their support for Catholic schools as an expression of Jewish values - promoting education, providing opportunity for the disadvantaged and new immigrants, and building institutions that benefit the community.

"It's really attractive because it touches a couple of different things Jews tend to care about - number one, it touches the poorest of the poor . . . and it does it through education,'' said Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

More than one person interviewed referenced the medieval Torah scholar Maimonides, who articulated eight levels of charitable giving, the most virtuous of which was to help another person become independent. Kessler said he and his wife give to many schools, regardless of their religious affiliation, because they see education as a "great equalizer.''

Relations between Jews and Catholics in Boston have not always been so positive.

Anti-Semitism was rampant in Boston's Catholic community in the 1930s and 1940s and often exploded into violence, according to Thomas H. O'Connor, emeritus professor of history at Boston College.

The Rev. Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest from Michigan whose radio show became increasingly anti-Semitic during that period, had a huge fan base in Boston; James Michael Curley, then the mayor, called his city "the most Coughlinite city in America.''

That began to change around 1950, O'Connor said. Archbishop Richard Cushing had a Jewish brother-in-law he adored; Cushing, who was elevated to cardinal in 1958, appeared regularly at events with Jewish leaders and worked steadily to improve interfaith relations. He invited Boston philanthropist Ray Tye, who was Jewish and died in March, to head Catholic Charities more than a half-century ago.

At the same time, O'Connor said, Mayor John Hynes was urging his citizenry to get along better, insisting that Boston's future depended on putting aside old ethnic and religious divisions.

Jim Coppersmith, who is Jewish, and serves as the vice chairman of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, started the scholarship fund's annual fund-raising dinner in the late 1980s, when he was working at WCVB-TV.

Coppersmith, who lives in Danvers, said he was impressed with the education his son received at St. John's Preparatory School.

Sitting next to Cardinal Bernard F. Law at a luncheon one day, he suggested that Boston hold a gala benefit for the Catholic schools like the impressive one Coppersmith had recently attended in New York. Law, Coppersmith recalled, "replied, 'Why don't you do it for me?' ''

One of the most important forces connecting the Jewish community, among a wide spectrum of donors, to the Catholic schools has been Peter Lynch, the Fidelity mutual fund investor and Catholic philanthropist who has made the Catholic Schools Foundation his personal mission for two decades.

His vast Rolodex and enthusiasm for Catholic education has helped recruit a legion of allies from different communities across the city.

In Henken's case, a friend of one of his employees urged him to get involved.

When his company helped improve a 500-unit affordable housing complex in Cambridge about five years ago, he thought contributing scholarship money to the foundation, on the condition that residents of the new complex would get first priority, would be a way to show good will toward the community.

He visited the nearby St. Peter School, and he was deeply moved - "beautiful children in uniforms, in relatively small classes, with big smiles, who were friendly and who were poised.''

"The whole notion of asking 'What would Jesus do?' - it seems to me whether you take him as Lord and savior or not, if you follow his guidelines, you would do OK,'' he said.

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